Notre Dame students share diverse pandemic experiences in their words
Notre Dame students left for spring break and were shocked to hear on March 11 that classes were going online. They had to process emotions, losses and worries. Then the reality of a pandemic literally hit home.
Here are seven of their stories providing a mid-crisis snapshot in early April.
Tatiana Pernetti, junior
Management consulting and political science
I want to work in international relations after graduation so living abroad has always been a priority. I was studying in Angers, France, with about a dozen Notre Dame students at l’Université Catholique d’Ouest. As the pandemic began to spread around the world, all the students were increasingly worried about our programs getting canceled, but most didn’t believe it would happen. France had less than 300 cases then and we were in a relatively small town.
On March 11, while half of the ND students were in a history class, we received the email. There were four lines addressing the suspension of all study-abroad programs and travel. I felt a sudden wave of shock and disbelief. The ND students started giving each other looks, a couple of them on the verge of tears, while our professor was completely unaware and continued his lecture. Our abroad group chat was bombarded with messages of confusion and anger and sadness.
A few hours later, ND International contacted each of us individually with our flights home from Paris (a 2-3 hour train ride from Angers) and we would all be back home before that Tuesday. That night, a group of us decided to go out for our last night in Angers. When my roommate and I were headed home, our parents began calling us nonstop. President Trump had (mistakenly) announced that all flights from Europe would be banned beginning Friday morning. Panic set in. That gave us just one day to move out. Everyone’s flights were rescheduled to Friday morning. Worried about travel restrictions, my parents told me to get the first train to Paris … at 6 a.m.
I felt a sudden wave of shock and disbelief. The ND students started giving each other looks, a couple of them on the verge of tears…
I began packing and did not stop until it was time for me to head to the train station. By the time we learned U.S. citizens were exempt from the travel ban, it was too late because we had our train and plane tickets already. I was planning on walking the 20ish minutes to the train station with my three suitcases but my host mom woke up and offered to drive me there. It was a very emotional goodbye. Everything happened so fast. Before I knew it I was in Paris, spent the night in a hotel and landed home in Miami.
We didn’t hear about how we were going to continue our classes for several days. Since all the students are now scattered all over the world in different time zones, we can’t do Zoom calls like ND is doing. Instead, our professors just give us the equivalent amount of work in assignments and readings. In Miami, all nonessential businesses are closed and we’re told to stay at home. I’m still in touch with some of the students that stayed. I’m very sad that my time in France got cut short and COVID-19 stole this experience from me. But in the end, I am thankful for my health and I am glad I went home when I did.
Matthew Bisner, sophomore
Political science and peace studies
During spring break, I traveled with the Center for Social Concerns on its Act Justly pilgrimage, a bus trip to some of the seminal locations of the Civil Rights Movement. The news about online transition reached the members of our seminar on March 11. The news spread like wildfire through the bus, and we were all trying to wrap our heads around it.
Just a few days before, Washington University in St. Louis made a similar decision. A high school friend attending WashU, Elizabeth Van Horn, told me how some students at her university fell through the cracks already. In response, she and a friend created a spreadsheet to connect students with providers in the St. Louis community, and she shared it with me.
When Notre Dame made the announcement, I heard concerns from members of the Notre Dame community that they might not have the privilege of returning to a healthy or safe home environment. The communications did not say that low-income students would be allowed to stay on campus. I was worried for students who might be immediately without housing, transportation and food options. I thought of our off-campus students who might be willing to help these students with a safe home while they get their feet on the ground. I reached out to several I know, like the members of Peace House, Savanna Morgan and Quentin Colo, the student government off-campus senator. I also talked to the faculty members on the pilgrimage who shared my concern and agreed to help.
The communications did not say that low-income students would be allowed to stay on campus. I was worried for students who might be immediately without housing, transportation and food options.
I copied the WashU spreadsheet and specialized it for the needs of students from the tri-campus community. Within six hours of Father Jenkins’ announcement, the tri-campus spreadsheet was ready for distribution, available to students through the GroupMe app. After I sent a message to Tarik Brown, the president of the Notre Dame Questbridge Chapter, he helped me distribute it through social media and an official Questbridge email.
