Community and Culture in a Post-Pandemic World
During the last two years, COVID-19 had a profound effect on North Central University’s campus culture, voiding students of traditional and formative college experiences. Faced with countless changes to NCU athletics, community gatherings, special events, graduation and spiritual life, students have become accustomed to adjusting life around the pandemic. But how has this constant shifting changed college culture, and in-turn the college experience?
It was only four years ago that North Central University’s chapel services were packed out on a weekly basis. As soon as the music started, students would rush to the altar to passionately worship. In seemingly every space on campus, students were rubbing elbows with one another.
Chatter about social events outpoured from groups of students that buzzed about campus. Squeaky freshmen ran circles around annoyed juniors and exhausted seniors. Sophomores floated about, making frequent trips to the registrar’s office to change their major. The halls were teeming with lively sports teams, young married couples and smiley faculty members. Campus life moved along just as it had for the past 92 years.
But this warm, inviting atmosphere came to a screeching halt when the pandemic hit. During the spring of 2020, chapel services and classes went online, students were sent back to their hometowns and life on North Central’s campus paused for the first time in 92 years.
When campus activities resumed for the 2020’21 school year, the communal culture was suddenly stunted by new health and safety regulations. Sports teams had shortened seasons and scheduled campus events surrounding holidays often ended up being canceled, moved online or postponed indefinitely. To participate in community life students were required to wear masks while visiting in shared spaces.
For NCU students, COVID-19 has continued to affect three areas on campus: spiritual life, community life and attendance.
“Chapel seems so empty”
In March of 2020, NCU chapel services were held online during the beginning of lockdown. For nearly eight weeks, a livestream link on Facebook drew in a hundred NCU students a day at best. The numbers dwindled as the weeks went on.
In a March 13, 2022, Table Salt Blog entitled “A Return to Spiritual Vitality,” President Scott Hagan quotes, “In many ways, this is the best day-to-day spiritual atmosphere I’ve seen at NCU.” But has the spiritual environment truly improved during the past two years? Or is it simply stabilizing from the pandemic?
The 2021’22 school year proved to be a breakthrough for returning students. Students were able to attend normal chapel services for the first time in nearly a year and a half. For sophomore students, fall 2021 chapels were their first NCU chapels without COVID-19 sanctions. Kaleigh Nesbitt, a sophomore pursuing a pastoral music degree, said, “There was a new freeing of life within our chapel services. Having masks was such a hindrance to connection and true community during chapel.”
For some students, the expectation was that the packed chapel services of pre-pandemic would return. However, after the first few weeks of excitement died down, this presumption proved to be false. Hannah Grubbs, a senior studying journalism, said, “I feel like my freshman year (2019) there were just so many people in the chapel and dancing up at the front. Compared to that year, chapel seems so empty.”
Now, it seems only upperclassmen students know how truly exuberant chapel services used to be before COVID-19. Annie Sallee, a senior Media Communications major, said, “I don’t think people now at NCU know how vibrant the chapel life was at school. I think that is in part due to COVID-19 and our very low numbers at school in general.”
Chapel attendance has likely dwindled because of low numbers and an influx of freshman and sophomore students who aren’t used to attending daily chapel. Unfortunately, COVID-19’s reach wasn’t limited to chapel attendance numbers alone, but also community dynamics.
“Bro-Sis events are finally back”
In an Oct. 1, 2020 Table Salt article written by 2021’22 Student Body President Skylar Burns entitled “Surviving Covid-19 in College; a Reflection”, she writes about Jessenia Gonzalez, a graduate who spent her senior year on campus during the 2020’21 school year. Gonzalez quoted, “While I’m physically back at school I still don’t feel like I’m actually here… I can’t just walk onto a dorm floor or have friends in my apartment to share meals and laughs.”
For Sallee, having a close community of friends during the pandemic meant leaving campus. Sallee said, “It became harder to have community because what we could do was very limited. We often went and got food or did something that involved a car because that was the only place we didn’t have to be socially distanced and wearing masks.”
For Miller Hall inhabitants like Grubbs, creating community during the 2020’21 school year was also difficult. Grubbs said, “It (the pandemic) definitely affected my floor friendships of 2020. I did not leave my room much and I wasn’t allowed to have my door open without having a mask. Floor community was hard to create.”
When social distancing and mask mandates ceased in the fall of 2021, community events on North Central’s returned without sanctions. For the first time in a year, students at NCU were able to gather in a normal fashion. Intramural sports alongside regular fall events like NCU’s Got Talent, the annual NCU Block Party and Homecoming were reinstated. Grubbs said, “I think it is finally getting back to normal, especially in sports and community. Bro-sis events are finally back.”
“Our numbers have dropped a ton”
COVID-19 not only affected on-campus events, but also the number of students in attendance. NCU’s fact page on their website quotes “1,100” students currently in attendance but does not share further information. A deep dive into the internet on “nces.ed.gov” revealed that NCU’s attendance quoted numbers are not up to date.
This number “1,100” would be correct for the 2019’20 school year when total enrollment was 1,155 students, according to “The North Central University Student Life” article published by U.S. News in 2019. But for the fall of 2020, total enrollment was only 1,067 students according to The National Center for Education Statistics.
Though the 2021’22 school year statistics have yet to be released, there is reason to believe that the number of students attending has dropped even more due to COVID-19. In an interview with an anonymous NCU Office of Admissions employee, they were able to shed more light on the subject. They said, “Our numbers have dropped a ton in the last two years, and there’s a lot of different reasons for that.”
The employee explained how Minneapolis safety concerns combined with pandemic sanctions had driven many students to drop out, transfer to a different college, or simply not attend.
The future of the college experience
In the past two years, COVID-19 has not only changed student life at NCU, but on a national scale, college life across the country. According to a report done by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published on Nov.18, 2021, the national college attendance average is down 6.5% compared to two years ago.
A Nov. 23, 2021, article published by Frontiers in Education entitled “Defending Campus Culture Against the Threat of Perennial Online Instruction in a Post-COVID-19 World” shed more light on the importance of on-campus interactions. Authors Rhonda M. Scherman, and Nancy E. Snow, describe the dangers of how online learning can rob a college campus of its culture.
Arguing that social interaction is an extremely important human need, Scherman and Snow summarized how in-person classes teach students social skills needed for future jobs, and especially the opportunity to be mentored by professors and counselors. Scherman and Snow said, “Students can feel part of a larger community, and sometimes part of larger educational traditions that span decades, if not centuries.”
Attendance levels and virtual learning, however, are only small problems in proportion to how COVID-19 threatens to harm campus culture. In an age of ever-changing national lockdowns and mask mandates, online teaching has become a fallback method for many universities, including NCU.
In an interview with Dr. Desirée Libengood, associate vice president of academic affairs and dean of college of arts and sciences at North Central University, she shed more light on the subject of NCU’s virtual education in a post-pandemic world. She said, “I think we have a better understanding of how much our community means to us and the ways in which we need to be “high tough” virtually, meaning how do we make relationships and offer the same high quality of education in a virtual setting.”
But for many current students, the future of education still seems uncertain. In a Table Salt article entitled “How College Seniors Can Find Closure in the Wake of COVID-19” written published by Madison Errichello on April 3, 2020, Victoria Cortese summarizes the feelings of change. She remarked, “In the wake of all this chaos, and as we grapple with the emotions we’re left with, we still need to move forward.”