IOWA CITY — It has not been all she imagined her sorority experience would be at the University of Iowa.
No sisterhood events. Live recruitment canceled. Masked friends passing in the corridors of the Alpha Xi Delta house — heading to their respective rooms for class, as many are happening virtually this fall.
“Unfortunately all of mine got moved online,” UI junior Dana Driesen, 20, told The Gazette of her four courses this fall semester in recounting a 2020 collegiate experience that’s become typical across higher education — and also not typical at all.
“It was very difficult, and I ended up having a lot of mental breakdowns, just because classes got a lot harder for me,” Driesen said of her spring semester — which, of course, wasn’t what she had envisioned either.
When Driesen was forced to evacuate her room in Slater Residence Hall and head home to Hull to finish her sophomore year online, she found herself crammed in what seemed like tight quarters with her younger siblings, also banished to the family’s house.
“I got home, and right away I kind of knew this is going to be a lot harder than it’s supposed to be,” Driesen said. “Just because, it’s my house. My two younger siblings were home, and they had to do schoolwork also online.”
Plus, her mom was home part of the week, and Driesen said simply, “There was a lot of noise.”
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“I can’t concentrate when there’s so much noise,” she said, conceding she eventually established a routine. “But actually being able to study for my classes was really difficult.”
So when the university announced a pass-or-fail option — letting students opt to “pass” a course instead of receive a letter grade that could drag down their grade-point average — Driesen said she took it.
“The pass-fail thing really was kind of a lifesaver for me,” she said.
As a nursing major who had been working as a temporary certified nursing assistant in nursing homes, the pandemic eliminated most of her employment options — sending Driesen to Cedar Falls for the summer to live with a friend and her boyfriend.
She arrived back on the UI campus Aug. 15 — when she moved into the Alpha Xi Delta house on Fairchild Street, where about 40 other women are living this semester too.
And pretty quickly, a close friend got sick with COVID-19.
“She has seasonal allergies, so she thought it was just that at first,” Driesen said. “And then we were like, maybe you should get tested — just in case. And then she came back positive.”
Being a close friend, Driesen had spent time with her daily — prompting Driesen and others in their friend group to get tested and hunker down. Although Driesen tested negative, the scare left her keeping a limited circle of contacts.
“One of my friends is immunocompromised,” she said. “So I would feel really bad if I ended up giving it to her.”
None of the sisters who don’t live in the sorority house are allowed to visit — which is different from normal years, when non-residents can visit to eat meals, study or hang out with friends.
“And when people aren’t in their private rooms or eating or something, then we have to wear masks in the house,” Driesen said.
A couple of live-in sisters tested positive early in the semester, but they’ve since recovered.
“We’ve been COVID-free in the house for a month now,” Driesen said.
That’s been largely due to the many changes the sorority has made in light of the pandemic.
“The only people in the sorority that I’ve really been able to talk to are either over Zoom or the people that live in the house with me,” she said. “Which is kind of sad because I’d like to still be able to hang out with some people. ... And then a lot of our events are canceled.
“So, it’s kind of disappointing.”
But Driesen said she understands.
“You have to stay safe.”
What she doesn’t necessarily understand is some of her peers’ decisions to hit the bars.
“I found it really irresponsible that people are doing that,” Driesen said. “I mean, I want to go out and have fun too. But I don’t want to get other people sick, and I don’t want to risk getting it.”
What Driesen does want is to be physically in class — that’s where she learns best. And her inability to do so has created enough anxiety, depression and mental health challenges that she’s taking some medication to mitigate the stress.
To get back to in-person instruction, Driesen said, everyone has to do their part.
“It’s why we have so many cases on campus, and why we can’t go back to normal,” she said. “Because people are being irresponsible and going out like that. I knew people would. But I’m kind of disappointed.”
Despite the back and forth and widespread debate about whether the university should be all online — or stay the hybrid course — Driesen said she likes that administrators have maintained the face-to-face option, even though she hasn’t benefited from that so far.
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As for the campus’ larger response, she thinks it’s been “handled decently well.”
“It’s not necessarily the university’s fault, but I feel like the bars should have been closed way sooner than what they were,” she said.
Being a nursing major, Driesen said among her larger worries is getting enough hands-on training before graduation to properly prepare her for work in the field.
“It does make me a little nervous,” she said. “But, hopefully, if not this upcoming semester, by next year, we’re able to go back to normal.”
That would put Driesen just in time to experience an in-person commencement ceremony to celebrate her 2022 graduation.
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