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Darcey Altschwager: 'A learning experience for everyone'

Darcey AltschwagerPh.D. student Darcey Altschwager was on campus at McLain’s Market when she heard the news KU would close for the rest of the spring semester and describes the ominous and anxious feeling that filled the air with everyone on campus that day the news was released. The biggest adjustment for her these past two semesters has been working from home and not being able to interact with her colleagues and peers in person. Adjusting to Zoom classes and a virtual curriculum has been difficult. 

Altschwager feels that KU’s professors have handled the pandemic very well and have always been transparent with their students since day one. She is also happy with the way the William Allen White School of Journalism has handled the pandemic and how they were and continue to be very on top of communication between faculty and students. 

► Listen to the audio version here.

Kara Daneck: This is Kara Daneck. Today is Nov. 12, 2020. I'm interviewing Darcey Altschwager for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. Going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Darcey Altschwager: So I remember exactly where I was, ironically, when the announcement sort of came about that we would no longer be doing classes in person, and we would be switching virtually for the next few weeks that then turned into where we are now. I was actually on campus at McLain’s Market. It was spring break, so campus was pretty empty. I was still, you know, trying to get some work done, trying to get ahead on things. And I remember being at McLain’s, even though there wasn't that many people there. It just had this really ominous feeling or just kind of like the sense of like being scared or like anxious. And I remember hearing everyone else's conversations around me and starting to feel a little bit panicked and worried. And so while I'm sitting here trying to do my own work and also doing schoolwork, I'm also -- in the back of my mind, I had -- both of my parents were on a cruise at the time and my sister was actually in Ireland.

And so you have all the travel bans starting to come forward. So I'm like getting nervous, trying to figure out, like, “Oh, no, like, are they going to be stuck someplace? How am I going to figure out how to get them home?” And I had no contact with any of them. So I think that just added to the level of anxiety. And then I remember just thinking I should get as many items out of my office that I would need maybe for the next, like, four, maybe five weeks. I really thought at the end of April we would be OK and everything would sort of go back to normal. So I just sort of grabbed some old bags that I had in my car and I just grabbed whatever felt necessary from my office. So, books and, as a graduate research assistant, there's some sensitive documents in my office as well.

So I remember taking the key thinking, “Oh, if this turns like apocalyptic, I want to make sure those documents are safe and nobody can break into that filing cabinet,” which that seems weird looking back on it now, but it was just, it was such a weird feeling. It's one of those where you can't really describe, but it was definitely a feeling of anxiety. And even though I think it was the next day that the announcement actually came through officially through KU, I knew a few days prior, just from my work with faculty members and they knew it was coming. And so I was pretty prepared for that when the announcement did finally come through.

Kara Daneck: How has this semester been different comparing spring semester with the pandemic to fall semester with the pandemic?

Darcey Altschwager: You know, the fall semester I feel like has been not that bad. It’s almost like carrying on like a “business as usual” feeling just because we got used to doing everything online. I know for my classes in the spring semester it was sort of like not too difficult of a transition period. But going from being in person and then going strictly online was definitely an adjustment. And as a graduate student, our classes are two and a half hours in length and they're smaller classes. So there's maybe 10 of us at maximum in these classes. So it's very much, you know, conversation you're relating with your peers, you bounce ideas back and forth in. In an online environment, that seems like it's more difficult to do. And it's, you know, difficult to almost like read body language of who's going to speak next. And then you don't want to unmute your microphone because you want to be polite.

So that was definitely a hard adjustment. And then also just having to sit at your computer for two and a half hours per evening, trying to do classes. But then you sort of get used to it. And then, so, spring, summer or fall semester really hasn't been too bad. It's definitely sad as a second-year doctoral student. You know, one of the things I was most excited for when I began this program was getting back into the classroom, working with people, working with my cohort. Luckily our doctoral program is a smaller program, so we get to know each other very well, but this whole process has definitely felt lonely because we don't really see each other. We can't pop into each other's workspace and say, “Hey,” we can't go to the libraries together. So it's definitely been a difficult adjustment in that sense.

