By Published: Nov. 5, 2021

Something wasn’t right. 

Across the street from her flat in Manchester, England, where Logan Turner (CTD, Russ’23) was studying abroad, workers were erecting isolation structures in front of the local hospital. 

Information was sparse, and her parents intermittently sent her screenshots from U.S media detailing the emerging COVID-19 virus. She realized those shelters were intended to house sick people. 

In just a few hectic days, Turner — a first-generation student from Frederick, Colorado — found herself narrowly making the last flight from Manchester to the U.S. before the borders closed in March 2020. 

“Last year was really tough on everyone, but everyone had a unique experience. Everyone gained resilience.”

The stress had just begun. As the summer and fall melded into remote learning and work, she was suddenly in charge of schooling her elementary-aged brother while her parents — deemed essential — worked outside of their home. The two shared one laptop. 

“I would email teachers and say, ‘My brother won’t make it to math because I need to go to office hours for a professor,’” said Turner.

To proactively address financial uncertainty, Turner maintained two internships, one as a business analyst and one as a project manager to better prepare Marines for boot camp, in addition to other jobs like housekeeping.

“Fearing the worst, I wanted to make sure that we could still make the bills in the event of anything more drastic happening with COVID. And I still had tuition to pay,” said Turner, who aspires to establish a career in national security. 

Looking back, Turner said she was operating in survival mode. But she sums up her experience as such: “You are more resilient than you may realize.” 

4 a.m. Math Class 

healthcare workerAs the world transformed, Buffs operated in their own microcosms. Students adapted to major immediate changes. They had to pull strength from within themselves. 

International student Chieri Kamada (AeroEngr’23) flew home to Japan in May 2020, expecting to return in August. With uncertainty still surrounding the virus, she instead stayed with her parents and high-school-aged sister for the fall semester. She slept and studied in a corner of the living room in their two-bedroom apartment. For her daily math class, she woke at 4 a.m. to attend the live lectures occurring in the Mountain Time Zone 15 hours earlier. 

“It was really hard, physically and mentally,” said Kamada. “I didn’t really feel like I belonged to the CU community anymore because I was thousands of miles away.” 

Kamada, who plays the mellophone (a cousin to the French horn) for the CU marching band, was eager to reunite with her bandmates when she felt safe enough to return to the U.S., and to reconnect with the college experience she loved. 

She returned to Boulder for the spring semester in January 2021. She joined other student clubs on campus and obtained a summer internship in research for global navigation systems. 

“I was socially craving,” said Kamada, who now lives with fellow bandmates. “Last year was really tough on everyone, but everyone had a unique experience. Everyone gained resilience.”

Finding Support

Chronic stress influenced students’ experiences during the pandemic, said June Gruber, a CU associate professor of psychology and neuroscience who studies human emotion. However, she said, recent studies have found some people’s mental health struggles peaked in the spring of 2020 and showed improvement as they learned to cope. 

“People respond acutely to times of stress,” said Gruber. “They’ve found ways to somehow psychologically cope with these stressors and find ways to support their mental wellness.” 

“A lot of this is new territory. We need students to tell us what they’re feeling.”

But Gruber wants to know more about students’ mental wellness now that the pandemic has continued for more than 1.5 years. 

“A lot of this is new territory,” she said. “We need students to tell us what they’re feeling.” 

She and student researchers in the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory are hoping to use Buffs’ experiences to increase awareness and open dialogue about mental health.

Gruber is also part of CU’s Post-Pandemic Support, Recovery and Resilience Group, which is focused on the well-being of CU Boulder students, faculty and staff. The group aims to provide support through discussions regarding mental health, substance use, suicide prevention and healthy relationships, said Jennifer McDuffie, CU’s associate vice chancellor for health and wellness.

“COVID exposed many gaps in equity and access,” said McDuffie, who leads the group. “We’re coming to this current new phase [of the pandemic] trying to make sure people’s physical health is taken care of, and their emotional and social health as well.”  

Fuel for Creativity 

community building As they settled into patterns of isolation, some Buffs pursued their interests. Sophomore Forrest Mondlane Jr. (Mktg’24) realized capturing student life with his camera energized him when he found his motivation waning. He took a photography job on campus his second semester that pushed him to decide to pursue a photo-centric career. 

