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coping with COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, college life as WCU students knew it changed drastically. Here's a look at how they had to adapt to a new way of living and learning.

By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell

If there is one thing for sure about COVID-19, it’s that it forced people to adapt. It ushered in a new era of words, a new vocabulary, new hairdos and new reference points — “Did we get this cat before or after COVID? I think I read that book pre-COVID, but I’m not sure.”

Colleges and universities were no different. They pivoted — quickly — to keep students “in” school by going online and then supplied them with PPE, the now familiar abbreviation for personal protective equipment, to reduce the possibility of contracting the virus once they returned to campus. Although the world was isolated, quarantined and locked-down, many people remained in motion to find ways to help others and save themselves from the unpredictable “side effects” of an unpredictable virus.

For many Western Carolina University students, COVID-19 was a double whammy, or even a triple whammy — exacerbating an already stressful time for those leaving home for the first time, or struggling to adapt to the unfamiliar academic demands of higher education, or living far from home. For others, it was no whammy at all, but a time for exploration, reflection and — dare we say — fun?

So how did WCU students respond, react and feel during such an unprecedented time? Everyone has their own pandemic story, whether about fear, overeating, doubt, new hobbies, frustration, illumination, depression, old sweats, unwashed sweats, isolation, boredom or grief. Here are four students willing to share theirs.

George Woolf
“We were on our own. We had the whole place to ourselves,”


Year: Junior

Major: Accounting

Hometown: Portsmouth, England

George Woolf is nearly giddy when talking about his time spent in lockdown following spring break 2020, when the university urged its on-campus students who were able, to return home due to the coronavirus.

Woolf, from Portsmouth, England, stayed put in Norton Residence Hall, where he was living.

“We were on our own. We had the whole place to ourselves,” said Woolf. “My first night here, when I got back from spring break, it was kind of spooky. It was like a ghost town.” Bryant Barnett, executive director of residential living, said there was university supervision during the lockdown for the roughly 200 students who stayed, but it likely went unnoticed by some because they were spread thinly throughout several residence halls.

But that changed quickly for Woolf as he and other international students, including many members of the women’s soccer team who had remained on campus due to developing COVID-19 travel restrictions, formed a family of sorts to navigate life on a university campus with few other people.

“Nothing strange happened. It was quite nice. It was peaceful,” he said. “Brown (Hall) was open every day and I have to say, the food increased 10 times. It was so much better. They did a really good job of taking care of us.”

Besides the food, the highlight of Woolf’s lockdown experience was all the soccer he and his fellow “castaways” played, as a way to keep themselves fit and entertained. “Many of the women’s soccer team are international, so they stayed and we were training with them most days. We got to exercise and burn off all the calories we ate in Brown.”

Woolf was an exchange student when he first arrived at WCU in 2019, but he loved it so much he transferred from the University of Portsmouth in his hometown, a naval base on England’s south coast. “I just love being away from home, and everyone here was so great,” he said. “I met so many great people, Brian Boyer (residential case manager) being one of them. I just loved that the classes were about 30 students and I loved the food.”

After students were required to move out of their residence halls by May 10, Woolf stayed with a friend in Waynesville before flying home to England; his visa was expiring in June. A layover at an empty John F. Kennedy International Airport put the public’s fear of flying during a pandemic into perspective for Woolf. “I was the only person in the whole terminal. It was crazy,” he said. He returned to Cullowhee in January.

“I couldn’t go back in the fall because the wait times for the visas were so long,” he said. “I was amazed I managed to get an appointment because a week after I went into the embassy in December, everything shut back down again.”

Woolf is well aware of the hardships other students went through during the pandemic and feels grateful his experience was what it was. He celebrated his 20th and 21st birthdays in quarantine; a friend made him a cake for his 21st. “I’ve got to say, I was probably the luckiest person in the world during that time. I had food, soccer, great weather. It was like an all-inclusive resort. It was great.”

Nina Dove
“OK, if I keep working with people and keep interacting with people during this, then I’m going to get through this.”