The spreadsheet then took on a life of its own, allowing students in need of housing or food to contact providers directly without waiting for an intermediary. The announcements page of the spreadsheet allows anyone in the community to inform students about deals on transportation, storage, nutrition options, free internet, etc. By the end of the week, I had shared the spreadsheet with all four Notre Dame class parents’ groups on Facebook.
The route of the pilgrimage brought me within four hours of my home on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where I knew I had housing. Coordinating the spreadsheet between students, faculty, staff, and students’ parents kept me focused on helping fellow members of the tri-campus community. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for access to the spreadsheet.
All in the Family
Theresa Olohan, junior
Political science with a minor in journalism
I’m home in Warrenton, Virginia, a small rural town about an hour out of D.C. I took the Notre Dame club of Washington bus home for spring break and have been here since then.
I have a big family and we are all home except my oldest brother in Iowa. My older sister Mary Margaret is a journalist and lives in Arlington. Her office is working from home, so she decided to stay with our family in Warrenton. My sister Catherine is a first-year in the Notre Dame ACE program. My brother Patrick is a freshman at Franciscan University. My sister Janey and brother Michael are in high school, completing online classes like Barry (8th grade). My brother Daniel (11), sister Brigid (9) and brother Seamus (7) are homeschooled anyways. My father works for the government and is working from home. My mother is continuing to homeschool my youngest siblings.
Our internet has been extremely spotty and slow, due in part to the 12 people competing for access, and also to our semi-remote and rural location. FaceTime and Zoom are always a second behind for us, and the internet frequently reloads or crashes in the middle of assignments. Yesterday it took me 40 minutes to download my history class lecture off Sakai.
I keep reminding myself, however, that this is an opportunity I probably will never have again. Once the pandemic is over, my siblings will return to their schools and jobs, and the family will be split again until the next holiday or vacation. But right now, we have a rare opportunity to all be together again…
Even with these frustrations and complications that come with so many people using the internet simultaneously, it’s been a huge blessing having everyone home. Of course, it’s annoying when you have to wait an extra 10 minutes to take a shower. It’s frustrating when you can’t complete your assignments because your brother decided to download a video game on his lunch break. It’s hard to focus with the ongoing conversations and it’s nearly impossible to resist the pleas of cute younger siblings asking you to read a book or color with them.
I keep reminding myself, however, that this is an opportunity I probably will never have again. Once the pandemic is over, my siblings will return to their schools and jobs, and the family will be split again until the next holiday or vacation. But right now, we have a rare opportunity to all be together again (missing of course my oldest brother), saying our nightly family rosary together, making breakfast and laughing in the noisy kitchen. We have the opportunity to eat dinner as a family, for my sisters and I to take walks or go for car rides. On weekends we can take family hikes, enjoying the unique and beautiful personality each contributes to our family.
Andres Contreras, sophomore
Psychology with a minor in sustainability
In the spring of 2019, I had to step away from school abruptly in early April and return home to San Antonio to tend to personal matters. Family members had been involved in a car accident and were unable to work. Though rich in spirit, my family has never been the wealthiest. But after great contributions and recoveries and everyone involved bouncing back on their feet, things were solid enough back home and I was able to return to campus.
I changed my major from film, television and theatre (FTT) to psychology and returned as a sophomore again. While away, I realized what I’m best at and want to do going forward: helping others. Somehow, I got placed in a single in my old dorm, across from the quad I was going to be living in before. Being back on campus with my friends and the magic that ND has to offer made the hardships of my leave disappear. I was reminded how lucky I was to attend this University and that I should never take it for granted.
Before spring break, I was loaded with midterms and papers and had not been focused on the outbreak of coronavirus. I was thrilled for the experiences upcoming in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We met some great college kids staying in houses all around the one we rented. We were sitting on a beach, stress free and filled with laughs and happiness. We found ourselves at a sports bar screaming at the TV and going nuts one last time for men’s basketball during the ACC tournament. The next day they announced the cancellation of all college basketball tournaments. That same day, Father Jenkins announced the online class plan. This was devastating.
