On Iowa campuses, voices of despair and hope as pandemic upends plans

'More stressed out and burned out than usual'

Iowa State University senior Sarah Bartlett (Photo by Iowa State University)
Iowa State University senior Sarah Bartlett (Photo by Iowa State University)

Plowing through upper-level courses as a University of Iowa senior focused on her retail marketing major, Bella Volfson last spring was looking forward to graduation celebrations followed by a summer internship in Milwaukee.

The 23-year-old from Davenport wasn’t planning a spring graduation for herself — now a super senior set to graduate in December. But having forged lifelong bonds during her college years, Volfson was looking forward to cheering friends on as they crossed the stage — then hugging them, posing for photos with them and celebrating with them.

“It was a difficult time,” Volfson said of the fallout from the mid-March news that spring break was extended while the UI scrambled to respond to COVID-19. “I remember that moment being so excited that we had two weeks extra break. And then it turned into eternal break.”

Like everyone else, she didn’t get back into classrooms last spring. She didn’t see professors again. And, mostly meaningfully, she didn’t see her friends again.

“I’m graduating late, but all of my friends were supposed to graduate in May,” she said. “Being that a huge part of the University of Iowa’s population is from the Chicago suburbs, I said, ‘See you after spring break,’ and then I still haven’t seen them.

“Losing all my friends that I was supposed to have a couple more months with before they went out in the real world was really difficult.”

Coming back to campus this fall with only memories of the traditional college experience — and a starkly different reality void of face-to-face class and cram sessions, bar meetups, football games and tailgating — has been equally challenging, if not more.

And Volfson is not alone — even though she is physically.


As this unprecedented semester comes to a close, college students across Iowa shared with The Gazette their experiences and struggles through a fall flooded with bleak images of desks separated by plexiglass barriers; instructors teaching from behind masks and shields; classmates bonding over Zoom while alone in their own rooms; and students with fevers and fears carting clothes and bedding for 10 days in isolation rooms — far from family and home.

“A lot of people are more stressed out and burned out than usual,” said Volfson, who over the summer lost a close friend in a car crash, couldn’t attend the funeral in person and began seeing a therapist through University Counseling Services.

“This has just been a really draining year,” she said. “And obviously it’s been like that for everyone. For professors, for parents, whomever … There’s so much more we need to consider and worry about in our day-to-day lives.”

Sarah: ‘Felt really dystopian’

Although 2020 was like nothing Iowa State University senior Sarah Bartlett had endured before, its challenges paled to those she had faced just before becoming a freshmen in 2016.

To start that year, at age 17, she was diagnosed with pre-colon cancer. Then, over the summer, doctors found two tumors in her mother’s brain, which turned out to be benign, but caused plenty of worry.

Then, on just her second day as an ISU freshman, Bartlett received a phone call that her father — who years ago was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — had collapsed and been hospitalized in a coma.

He survived but his rehabilitation was long — Bartlett said doctors thought he might never walk again. She traveled home to Bettendorf nearly every weekend to visit him and help her mother, who in January 2017 — just a few months later — was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“My mom was taking care of him through her cancer diagnosis,” Bartlett said.

Despite those setbacks, the family encouraged her to study abroad that summer in Greece.

So when fall 2017 rolled around, Bartlett began her sophomore year optimistic for a reset. But just after the semester began, she was in a terrible car wreck that hospitalized her with a severe concussion resulting in perseveration — when a person repeats the same words or phrases. Frontal lobe damage eviscerated most of her childhood memories and everything leading up to the crash.

“I kept saying, I went to bed in Greece, and I woke up here,” Bartlett said. “I had gotten back from Greece in July, and it was September.”


The brain trauma forced Bartlett to withdraw from ISU for a semester. After re-enrolling in January 2018, she spent the next two years catching up — and this weekend is graduating as a triple-major in anthropology, classical studies, and political science.

But she’s not doing it like she might have imagined — with the stage and audience and handshake before grabbing her diploma.

Like tens of thousands others, her plan were thrown into further disarray last March when COVID-19 hit Iowa.

She and her sister had gone home for spring break but promptly left after realizing the severity of the pandemic and the high risk nature of their parents’ conditions.

