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Seminoles deal with challenges of being college students during pandemic

Clarks Summit University student Kaleb Thomas (Facebook)

Homecoming, sports, clubs, student activities and even dorm life look different across college campuses this year; the pandemic made sure of that.

Depending on the college or university, classes are held online, in person or a hybrid of the two. Seminole students across the country are figuring out how to make the most of it.

There are some real challenges and some distinct advantages to attending school in this environment. Here are some reports about their “Zoom University” experiences.

Kaleb Thomas
Kaleb Thomas, a freshman at Clarks Summit University in Pennsylvania, is living on campus and attends classes in person. He is the only student interviewed for this story who is having a traditional college experience.
Clarks Summit is a small school with about 500 students. All classes are held in person with students seated about six feet apart. They must wear masks and practice social distancing in class and around campus.

“They have done an amazing job with preventing Covid-19 from coming onto the campus,” said Thomas, who is from Brighton. “Everyone is cooperating. We have to wipe down the desks and chairs and sanitize everything before we leave a classroom and the next class comes in. We take every precaution possible and haven’t had any problems. We are all doing great. It’s an amazing blessing we’ve received.”

Being away from his family is an adjustment, but Thomas is dealing with it well. He is studying pastoral ministries and wants to be a pastor at a non-denominational church after he graduates.

Jessi Harmon
Jessi Harmon attends Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she is a sophomore. She is in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps and is studying biomedical sciences with an emphasis in pre-med and a minor in military leadership and strategy. She will be commissioning into the U.S. Army after graduation in 2022 and plans to attend medical school while there.

Harmon’s university experience is a hybrid. She lives on campus and attends classes online. Since there is no standardization of teaching methods in virtual classes, she said it is difficult to adjust to different teaching styles online. Some teachers record lectures for students to view any time and answer questions via Zoom during class time.

“It’s always difficult to ask questions, even with the live Zoom classes,” said Harmon, who is from Flagstaff. “It’s a lot harder in general to communicate with the professor during class. It feels so much more disconnected.”

Professors have office hours, but Harmon can’t always get in touch with them then because their schedules may conflict with her other classes. That said, she is pleased that she hasn’t gotten sick this year.

“DUIs have gone down, there has been a reduction in sexual assaults in dorms and campus is more closed down so strangers can’t come into the dorms,” she said.

Campus culture has changed as well. Instead of clubs and activities, a lot of students are going on hikes, running and walking outdoors. Since the university offered the hybrid option, a lot of students stayed at home. Dorms aren’t as full as usual, so students have been condensed into a few dorms. Two dorms are empty and another one is used as a quarantine center for students who have tested positive for Covid-19. Common rooms in the dorm are closed, so socializing is limited.

“We are closer with students in our dorm halls than we were in the past,” Harmon said. “That increases the diversity of your friends group; you are friends by chance, not by choice. A lot of my friends this year are friends because we live in the same place and going through the same thing. It creates unlikely bonds.”

Not everything on campus is positive, according to Harmon, who said some students are cheating.

“I hear a lot about people cheating more than people studying,” she said. “The level of academic honesty is going down. You aren’t supposed to use notes or Google during tests, but the university doesn’t have a proctoring system. A few of my friends at other universities around the country see the same thing happening. It puts the validity of a degree into question. I could not imagine doing that, cheating.”

Ahnie Jumper
Ahnie Jumper is a senior studying social work at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. She’s also a catcher on the softball team. Her social work classes are held in person, but other classes are online.

Florida Gulf Coast University student Ahnie Jumper. (FGCU Athletics photo)

“There isn’t much of a difference between them for me,” said Jumper, who is from Big Cypress. “I can see how it could be hard for people with attention deficit, but for me it’s fine.”

Students on campus must wear masks and check in on an app before entering the campus. Jumper’s in-person classes are held in the afternoons, when the campus is mostly closed. Since social work is deemed an essential service, she goes to class and to her internship at the Community Cooperative Soup Kitchen in Fort Myers. She works in the food pantry and helps homeless people in many ways, including with paperwork.

Alphonso Alvarado
Alphonso Alvarado, a sophomore at Florida Southwestern State College in Fort Myers, is studying business. At first, online classes were difficult for him since there was little interaction during the classes and his internet service wasn’t reliable.

“I changed my mindset about it and said either I can interact or I don’t,” he said. “I made the choice to step up and interact in class and ask questions. It made all the difference.”

FSW offers a flexible arrangement for classes, online and/or in person. Alvarado alternates between the two options and takes more challenging classes in person and electives online. He said the in-person classes are respectful of Covid with everyone wearing masks and being socially distanced.

But there are some advantages to virtual schooling. When he started at FSW, Alvarado took the college success course which taught him what to expect from college and where to get help when it was needed.