Year: Junior

Major: Interior Design

Hometown: Waynesville

Nina Dove is all about silver linings. She learned to see them after one too many storms taught her the dark clouds don’t always last.

As a high school senior, Dove came down with a mystery illness that kept her homebound, temporarily hospitalized and unable to walk for most of the school year. Doctors eventually diagnosed it as back-to-back stomach viruses that caused her autonomic nervous system to shut down. She completed her coursework online.

The “upside” of that health crisis was an overdue reckoning. The downtime had given her a chance to reflect. “In high school, I would look around at people who were like, ‘I have anxiety, I have depression,’ and I would go, ‘Whew, thank goodness that is not me.’ But then, I was like, ‘Yeah, I do.’ So having to finally face that senior year was so helpful and eye-opening,” she said.

Less than a year later, midway through Dove’s freshman spring semester, COVID-19 hit. It was a formidable one-two punch for many freshmen already struggling with common first-year bumps. “Knowing this was a health crisis and having gone through a weird, bizarre virus during high school that caused my body to shut down, I was not taking any chances,” said Dove, who headed home to Waynesville.

Dove started out spring semester optimistic, following a difficult first semester. She grappled with a recurrent bout of anxiety and depression and whether engineering was right for her; she wants to go to architecture school. The winter break gave her clarity and she switched her major to interior design. “Obviously, I had come out of a super rough semester. I changed my major from engineering because while there were components that I loved, like the math, I found that people who excel at engineering are very left brain and I am not,” she said. “I’m too creative for that.”

Dove finished her spring semester stronger than she did in the fall, but the social isolation following lockdown was one of the dark clouds. She found relief in the summer interning at her church. “We were helping people, sort of at the front lines, bringing joy during a hard time. It was then that I realized, ‘OK, if I keep working with people and keep interacting with people during this, then I’m going to get through this.’”

Dove entered the fall 2020 semester armed with new tools for managing her mental health. Walking her dog got her moving and a part-time job helped stave off the isolation of online learning. “I gained more confidence in myself during this pandemic from working and being in an environment where I felt like I was more successful than I had been in a while,” she said. “There’s also been so much learning and growth. It’s been like trudging through and coming out the other side. Going off and living on your own, it’s like your entire mind frame starts to shift. So, of course there’s going to be some impact on your mental health. That’s just what happens.

“Pulling yourself up and out takes time and a fighting mindset, but I am much closer to being up and out than I have been since I started college.”

Jihad Alrawagha
“Can you ask your grandma, since she is going to attend your graduation, can you ask her to pin me?”


Year: May 2021 graduate

Major: Emergency Medical Care

Hometown: Saudi Arabia

For Jihad Alrawagha, it all came down to the pinning ceremony, a tradition in the College of Health and Human Sciences that recognizes the achievement and dedication of its graduating students and welcomes them into the health care profession as an equal. Traditionally, a family member attaches the pin to their graduating loved one.

But COVID-19 travel restrictions changed that for Alrawagha, who graduated in May with a degree in emergency medical care. No one in his family was coming from Saudi Arabia for the pinning ceremony or commencement. He needed an alternate.

Alrawagha was born in the Philippines and lived there for eight years before moving to Saudi Arabia with his father. His mother, who is Filipino, eventually returned to her family in the Philippines because she preferred her culture, Alrawagha said.

Alrawagha decided to study abroad after he received a scholarship from the Saudi government. He arrived at WCU in the fall of 2017 after earning an English as a second language certificate at the University of Albuquerque.

“My scholarship was related to a specific major and I cannot change that major, so I have to stick to that plan they have for me, emergency medical care,” he said. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor or in the medical field. I always wanted to treat people, to be hands-on with the patients.”

When COVID-19 stopped air travel, Alrawagha, who loves to travel, was devastated. “I wanted to visit my family in the Philippines because I haven’t seen them for a year or two years,” he said. “When the pandemic hit, I was all the time here. I couldn’t go anywhere because most of the states, they locked down. There was lockdown everywhere. In the Philippines, they shut down their international flights.”

