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Seniors on remote thesis projects, cancelled Commencement and college careers cut short

Dawn-Hunter Strobel

Lifestyles editor

All Willamette students have had to adjust their expectations for the end of their year with the switch to online learning, but one group that has been hit particularly hard by the changes is the cohort of graduating students in the middle of their thesis classes. For many, the switch to online learning has been a significant obstacle to getting work done, but all who were interviewed believe they will be able to complete a finished product in time for the end of the year. Alongside the stress of thesis, seniors also reported mourning the loss of their final few months at Willamette.

Joya Biebel (‘20) is a film major in the studio art thesis class who will no longer be able to present her work in the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at the end of the year. 

“After having worked on it for six months and having it be just completely cut off so close to the end was really heartbreaking,” she said. “Losing our studio spaces was really sad. We had to pack all that up. It’s just really unsatisfying. I know my parents are really bummed that they won’t be able to go to a show. I had a whole bunch of family that was going to come.” 

Biebel’s work has had to change format from an in-person installation to an online showcase, where most of her work is shown through videos on a website that the class is building. The class is still planning to have an in-person installation at some point over the summer or next spring, but the details of what that will look like have yet to be finalized. 

Yaakov “Koby” Wood (‘20) is a history major whose thesis requires him to work with physical archive collections in the library. However, as the news came out about switching to online classes and that the library was closing, he made electronic copies of everything he needed from the archives. 

“It took like two and a half days of just sitting in the library and taking pictures of everything. [With the library’s machine] you have to load it up and scan it over and over. But I’m glad I did that, because now I have access to that digitally here [at home],” he said. 

Wood’s lack of access to the library has prevented him from accessing books that other historians have written about the time period he is researching. “A big part of a history thesis is placing your thesis within the context of the greater historiography of that subject, and I can’t really do that because I don’t have access to that other literature as much,” Wood said. “What really matters is where I’m placing it between all the books that I need to place it between, and I don’t really have access to books, so that’s the biggest hindrance.” 

For Reagan Dreiling (‘20), most of her experimentation for her biochemistry thesis was done before spring break, so losing access to the labs did not fundamentally change her work. However, she said, “My situation with my experiments aren’t the same as everybody else’s. Some could have been working on them sooner and some later, or maybe were counting on this time to do it.” 

All seniors interviewed reported difficulty working once online learning began. Natasha Milligan (‘20), a Japanese major, reported not working on her thesis for three weeks after online classes started. 

“It was terrible. Everyone’s feeling a lot of different things right now, but I personally was very worried and very anxious and very stressed. So I kind of hit a roadblock with my thesis. Even though we had class on Zoom… I don’t even know what I did in that hour period, to be honest. I was just so stuck,” she said. 

Jasper Jones (‘20), who works for the Collegian, reported a similar experience with her creative writing thesis. “I didn’t do any work for two weeks. Creative work in general can be really stressful. You get in your head a lot thinking that you’re not good enough or that this will amount to nothing. Some days waking up and feeling totally fine and other days waking up just knowing that there’s gonna be no way you can get yourself to get up and work.” 

Wood reported running into difficulty putting effort into his thesis because of a lack of access to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) medication. “I’ve switched healthcares to the school healthcare option and that means that I have to go to a doctor who has to recertify my prescription, but I can’t go to a doctor to get my prescription recertified [because of COVID-19],” he said. “It would be so great if we just had universal healthcare and I could just go in and go ‘Hi, I have ADD, these are my records, please give me a prescription.’” This situation has resulted in Wood having to calculate which days to use his medication in order to have medication during the times he needs it more than others.

Despite the difficulties, these seniors said they felt supported by their advisors. Biebel noted that she was very grateful for Professor Alexandra Opie’s support in the midst of all the other work she has to do as the chair of the studio art department. 

According to Wood, his advisor Seth Cotlar has been “really accommodating and very understanding and very pragmatic about the realities of the pandemic and what all of his students, not just me, have access to.” 

Dreiling said one of her professors talked with her over Zoom for an hour to help her download data analysis software onto her computer that she otherwise would have been able to access in Olin.

Though all who were interviewed reported feeling that they would be able to finish their theses on time, many expressed sadness about their time at Willamette ending as it is. 

Jones said her experience with thesis has been wrapped up in a lot of grief. “I wanted to have graduation and those events that celebrate me and my accomplishments because I feel like we all deserve to be celebrated, and a lot of that was wrapped up with my thesis for me. I’ve been waiting to have the chance and the space to be able to create something like this.” She then added, “I’m doing this task that is definitely the hardest thing that I’ve ever done on top of going through the hardest part in my life.”

Dreiling said, “Sometimes I’ll be scrolling through Facebook and see one of my professor’s profiles or a picture of everybody from when we were all living in the dorms, and it’ll hit me again that I don’t get to have the quality goodbyes to these people that I would like to have. I don’t know when I’ll see everybody again. I feel like all of our goodbyes got cut short.” She added with a laugh, “I didn’t know my last Bistro cookie would be my last.”

For Milligan, the cancellation of graduation was very sad because she is a first generation college student. “Graduation itself was a really big thing for me, and being able to have my parents come to my university and see where I’ve been living and see my professors was really a big thing for me, so not having that was really hard,” she said. 

For Wood, celebrating the end of his college career with his family and friends was also a big deal. “I was really looking forward to all of my housemates' families being here and all of us meeting each other, my parents meeting my housemates, and all of us hanging out and, honestly just drinking together and eating together and enjoying our last week celebrating together during that week after finals are over.” 

For graduating seniors, the task of completing a project that is meant to be the cumulation of their time in college in the midst of a global crisis is no small feat. Many have had to work around lack of access to library and lab materials, as well as the end of year showcases that were intended to be the bulk of their thesis presentations. All seniors have had to juggle transitioning to working online with the stress of entering the workforce in an uncertain economy. The difficulty of the circumstances does not affect everyone in the same way, but those interviewed reported that they would continue to march on in the face of uncertainty. 

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