“The online Zoom tutoring sessions are very helpful,” he said. “I’m a very socially interactive person, but for those who aren’t it gives them a chance to go to school. The online math and algebra classes are live, so you can ask questions.”

Regardless of how college is presented, Alvarado gave some advice for high school students.

“Don’t be scared to attempt college,” he said.

Pedro Fuentes
Pedro Fuentes is studying heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) at the Lincoln Technical Institute in Marietta, Georgia. Although he started school in July 2020, he has been working in the field for two years.

“I found myself really wanting to know how the refrigerant cycle works,” said Fuentes, who is from the Hollywood Reservation. “I know a lot of the hands-on of HVAC, but I didn’t know the science behind it.”

The lab classes are held twice a week in person on campus, with a limit of 10 students per class. The rest of his classes are online for about two hours per day.

“The school’s teachers are currently in the field and have been for about 40 years,” Fuentes said. “It’s interesting when they show us how they used to do things.”

When he completes the program in 2021, Fuentes plans to take the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification testing.

Deandre Osceola
Deandre Osceola is studying for her associates degree at Oklahoma City Community College. She’s a sophomore and plans to study fashion design in Tulsa after she graduates. Online classes have been a challenge for Osceola.

“It’s easier for me to learn in a classroom setting, to be able to ask questions,” said Osceola, who is from Oklahoma. “Now online, you have to catch your professor during office hours and they don’t always get back to you right away.”

None of her classes are live, so she can take them any time. She interacts with her professors through email.

Osceola’s 4-year-old son Bennett is doing online pre-kindergarten, so she has to find time at home to help him and get her own work done. Her sister-in-law helps with her son or he plays with toys when Osceola is studying. In spite of the challenges, there are some advantages to taking classes from home.

“I like that I’m able to work ahead on my classes and don’t have to wait for it to be assigned,” she said. “I can get my work done whenever I can. When I was on campus, it felt like I was always at school or in the library researching mostly every day of the week. It’s nice being able to spend time with my son at home. And I save money by not putting him in daycare.”

According to Osceola, the worst part about virtual college is not being able to meet new people and make friends in classes.

Amy Johns
Amy Johns is a visiting student at the University of Florida law school and a third-year law student at the University of Montana. The visiting status allows her to still receive her Juris Doctor from UM, where she has a concentration in federal Indian law. She will be a graduate of UM’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law, class of 2021.

The agreement between UF and UM makes it possible for Johns to complete her electives and concentrate on Florida law courses to prepare her for the Florida bar exam in July.

Johns, who is working from home in Brighton, notes one of the challenges of online school is internet connectivity. Decent broadband isn’t available, so she relies on satellite internet. A lack of personal interaction with classmates has also been an adjustment.

“Sometimes you develop camaraderie with classmates and can commiserate on assignments,” said Johns, who also serves as an associate justice on the Seminole Appellate Court. “On Zoom University you only see your classmates when you are logged into class. The ability to lean on each other’s shoulders isn’t there anymore.”

Back and forth exchanges with professors and classmates are also limited online. Some professors are less adept at technology than others, technical glitches are not uncommon and PowerPoint screen sharing doesn’t always work well. Regardless, Johns is confident that when she graduates she will hit the ground running.

Johns said the best part of online learning is the lack of a commute. She just has to walk to her computer. However, discipline is the real key to online learning.

“Treat it like a job,” Johns said. “Get ready for the day, get dressed, have your coffee. Don’t wear pajamas. When you walk into that room that has your computer, it should be like going to work. Take breaks, but put your time in. Read, study and stick to it day after day. It won’t be like this forever. Tomorrow is going to be a better day.”

Cara Osceola
Cara Osceola, a senior at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, is studying sports and exercise science. She isn’t sure what she will do after graduation, but is considering coaching basketball or softball in a middle or high school, learning physical therapy or pursuing a master’s degree in athletic training. She’s in the midst of online learning from home.

“You have to do everything from home and find the motivation yourself,” said Osceola, who is from Oklahoma. “I keep telling myself I’m almost at the finish line.”

While attending college from home, Osceola is home-schooling her 8-year-old son and has a 9-month-old daughter as well.

“I have my hands full,” she said. “But getting to stay home, I don’t have to rush around and get ready for school, take my kids to their school and day care. Most of the work is done on my own time; I like that I can squeeze it in here and there.”

Kaylene Osceola
Kaylene Osceola is studying photography at the Academy of Art University online. She attended Miami International University of Art and Design before transferring to the online program. The biggest challenge for her is staying diligent with her studies.

“…you have to make sure you do the work within the week and meet the deadlines,” Osceola said.

Students are given assignments and have one week to complete them, after which students and the professors participate in online discussions and critiques about each student’s work. Osceola likes the interactions and said she gets the support she needs from teachers and classmates.

