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From academics to living arrangements to social engagement, college students have had their lives upended in many ways. However, lessons have also been learned, and many have survived the experience with insight and newfound strength.

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Joy Watson is a junior at Virginia State University majoring in mechanical engineering technology and mathematics. When the pandemic hit the United States in her freshman spring semester, her routine college experience was cut short.

“I was sent home, from VA to NY,” said Watson via email. “I could no longer hang out with my school family and wasn’t allowed to hang out with friends back home either. The pandemic threw off my balance between my academics and social life. All I had for a while was just school.”

Watson said. First, she was worried about school because everything would be different. “However, after the first week, I was pretty well adjusted,” she said. “The main difference/challenge was learning to keep myself focused on class and homework when I needed to be.”

Despite the shutdown of practically everything and every place and transitioning to a new virtual world, Watson still completed two research projects and an internship with a federal agency during the past year and a half.

“I participated in two research projects last summer, one at Virginia Commonwealth University and the other at Virginia State University,” she said. “Both were based on the mathematical modeling of infectious diseases. I worked from home and virtually connected with mentors and my teammates. This spring, I interned for the Federal Aviation Administration. I supported the team that is planning a software migration. I also assisted in creating employee onboarding materials.”

Watson secured one internship by applying directly on the Virginia Commonwealth University internship website.

“At Virginia State University, one of my professors asked me if I’d like to help them conduct some research. So, I applied online through a contractor’s website to secure the Federal Aviation Administration internship.”

Watson, considering a career as a college professor or working for a federal agency, said she’d learned valuable lessons from making major adjustments to her life due to the pandemic.

“This experience has taught me that resilience and adaptability are vital to success,” she said. “I’ve learned that I need to prioritize my mental health.”

Aubri Bowman is a junior at Alabama A&M University majoring in computer science with a concentration in cybersecurity. Bowman said the pandemic had a profound effect on her academically and personally.

“I am a visual and kinesthetic learner, so it became extremely difficult to grasp concepts, especially in classes that focused on math and science,” she said. “I had to force myself to become an auditory learner, which is still a struggle for me. Personally, my anxiety and depression skyrocketed mainly because I am a very social person, so being forced to stay inside and limiting contact with others turned my world upside down. As a result, I found that I was keeping to myself and becoming unmotivated.”

Bowman did not let the challenges of COVID-19 squelch pursuing opportunities to gain knowledge and experience through interning.

“I completed my internship last summer with the Department of Defense as a DOD HBCU/Minority Institution (MI) student researcher. It was based in Huntsville, AL, but was completed in a virtual environment. It wasn’t what I imagined myself doing for my first college internship, but I am extremely grateful because it was an amazing learning experience. In addition, I was able to work with another student from Navajo Tech in which we were tasked in writing a research paper about the pros and cons of artificial intelligence in simulation training.”

She credits Carla Draper Holloway, assistant director of the honors program at Alabama A&M University, with helping her secure the internship.

“Interning in a virtual environment came with its challenges, but it did not limit my experience in the program. I cannot compare it to other internship opportunities since this was my first one. Still, I believe the DOD and other supporting organizations did an amazing job of making it interactive and resourceful.”

Bowman, who has her sights set on becoming a software developer or data analyst, found herself empowered by the challenges of studying and interning during a health crisis.

“At the end of the experience, I was able to write professional research [paper] successfully,” she said. “I used those skills in the following academic school year and received excellent scores on those papers. I also was able to improve my time management skills, especially since I was working with people in other time zones.”

Kwaneitra Powers graduated from the University of Alabama A&M in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in construction management.

She describes herself as a hands-on learner who likes to ask questions and “be in the moment in class” and said she struggled with virtual learning.

“Trying to protect my 4.0 GPA was a challenge,” said Powers via email. “I had to accept that perfection is not obtainable. It’s okay not to be perfect, be my best. I made my first B, and I was devastated… But I got to know myself a little bit better.”

Powers juggles numerous responsibilities—she is a full-time real estate agent, new business owner, single mother, and took 18 credit hours while in school.

“It gave me a chance to reset,” she said of the pandemic. “There is one thing in this world that does not discriminate, and that is life. It happens to everyone. During the pandemic reset, I realized that it was okay to take a breath and breathe. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone but myself.”

During spring 2021, Powers interned at Turner Construction as a project engineer on site. She secured the internship through a virtual career fair. She said her goal is to become a commercial developer.

One of the most valuable lessons Powers learned from the pandemic was maximizing her time. She said she now gets up at 4:30 a.m. to get the most out of her day.

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