To worsen his isolation, Alrawagha had been living alone in his apartment ever since his roommate left school about 18 months earlier. His only interaction was with his seven half brothers and two half sisters in Saudi Arabia via the internet.

“They used to gather, before the pandemic, in my father’s house every Thursday, Friday night. When the pandemic started, they couldn’t get together so they created a group on social media where they can call everyone and everyone pops up and shows themselves and they talk about life and stuff like they used to,” he said. Despite the seven-hour time difference, Alrawagha never missed a meeting.

Family was on Alrawagha’s mind as he considered who would do his pinning. He had Christmas dinner with his friend, Allen Price, from Lenoir, who also was graduating with a degree in EMC, and met Price’s grandmother, Betty Marcum, or “Nana,” as the family calls her. When Price asked Alrawagha if he could have his two graduation tickets since his family wasn’t coming, Alrawagha agreed, on one condition: “I told him, ‘OK, I will give you my tickets, but the pinning thing has to be done by someone from your side.’ Since I love his grandma, she’s very nice, she’s very cute, I asked my friend, ‘Can you ask your grandma, since she is going to attend your graduation, can you ask her to pin me?’ He agreed, and he asked his grandma to call me so I can tell her by myself.”

Nana said yes, and she was thrilled.

Crayton Morrow
“It was more than just a job. People’s livelihoods were on the shoulders of these delivery people.”


Year: Senior

Major: Sport Management and Marketing

Hometown: Waynesville

Delivering toilet paper and other staples to strangers over the winter break awoke Crayton Morrow to the seriousness of COVID-19. But having to delay his graduation brought it home.

“I was planning to graduate in May, but COVID messed up everything. I was going to do my internship last summer, but I decided to wait until this summer, hoping more things would open up in the sporting world, because everything got shut down last year,” said Morrow, who was scheduled to graduate in August. He hopes to work for a professional athletic team.

In the end, he said, postponing his internship a year was worth it. “I‘m going to be up at High Hampton Resort in Cashiers. I’m very excited to be there. I’ll be on the outdoor pursuits team, doing a little bit of everything outside, helping guests have the best time they can possibly have,” Morrow said.

Morrow was on a spring break ski trip to Breckenridge, Colorado, in March 2020, when concern intensified about a novel coronavirus that was spreading across the country. “We didn’t know if our flight back was going to get canceled, we didn’t know if we were going to have to drive the 16 hours back to North Carolina. That was scaring us a little bit,” he said.

Then, news broke that WCU had extended its spring break. “We were just like, ‘OK, it’s going to be another week and then they’ll figure out how to cope with this and we’ll be back in class.’ Then, everything just went dead. It seemed like the world stopped.”

Morrow spent the next nine months following all the guidelines for online learning, social distancing, wearing a mask and hand washing, thinking how his last year of college was not how he imagined it would be. “I really missed tailgating. Since it was my senior year, that was one of the things I was looking forward to,” he said.

He and his friends hiked and mountain biked to fill the void and counter the sedentary lives they had taken on sitting in their apartments working on laptops all day. Winter break came and Morrow got a job with UPS.

“We were delivering things around Christmas time that weren’t Christmas presents, such as paper towels, toilet paper and diapers,” said Morrow. “Most of the time it was older people who were ordering this stuff because they didn’t want to get out and go shopping.”

Morrow’s view of the virus sharpened when he realized he was delivering items he regularly shopped for at the grocery store. He believed because he was young, he was at lower risk of infection. “Then you deliver these packages and you realize there are so many people out there whose lives got completely shut down.

“It helped open my eyes. You’re going to people’s front doors and you’re handing them this package and you think, ‘What if I infect them delivering this to them?’”

But there was an upside to his delivery job, and that made him feel good. “It was definitely cool to see that this was one of the jobs that couldn’t get shut down because we were also delivering people’s medicine. People had to have these deliveries. It was more than just a job. People’s livelihoods were on the shoulders of these delivery people.”

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