Kara Daneck: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Darcey Altschwager: So for me personally, I would just say not being on campus. And as I said before, being in the classroom and like working with people is really important to me. That's sort of where I get motivated and I love being on campus. I actually live in Overland Park, so I don't live near Lawrence and I haven't been in Lawrence, I think, since the beginning of August. So to me that's kind of sad. And especially my first year in the program, I felt like I finally had gotten a routine down of like, you know, my different study locations, study spots when I was in my office, etc. And then that all just kind of went to shambles when we're no longer allowed on campus. So I think that's been definitely the hardest adjustment is just not having that interaction with people and just being almost like going back to where I said where it was lonely, it's definitely a lonely feeling. You're kind of like on your own in your house, and there's nobody else that you can really work with.

Kara Daneck: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Darcey Altschwager: So overall I think if I were to lay it out, I think my workload is definitely the same. I think it's a bit more time consuming because when it comes to contacting people, especially when I work with faculty, rather than just popping into their office and asking them a really quick question you have to, you know, send them a chat. I use Microsoft Teams, so using that platform or sending them an email and then you have that time waiting for responses. So I think it's felt like it's taken more time. And I also feel like being productive, that’s definitely gone down with the pandemic, feeling like I do a lot during the day or during the week, but then at the end of the week being like, “Oh wait, I really didn’t get that much done.”

So those sort of little tasks that are taking a lot longer and not feeling as productive, but I think that's normal. Across the board, I've had a lot of conversations with other faculty members and they say that they felt the same thing. It's hard to stay motivated. It's hard to stay productive because, you know, not only are you stuck in your house all day, but you're also worried about what's next with the pandemic. You're worried about family getting sick or worry about yourself getting sick. So there's just a lot to process with it.

Kara Daneck: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Darcey Altschwager: So I feel like at the start in March, I was definitely very scared of it. And that goes back to having family abroad. When things started shutting down, a travel ban started going in place and I wasn't able to contact those family members because when they had left, everything was fine. And I think there was maybe just a handful of COVID cases in the U.S., so it really wasn't something to worry about. But then we saw how quickly cases can change or how quickly things can change in a week. So it definitely felt very anxious and I remember feeling very anxious and scared and almost overwhelmed throughout the spring semester. And then summer sort of relaxed a little bit. I think things got a little bit better. I'm definitely starting to feel more anxious again, as time goes on, as we're seeing those numbers rise and we're seeing cases rise.

You know, my sister lives out in Boston and so they're currently under curfew right now. So she's not allowed to leave her apartment from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. And then you have to wear a mask at all times. No questions asked. And then she also works at a children's hospital. So on top of that, she's a health care provider. So just having that worry in the back of my mind is also there. And then I actually had a COVID scare almost two weeks ago. So I'm technically still in quarantine right now as we speak. But I did get tested and it came back negative, but just, you know, having that scare, it's almost like it's getting like too close to home. And I have other family and friends who have had COVID. I know friends who have lost family members to COVID. So I think as we enter this winter phase and into the new year, I think it's going to start to get worse. So I think those feelings of anxiety are going to come up again with the pandemic.

Kara Daneck: How do you feel professors have handled the pandemic?

Darcey Altschwager: At KU? I think they've handled it very well. I have felt since day one, there's always been transparency with the students. I know it was definitely, you know, a guessing game about what we would do or what we wouldn't do, but I think overall professors have done really well with it.

Kara Daneck: How do you feel about this School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Darcey Altschwager: So I know I'm probably biased on this response, but I think if you look at KU overall, there were some things that were done that I didn't agree with or some changes that happened that I didn't agree with, but overall in the School of Journalism, I think we were one of the best schools at how we handled the pandemic, especially with announcements and students, etc. Once we knew that we would be online for the rest of the semester, I know faculty who do a lot with curriculum development and the dean, they quickly came up with working on a plan for the fall semester. And I remember seeing different documents and different emails about what the plan would be for fall semester. And that was even before KU had announced what their plans were for the fall semester. So I did feel like the Journalism School in specific was very on top of it.