Being away again will be difficult and I miss our great University. But if my time off last year taught me anything, it’s that Notre Dame is waiting for me, and its glory, glamour, and love will flood through my system and overwhelm me once again upon return.
I had fought this hard to come back to school, and being back I was the happiest I had been in months. The week went on and our mood had definitely shifted in a negative way. We returned to campus that Saturday. The airports had a chaotic vibe to them. I was not able to leave until Tuesday. During my few days there essentially alone, I felt low. I had just said goodbye to my best friends in my dorm, Knott Hall. I took a long walk around campus and the lakes. I found myself sitting on a bench in front of main building. The sun was beaming off the Dome, the birds were singing, the temperature felt just right.
I had this moment of clarity where I accepted the idea that I may not be back until August, but it was all okay. I was fortunate to be able to return and accept its graces and magic after taking my time off. Though three months did not seem like much, there was an excess of joy and memories gained during this time. Being away again will be difficult and I miss our great University. But if my time off last year taught me anything, it’s that Notre Dame is waiting for me, and its glory, glamour, and love will flood through my system and overwhelm me once again upon return.
Samantha Lynch, 5th-year senior
Mechanical engineering/pre-professional studies
March 11th was the day “normal” began slipping away from my Irish lacrosse teammates and I. We had just stepped off the field after a convincing win over Vanderbilt, only to learn that the Ivy League had canceled the remainder of the spring sport seasons. We were in shock and a little confused. We wanted to believe this was just an overreaction.
The 2020 Irish team was contagiously positive, but the vibe was different that night at dinner in Nashville. The feeling I sensed from my teammates was something none of them ever show on a playing field — fear. Fear that our promising season would end because of something beyond our control. The prognosis was poor, yet we naively held onto hope that the ACC would be immune, even when professional leagues had succumbed.
The next morning, Coach Halfpenny assured us that, for now, things were still business as usual. We met in the hotel conference room for our scout session on UNC. With UNC ranked #1 and us #2, this game would be for first place. Our program has never been #1 before. We didn’t realize the real opponent was the email our coach had just received. I knew exactly what was coming: The mighty ACC had fallen.
Coaches spoke. Players spoke. Everyone cried. Everyone hugged. Not only was the season canceled, but also school. We had three days to gather our things and go home. Between packing and tears, the underclassmen held an impromptu celebration for our 12 seniors who didn’t know Vanderbilt was going to be their last game.
Between packing and tears, the underclassmen held an impromptu celebration for our 12 seniors who didn’t know Vanderbilt was going to be their last game.
I flew home with my brother the next Monday. Boarding a 747 in O’Hare bound for LaGuardia with only 15 people on it was eerie. There was no traffic on the drive home to Long Island. The global reality finally hit me. This was bigger than college athletics and it was about hit home. As I ate dinner with my family, I learned that my grandfather had been admitted to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. A few days later, he tested positive for COVID-19. A few days after that, he was placed on a ventilator. The stories were now playing out right in front of me.
Every morning, we turn on the news to listen to what Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci say about new drug protocols and statistics. My mother sits by the phone all day, waiting for updates from the doctors and nurses. The call comes about every six hours. When the phone rings, the entire house freezes, and we hold our breath until we hear the news that he is still stable. We can’t visit Grandpa or even talk to him because of the sedation. Still, I make sure I send him a text every night, just like he used to do before my games. He’s always been my biggest fan and now I am his, cheering for him to keep fighting this disease.
My siblings and I find ways to pass the time. My sister and I have watched movies, done puzzles and baked. My brothers decided their time is better spent in full-out, 1v1 dodges to goal in our backyard, leading to a few holes in our fence and a set of stitches so far. They need to get out a little frustration. Between the four of us, we have lost four spring semesters, three lacrosse seasons, three graduations, a prom and a class trip to Disney. We continue to remind ourselves that there are worse things in the world, and our efforts to stay home are helping to stop the spread of this virus.
