The December 30th fires that destroyed nearly 1000 homes have directly or indirectly touched nearly every community in Boulder County, including the faculty, staff and student body of CU Boulder. Between the fires and the massive surge in COVID-19 caseloads, university administrators decided to postpone the return to in-person classes. KGNU volunteer and CU student Ellie Stuckrath files this report.
Like many students at CU Boulder, Vera Duong had a hard time believing her eyes as she watched fires rage across Louisville and Superior on live television. “It just felt super unreal,” says Duong. “Just knowing that it was so close to where I go to school and how much it affected so many students and staff and professors and that things would change when we go back to school.”
On December 31st, the day after the fires, the university announced that the spring semester would begin its first two weeks with remote learning. Chancellor Philip DiStefano indicated in a written statement sent out to students that the remote start will allow the university “to provide the support needed to our impacted students, faculty and staff.” However, many students wonder if delaying in-person classes will be enough to support the affected community.
“I’m glad that CU is being more flexible with the two weeks, but also at the same time they could be more flexible,” notes Duong. “I don’t know anyone personally who have lost their homes, but I’ve heard of people from online, and being remote is helping a little bit, but at the same time if you’re learning at home, they don’t have homes to go to.”
The past couple of years have been challenging for Boulder residents and the University of Colorado with the pandemic, a mass shooting and now these devastating wildfires. For many students these events have felt overwhelming on top of their academic responsibilities.
CU student Dominick Fiscalini says he sometimes has to tune out the news to focus and cope: “I used to have really bad anxiety about this stuff in high school, and as bad as it sounds the best way for me to get past it is to just pretend like it’s not there and to focus my entire mind on school. I know it’s a problem, there is stuff I can do to help it, and I do what I can to help, but I try not to over worry myself for the sake of my sanity.”
Many students are left to grapple with these unprecedented events without any support. “I feel like at the end of the day I just wanted to get the degree,” says CU Boulder junior Marguerite Adwan. “Everyone has to go through a struggle, and if this is what I have to do to get the degree I’m just gonna have to do it, cause nothing is easy, nothing is straight line.”
Entering a new semester with remote learning and COVID cases at their highest peak and on the heels of a major disaster is undeniably stressful for many. Vera Duong wonders about the long term impacts her college experience will have on her and her fellow students’ futures. “I know a lot of kids when they go out and find jobs after a lot of that is through connections and speaking with their mentors or like with their professors and helping them get research positions and internships,” she notes. “The connections are affecting kids years down the line when they are trying to find jobs after graduation. So it’s really not just about learning in those four years, it really affects kids afterwards.”
The challenges these students face extend beyond campus into the community at large. But they are learning to perform a high stakes juggling act while walking a tightrope into independent adulthood.