The Great Experiment Continues: Taking the waves as they come

  • Submitted photo

  • Submitted photo


Monday, May 03, 2021

Editor’s note: The story is part of a special series called “The Great Experiment Continues.” The series is produced by Professor Kathy Roberts Forde’s “Longform Narrative” class in the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The series is a sequel to “The Great Experiment” series her class reported for the Gazette last spring when the pandemic was new.

Now one year into the pandemic, Professor Forde’s students document how UMass and its students, faculty and staff have tried to build social connections during a time that demands social distance, exploring what has been lost and gained along the way.

In the fall of 2020, Zach Steward visited the bursar’s and financial aid office almost every week to beg for extensions on his tuition bill and to apply for every scholarship he could find, but it wasn’t enough.

Zach, a junior African American studies major, was disheartened but not surprised.

“Traditionally higher education has never really been seen as something that people that look like me can achieve,” he said. Zach has faced financial challenges throughout college, but the COVID-19 pandemic made them debilitating.

“I just had to withdraw,” Zach said.

Zach has big plans and big passion. He made his mark at UMass as an advocate for social justice, working to build an anti-racist and inclusive campus both in his day-to-day life as a student and in his role as co-chair of the Racial Justice Coalition, a student-led group that aims to hold the university accountable for racial justice through a list of demands.

Zach worked at the Malcolm X Center on the UMass campus, so when he lost enrollment status, he also lost his job. He is now working two jobs, one at Best Buy and another as a substitute teacher at Belmont High School, saving to pay off his college debt and re-enroll.

“All I do is go to work. I come home. And I just do that same thing, same routine, all over again, every day,” Zach said.

At times, Zach struggles to find motivation. “If I ever find myself back in this position, I don’t know if I’d ever actually find the strength again to pull myself back out,” he said.

Zach made a GoFundMe to clear his college debt and return to UMass. As of this printing, he had raised $27,419 of his $30,000 goal.

UMass students cannot talk about the pandemic without talking about loss. When they were sent home last March, their plans and expectations for their college experience changed radically. Existing hardships intensified, and new challenges arose.

Junior journalism and political science major Karan Chaudhary, an international student from India, has established a strong social network at UMass. He had just hit his stride on campus last spring, developing great friendships, boxing on the club team and writing for campus media.

Karan, like Zach, is ambitious. He was one of many students whose summer plans changed after COVID-19 hit. His original plan was to find an internship in Washington, D.C. that would prepare him for a future in politics. When that plan fell through, he found a job campaigning for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal in Massachusetts.

In the fall of 2020, UMass restricted the number of students allowed on campus, and Karan, subject to a Trump-era regulation requiring international students to have an in-person class, was one of them. He took an in-person broadcast journalism course. His classes and academic experience were great, Karan said.

But then he tested positive for the virus in November. Karan struggled with COVID symptoms, some that lasted up to 100 days, and he worried about his family’s health. His aunt ended up in the ICU. On top of it all, Karan was still enrolled in classes.

While sick and quarantined, Karan received a 2 p.m call one afternoon. He was half asleep in his Puffton Village apartment and didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?” he answered quietly.

He recognized the voice in one second as his broadcast journalism professor. “Hi, Karan. This is Greeley Kyle. How are you doing?”

“I jumped out of bed,” Karan said, laughing at the memory. “It was such an awesome gesture.”

Even after he finished quarantine, Karan’s professors continued to check on him and gave him extra time to finish assignments, especially when his symptoms came back in December.

Now that he is back in India, Karan has found the spring 2021 semester much more difficult than his on-campus experience in the fall. He is battling a time difference of 9 hours and 30 minutes, with his UMass classes beginning around 8 p.m. and finishing around 2:30 a.m.

Ben Alvarez-Dobrusin, a senior behavioral economics major, is a self-proclaimed extrovert with a big smile. He is interested in conflict resolution and is deeply involved in UMass Hillel and the Student Alliance for Israel.

“From where I am right now, it felt like I was at the crest of the wave — doing incredibly well. And in my academic life, my extracurricular spheres, I was doing a lot of job development stuff, I had got a lot of internship opportunities,” Ben said.

Ben had planned to spend summer 2020 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem researching behavioral economics, but his research appointment was canceled. At the beginning of the pandemic, he helped take care of his mother in Massachusetts, who got very sick with COVID. Ben then moved to Maui, Hawaii, for two months to work for his uncle and spent time in complete isolation.

Like people across our region, UMass students have struggled with loss — the loss of physical health, the loss of career development opportunities and social life, the loss of the college experience. Yet they have done their best to make the most of what they have. They have experienced loss, but they have also gained resilience.

Zach has continued his racial justice activism with more passion and purpose than ever. Karan has joined virtual clubs and is planning a summer internship. Ben is planning to graduate in May.

“It kind of is humbling,” Ben said, “the idea that the whole world can come to a stop and that tomorrow isn’t insured, that you have to take the waves as they come.”