Very mindful of not only faculty, but staff, and I really appreciated the dean. She would email constantly faculty and also grad students. And a lot of us are GTAs or GRAs. So we need to know sort of the ins and outs of what's happening at the school and just hearing from her as not only like the dean, but just kind of like one-on-one as, you know, “I'm a human, too, going through this, just with you.” And hearing her concern for students, it's something that I think people did appreciate. Because I know that can be hard to find in other schools in KU but also across the country, finding a dean that cares so much about their students on top of every other administrative duty that they have to do. So I've really trusted the Journalism School overall. All of the faculty have been really great and I know all the faculty care about the students and have their best interests at heart. And I see the emotional toll that it takes on the faculty as well when they're caring so much for their students and for themselves and their families as well.

Kara Daneck: How has the pandemic changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU?

Darcey Altschwager: What do you mean by changed?

Kara Daneck: Just changed as in there's just, everything is different on campus and like how classes are run or the hustle and bustle of the whole entire campus.

Darcey Altschwager: For me, the biggest change as a grad student I would see is, and I think for a lot of other people, just being online instantly without a question was sort of the biggest change that happened. I know when they were deciding, OK, what classes can be strictly online, what classes can be hybrid or what can we do in person? They instantly looked at grad students and went, “OK, you guys are pretty good with online classes. So you'll all be online.” So I, to me, I just kind of giggled at that, that without hesitation, we all went online. But I do appreciate it because I was not comfortable being in class. And in terms of, you know, being on campus, I haven't been on campus since August, so I don't know exactly what changes are happening or what's going on there.

I don't really see like the day-to-day activities or see any of those changes that have been happening. But from the faculty that I've talked to, you know, they feel like they're safe on campus, but at the same time, you never know. And I know within the first few weeks of classes starting for the fall semester, faculty kept telling me, you know, “I feel like my undergrad students are just dropping like flies.” And we have less and less students coming to class every day or just hearing, after two weeks of class, some faculty only had one student in their class ‘cause everyone else either made a decision to switch online or they were in quarantine because they were unsure if they had been exposed. So those are the changes that I saw specifically in the school.

Kara Daneck: How do you think KU you will be better from everything that's happened?

Darcey Altschwager: I definitely think this is a learning experience for everyone and for universities. The biggest change that I'm hoping to see is that universities understand what kind of the financial burden this is on students and what the financial burden is on them and taking that into account. I know there's been not only at KU, but across the country, there’s been a lot of conversations about tuition being so high, especially if it's just an online course and how certain students can't afford the constantly rising cost of tuition. So I hope conversations about, you know, affordability with college takes place. I think there was more conversation centering, especially around freshmen students, about the decision to start at a community college or junior college before transferring to a larger university. We saw that more and more just so students could save money, especially if classes were online. So I'm hoping that more of these conversations about accessibility for students at universities will continue on and seeing how this affected different populations of students and how we can better serve them.

Kara Daneck: What advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Darcey Altschwager: I honestly hope that we have thoroughly learned from this and we are not in this situation 100 years from now. We were in this situation 100 years ago and we obviously didn't quite learn from it, but all in all, if I were like sitting down, talking to someone 100 years from now, I would just remind them that, you know, everything in society is going to change. Things are going to come up that you can't control. But the biggest thing that you can do is just to try and just process it as best as you can. Definitely talk to people, seek out help. Especially if your mental health is, you know, if you're struggling with it or you need just someone to talk to and relate to. And also not to be afraid of emotions. That was one thing that was sort of taught to me during this pandemic and something that I've learned over the pandemic is it's very normal to feel these emotions of being anxious, being panicked nervous, whatever it is.

Darcey Altschwager: And you know, you don't have to put on a happy face and be positive and say, “Oh, everything's going to be great.” You know, we'll get through this because, you know, that's maybe not the feeling in the moment. So being honest with those feelings and accepting those feelings and processing those feelings, I think is the best way we can move forward. And also just, you know, trusting scientists, trusting data and doing your part in what you can to hopefully, you know, stop the spread. Even if it's little things like making sure you're not hanging out with friends, you're wearing your mask everywhere you go. No questions asked. But to just do what you can to help sort of the broader, bigger picture.

Kara Daneck: Thank you, Darcey. This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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