Bartlett moved back to Ames, where she lived with her sister, and poured herself into school and three jobs, including on-campus work in the library and museum. And that has kept her mostly distracted from the surreal nature of today’s ISU experience. But not entirely.

She’s had to sit in a plexiglass box in the library and remind students to follow traffic-flow arrows and wear a mask. She’s heard warnings projected from buses for people to stand apart from each other.

“I remember my sister and I walked on campus, and it was completely deserted. And a bus passed us and it had this message of, ‘Make sure to wear your mask and stay 6 feet apart,’ and it kind of felt really dystopian.”

Joseph: COVID-19 has changed priorities

A biomedical engineer, UI junior Joseph Verry faced a monumental shift in the spring when COVID-19 derailed his lab-heavy schedule and forced him to juggle a slate of complex material not geared for an online setting.

Foreseeing the pandemic would persist this fall, the 20-year-old took summer classes to ease his burden this semester.


“I knew that I could do online school,” Verry said. “But I knew it was a lot tougher than school in-person, and so I decided to take less credit this fall semester so that it would be more manageable.”

Even living in the residence halls, Verry said he’s experienced isolation and anxiety and tapped into therapy to help cope.

“I have definitely learned much about myself,” he said. “I took for granted the ability to hang out with my friends when I wanted, or taking trips together. So now I want to do as much of that as possible, when safe.”

COVID-19 has changed his priorities “and has made me think more critically about what I want to do post-graduation.” It’s compelled him toward innovation and honed his ability to problem solve.

“It’s so easy to think there are obstacles or limits in what you do until you’re forced to make changes that show that what you do can be done differently,” he said, adding, “The tools that have become so prevalent because of social distancing and virtual work can make life so much easier even in a non-COVID time.”

That doesn’t mean Verry wants to repeat this fall experience — or thinks it even should have been tried in the first place, given nearly 3,000 UI students, faculty and staff have been infected since Aug. 18.

Although administrators spent extensive time, money and energy over the summer preparing for some semblance of an on-campus fall semester, Verry believes they failed in preventing the virus’ spread.

“Yes, face coverings were mandated,” he said. “However little has been done in response to those violations. And the resources that were provided to students were quite honestly sad. We never really should’ve had in-person classes, except for classes that can’t function virtually.


“There are so many highly-educated individuals with much knowledge about public health best-practices, and I feel as though they weren’t listened to or allowed to be heard, which lead to a semester with so many positive cases.”

Brooke: making new friends elusive

But 19-year-old Brooke Busch, of Waterloo, said she was glad for any taste of the traditional freshman experience she could get — having lost the high school graduation she’d envisioned.

“I actually didn’t get to walk a stage graduation,” she said. “A lot of schools had one in the summer, but we actually didn’t do that. … And, like a lot of other seniors, I didn’t get to play my senior sport, which is really sad.”

The virtual flight that classrooms made across the education landscape, however, created new collegiate opportunities for Busch — once Drake University in Des Moines dropped its residential-campus mandate.

“I was going to go to Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo because it was just a couple miles from my house,” she said. “At Drake there’s a two-year live-on campus requirement. But with COVID they were allowing you to live off campus if you felt safer. So that actually allowed me to go because it was like $11,000 cheaper, not having to pay the room and board,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”

Still, living off campus with a family member in Ankeny hasn’t been easy — not just academically, but socially. The freshman year she experienced barely resembles the one she would hope for in normal times.

“It’s really hard, especially since I don’t live on campus,” she said. “I don’t know the people in my dorm. It’s not like I can just go knock on the person’s door next to me and make friends with them.”

Even as a Drake cheerleader, Busch said the bonding has been hampered by distanced practices and no games or performances.

“I definitely have had to go out of my comfort zone to introduce myself to more people,” she said.


In August, Busch said she was ready and eager to leave home to begin her college adventure, meet new people and make new friends.

“I was in a pretty good mental space and very excited,” she said. “But being here and not being able to make the connections that I thought I would, I have found myself feeling very lonely, and almost being homesick.”

But she’s not lost all hope — even if the spring semester disappoints.

“I am kind of relying on this next year to be able to help me meet more people,” she said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158;

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.