However, she misses being in a classroom with students, going on photo assignments together with the teacher and talking to other photographers about their work. But there are some positive aspects of online classes.

“I have more flexibility and freedom,” said Osceola, who is from the Miccosukee reservation. “I don’t have to wake up early and go through Miami traffic to get to school. I can do it when I want to.”

Her goal is to travel to reservations around the country, capture their cultures in photographs and publish them in books.

“I want to educate people about Native Americans,” Osceola said. “I want to give us a voice, preserve our cultures and help other tribes to do it.”

Colton Vazquez
Colton Vazquez is a freshman at Florida Technical College in Kissimmee, where he studies culinary arts and hospitality. He’s been drinking a lot of coffee to help him with the challenges of online school.

“Focusing and staying on top of the ball and communicating with teachers are the most important things,” said Vazquez, who lives about 30 minutes from the campus. “There is no hands-on cooking yet, but they are preparing us for that. I was expecting to make friends; we are trying to do our best on live chat, but social interaction isn’t really happening. Sooner or later, everyone will be in the kitchen together.”

Despite the challenges, Vazquez said communication with the teachers is really good and they are helpful when students ask for help.

“You just have to ask for help when you need it,” he said. “Once you get your mindset right, it will all fall into place. Ask questions, that’s the most important part. And drink coffee.”

Aaron Tommie
Aaron Tommie is a graduate student at the University of Florida and will graduate with a Masters of Business Administration degree in December. This is the first time he’s taken classes online, which is more of a challenge than being in the classroom.

“I like to be around people and I feel I learn a lot more in person,” said Tommie, who lives off reservation in Broward County. “The interaction and engagement isn’t the same and classes are shorter. A lot of the classes in person were discussion based. Online isn’t the same, there isn’t as much participation in discussions.”

The curriculum includes group projects, which Tommie and the other students adjusted to easily through Zoom, Slack and WhatsApp. But the students don’t spend time physically together, as they did in the past. Instead they meet a couple of times a week online, communicate daily and provide each other updates on the group project.

However, Tommie enjoys the convenience of online classes.

“I don’t have to get up and drive to class,” he said. “Communicating with professors through email and telephone calls has improved because there are no in-person interactions. They are more available outside of office hours. If I email a question, they respond quickly and more in-depth.”

Rochelle Osceola
Rochelle Osceola, is a junior at Everglades University and is working toward her Bachelor of Science degree in alternative medicine. As a two-time cancer survivor, she is glad to be here.

Osceola and her two children, one in kindergarten and the other an 11th-grader, live on the Hollywood Reservation. She was originally at the school’s campus but switched to online right before the pandemic hit.

“It’s easier to accommodate our schedules,” Osceola said. “I can log in anytime. Being organized is the best way to do online school. Student life doesn’t seem to exist, instead it all revolves around family life. I’m not in touch with friends from school.”

Some of the challenges of online learning are making time to read the books and not having the professor there in person to help her through things.

“The professors have time for online students on the telephone or email,” Osceola said. “They are really good at it. You have more work online than in the classroom and every day you have to participate in discussion groups so they can take attendance.”

After graduation, Osceola would like to work in the Tribe’s integrated health department or become a cancer advocate.

“I feel like a lot of people aren’t aware of alternative medicine, but you can integrate it together and use fewer pharmaceutical drugs. It’s about using herbs, yoga, meditation and diet. Alternative medicine is more preventative than anything.”

Marissa Osceola

Marissa Osceola is a pre-med student at Florida Southwestern State College in Fort Myers. After she earns her associate’s degree, she plans to transfer to a university in North Carolina, preferably Duke.

This is her first experience taking online classes and said one of the challenges is being able to make connections with teachers.

“I’m very much a learner by explaining or having conversations about the topic,” said Osceola, who is from Naples. “You don’t get to speak in class or to other students online, but you can have student to teacher interactions.”

As a mother of two, Osceola appreciates the flexibility of being able to control her schedule. Since everything is assigned on a weekly basis, she can complete the coursework on her own schedule within the week. Students have a 24-hour window in which to take the exams.

Although there isn’t much of a student life, Osceola attends seminars and lectures for extra credit. One lecture was by a professor from Harvard University who spoke about how Covid and evolution are related.

“You can study Covid through evolution and see how closely or not this strain of the virus is compared to other virus strands,” Osceola said. “You can track its progression to this point and study the virus the same way you study anything else in evolution. This is something we wouldn’t get without Zoom; more people are available now to do more of these Zoom talks.”

But overall, Osceola said virtual school is an isolating experience.

“I could be at any school, not just FSW,” she said. “When I’m with classmates, I get a sense of community. Not being able to bond over our struggles with online learning is a hard thing to get used to. Online learning is an adjustment for me and for the teachers as well.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at