What’s next? I’ve had a lot of time on my hands lately to try and answer this question. This final semester was supposed to be my chance to say goodbye to Notre Dame and to close this chapter of my life. The job applications and interviews I was counting on have been postponed as many companies have frozen hiring. On Monday, the NCAA announced they would grant a season of “relief” to spring athletes. If the opportunity is there, I’ve decided I’d like to return to ND for a final season. If I’ve learned anything over these past few weeks, it’s that life is short and opportunity is fleeting.
J.P. Raster, freshman
First Year of Studies
The second half of my freshman year at Notre Dame will never be forgotten. Flying down to Clearwater Beach for spring break, life was good. I had just turned in my last mid-term paper and was ready to relax for a week in some 70-degree weather. The beach was buzzing, and downtown Clearwater was filled with people, which seems like a foreign idea now.
On Tuesday, things started to change. As a sports junkie, I first noticed it in the sports world. Conference basketball tournaments were canceled, the NBA season was suspended and all college spring sports seasons were put on hold. Schools started to suspend in-person classes indefinitely, and reality began to settle in for me and seven other friends on spring break.
If we have to sacrifice the social aspect of our lives for a while so that the coronavirus slows its spread, then we must.
The next day, the University sent an email to all students about suspending in-person classes until April 13. We were sad and disappointed, knowing we would not see our friends for an extended time. This was selfish, but I was unaware of the great suffering that this virus had caused for many people around the world. After reading about the intensity of the pandemic, I fully understand the decision. If we have to sacrifice the social aspect of our lives for a while so that the coronavirus slows its spread, then we must. While my friends and I scrambled to find early flights home, some people continued partying on the beach like nothing had happened.
I feel blessed that I have a warm home and a large family in South Bend to come back to, as some students don’t have this luxury. I will continue to participate in Zoom classes and look forward to returning to campus with my fellow peers in the fall.
Kenzie Isaac, senior
Sociology with minors in Latino studies and data science
“I need them to leave her house.”
These were the first words that left my mouth after I finally realized the magnitude of coronavirus’s impact. I had just finished reading an email canceling on-campus classes while on a weeklong Civil Rights pilgrimage with 45 other members of the Notre Dame community, and as our bus sped through Mississippi, many people worried about how to pick up essential items from their rooms that would make working from home convenient, possible, survivable. I would come to worry about these things, too, but in that instant, I was only worried about my grandma back home in Indianapolis.
Grandma had turned 89 the previous week, and her physical health made her particularly vulnerable to the virus. She lives with several of my aunts and uncles, and when I realized that we were staring down a pandemic, I needed them to find somewhere else to live. My intention isn’t to sound insensitive, but I knew even before stay-at-home orders that everyone living in that house had a chance of infecting my grandmother. Combined, they were exposed to too many people during any given day. Every evening, they would all make their way back into my grandmother’s house.
And then my aunt got sick. And then grandma got sick.
I have to remind myself not to feel so angry and unsettled when other students complain about missing their friends, while I’m begging God every day that my aunt and grandmother beat this formidable monster.
With two of my relatives extremely ill from COVID-19, it’s difficult to mull over any of the other challenges brought about by this virus. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to be a little disappointed about not having a traditional Commencement this year. I have to remind myself not to feel so angry and unsettled when other students complain about missing their friends, while I’m begging God every day that my aunt and grandmother beat this formidable monster.
I have to remind myself that despite the circumstances, I have been incredibly privileged in countless other ways: I have food; I have all of the basic resources necessary to complete my coursework (even if that work feels uniquely and entirely undoable some days); I have friends whom I don’t have to physically see to know they love me, and that I love them back. I still have an unchanging God, who with each passing day — each day that I hear that my grandmother and aunt are still doing fine — fills me with an abundance of hope.
For more information on the University's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit coronavirus.nd.edu.