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WSU’s first day of class a different experience for many students amid COVID-19

Washington State University junior Hesmir Mata connects her laptop computer to her 105 math class from the living room of her Pullman  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Washington State University junior Hesmir Mata connects her laptop computer to her 105 math class from the living room of her Pullman (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Daisy Zavala For The Spokesman-Review

Alex Guerrero never imagined he would spend his first year in college at home with his parents. But when Washington State University announced in July that classes would be online, Guerrero decided to stay home because of growing COVID-19 concerns and having lost two family members to the virus.

Before classes began, Guerrero moved into his family’s Wenatchee garage and converted it into a space where he could study without distractions and “get in the zone.” Guerrero, like many other freshmen, deferred his room and board until spring semester and stayed home.

“We’re headed in the right direction but I wish WSU would have been more proactive than reactive,” he said. “I don’t think it was fair to give us such a short amount of time to decide whether or not to live on campus.”

WSU administrators made the decision to move to a mostly online learning format as COVID-19 cases continued to rise across the state. On Sunday, 39 new COVID-19 cases were recorded in Whitman County, bringing the total to 211. Thirteen people from ages 1 to 19 tested positive, while the rest were aged from 20 to 39, according to a press release.

“It does make me sad that I’m not getting the full Cougar experience that I signed up for,” Guerrero said.

But missing out on the traditional freshmen college experience hasn’t eliminated all of the excitement from the first-generation student as he prepared to begin his classes on Monday. He made sure to go through all of his course content and Zoom links.

“I’m not gonna tell you ‘Oh yeah, online learning, It’s gonna be fun!’ But I am a little excited and nervous to see how it’s gonna work out,” Guerrero said.

Guerrero’s older brother is a WSU graduate and acts as a mentor to his younger brother making sure Guerrero is on top of everything. Guerrero said he wasn’t aware he had a personal WSU email until the middle of summer when his brother asked him about it and realized he had missed a few emails.

“Without my older brother I would have been very lost because I would have to find another mentor,” he said. “It’s hard, especially now, because with everything being online it’s hard to feel comfortable with someone you just met.”

Although students took classes on an online or virtual format last semester, the first day of fall semester classes didn’t go without any bumps.

Any other year Hesmir Mata, a junior studying family consumer science, would’ve been sitting in a lecture class along with 100 other students, but this year she attended her first class of the day from her living room couch.

“I feel like a lot of stuff is fairly unknown to me,” Mata said. “I still have to get my education but how am I supposed to do that when I don’t even know what’s going on.”

The day before classes began, Mata was nervous because she wasn’t sure which of her five classes required her to log onto a Zoom meeting. Monday morning she had yet to receive the syllabus or course information for one of her classes.

“I honestly feel like the pandemic kind of led to a lot of last minute planning for WSU,” Mata said. “Switching from in-person classes to online is just such a big strain, and the sad part is that it’s going to take the effect on students more than it will on professors.”

For the most part, psychology junior Liuel Tibebe feels prepared to take on the semester in part because his professors had been updating students since last week on Blackboard and are using class meeting times as office hours.

“I think instructors are more prepared in the sense of being ready to teach from a distance but maybe not more prepared in the sense of doing it better,” he said.

But a lingering concern from last semester remains for Tibebe, who said he’s worried students will be faced with technical difficulties as they work through their assignments, although he hopes things will go smoothly since professors seem to be more adept at balancing what works best for them and most students.

While the decision shouldn’t have been made in haste, it was obvious that it was best to move online, he said. Communities with schools in the Midwest and Georgia that reopened in July with in-person learning saw a massive increase of COVID-19 cases, he added.

Tibebe said he had been planning to come back to Pullman either way, but many out-of-state students including both of his roommates were left scrambling to make last minute housing decisions.

Like most students who live off-campus, Mata also had renewed her lease around February before the university had announced their decision to move to a distance-learning format. When students heard classes would be virtual many students tried to find someone to take over their lease but were unable to do so, she said.

Mata arrived in Pullman a week ago and decided to stay because she knew she wouldn’t be able to concentrate if she remained home with her family. Mata said she plans to cut back on hours for her current full-time job but knows she needs to work at least 20 hours to pay her rent.

As a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, Mata is not eligible to take out loans and relies on financial aid, scholarships and her job to pay rent and other out-of-pocket expenses, such as fees to purchase online programs like a cooking class totaling $150.

Thousands of students including Mata signed a petition calling for WSU administrators to decrease tuition and fees for the fall semester. The decision to raise tuition during this pandemic has been stressful for many students who are struggling financially, she said.

“I feel like now I have to be on top of every little thing,” she said, “Before, if you had a question you could talk to the professor, but now it’s like you almost have to search for the answers yourself.”

Tibebe said the increase in tuition didn’t make sense to him with the decision to move classes online or a virtual format.

“This university has made certain decisions like that that are hurting students, and it kind of has gone over most people’s heads,” he said.

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