After selling a jacket made from the materials of a damaged handbag, Megan Griffith (Acct, Fin’23) started a fashion business, Luxury Redesigned, while in lockdown at her family home in Orange County, California. Some of her designs are now for sale in Boulder’s Madison Riley boutique. 

“I had the time to settle down and think about goals for myself and passions,” she said. “This has gotten me through this tough time.”  

Raul Dominguez (DMus’22), a conductor and instructor, knew the pandemic was going to be especially difficult for those in music. Aside from his husband, he saw no one for long stretches of time. 

“That became very lonely,” he said, “especially when in choir, being around people is our bread and butter.” 

In May 2020, he secured a grant from CU’s Entrepreneur Center for Music to begin the Choral Conductors Colloquium, a virtual five-lecture series featuring prominent choral conductors, including Anton Armstrong, conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, and Janet Galván, music professor at Ithaca College. More than 3,300 people from 53 countries have viewed the lectures, and CU Continuing Education now offers them as a course. 

“My summer of disconnect became my summer of connection. No matter what I did, it had to come from a place of purpose.”

“My summer of disconnect became my summer of connection,” said Dominguez. “Going to school in the middle of a pandemic feels almost senseless unless you have a specific direction you’re going. No matter what I did, it had to come from a place of purpose.” 

Carried by Community 

While strength was an asset for some students, others felt its burden. 

“My mental health suffered so much this past year and a half,” said Karia White (EthnSt, IntlAf’22), who spent months in meetings with Ruth Woldemichael (EthnSt, IntlAf’22) and Audrea Fryar (PolSci’21) to help establish CU Boulder’s Center for African and African American Studies in May. 

“Black women often get painted as resilient, but in reality it is because society expects us to recover quickly,” White said. “I don’t want to be strong anymore. I want to be soft, and I want to be held, and I want to be supported. 

“Being resilient doesn’t allow for release. If I don’t drop the things I need to drop, I can’t hold anything else. I can’t even hold myself.” 

Woldemichael added: “I remember being in my room from morning to late, late at night. It’s a blur to me. I couldn’t tell you how I did it.” 

All three women agreed the people in their lives helped them continue on. 

“Community kept me here,” said Woldemichael. 

“Being resilient doesn’t allow for release. If I don’t drop the things I need to drop, I can’t hold anything else. I can’t even hold myself.”

Through these experiences — remote learning, new family dynamics, launching virtual classes — Buffs uplifted each other, even in isolation. 

Giovanni Hernandez (CivEngr’22), a student who thrives on in-person campus connections, was discouraged with remote learning and decreased communication in his digital classrooms. Then he contracted COVID-19 during finals week of fall 2020 and had to cope with the sudden loss of his grandfather. 

“What has helped me a lot is the friendships and networking I have created at CU,” said Hernandez. “My friends worry about me. They hang out with me. They say, ‘Let’s go for a walk’ or, ‘Let’s take a break,’ when we’re performing school work for multiple hours.”

Steps Forward 

As pandemic-related stress and discomfort mounted, Buffs cloaked themselves with strengths previously untapped — vulnerability, power, love, confidence. 

When the fall 2021 semester started in August with social activities and in-person classes resuming once again, campus exuded energy, hope — and some trepidation. 

It’s not just resiliency Buffs are carrying forward. It’s their experiences and lessons, their softening and striving.

During her first week back on campus, Logan Turner reflected on what felt bizarre and challenging, such as missing the Buff Bus or battling traffic to get to class on time. 

“Something I’ve heard a lot of people on campus say, and that I can relate to, is that it feels like no time has passed,” she said. “I was a sophomore when everything happened, and I’m a senior now, but sometimes I still feel like a sophomore.” 

And yet — she knows she’s a different person than she was then; those bewildering and emotional first few weeks in Manchester allowed her to realize resilience in herself. Today, she describes herself as “relentless.”

“Sometimes, you feel the pressure and you feel the stress coming down on you, and you can either let that crumple you down or you can keep pushing through,” she said. “I am proud of everything I was able to accomplish despite the circumstances.” 

It’s not just resiliency Buffs are carrying forward. It’s their experiences and lessons, their softening and striving.

Said Chieri Kamada: “As a CU community, we are stronger.”

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Illustrations by Brian Stauffer