‘By far my most challenging semester’ Livingston Parish natives discuss last semester as LSU students during COVID-19 pandemic

News

BATON ROUGE, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – Since he started going to LSU, Brandon Means’ life has been on campus.

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As a student, that’s where he’d complete homework and group projects, where he’d study for finals, where he’d talk to his professors, where he’d work toward his business management degree.

Even when he wasn’t in class or doing school work, Means could still be found on campus. He was heavily involved in organizations such as Student Government, Leadership LSU, or LSU Ambassadors. As an Ambassador, his uniform included a pen that read, “Experience LSU.”

And then there were walks through The Quad and Free Speech Alley, lunch breaks at the Student Union, hanging out in the B.E.C., or Saturday nights in Death Valley.

When it came to campus, Means hardly left.

“I was always on campus doing anything and everything,” he told The News.

But campus life changed completely for Means and thousands of other students on March 12, when LSU Interim President Tom Galligan announced that the university would transition to online classes starting the following Monday to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. That transition would last the rest of the semester.

So with only weeks left as an LSU student, Means would no longer be allowed on his “home away from home,” which made life much more difficult as he finished his last semester of college.

“That was a massive adjustment for me to juggle school while not being in that environment,” said Means, a 2015 graduate of Live Oak High. “Typically your last semester is supposed to be easy and laid back, but I tell people this was by far my most challenging semester.”

That sentiment is shared by countless LSU other students who are wrapping up what has been a trying semester during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has reached more than 33,000 cases and 2,350 deaths in Louisiana.

Instead of students and professors walking back and forth across the university’s picturesque 650-plus acres just south of downtown Baton Rouge, campus has been mostly silent for two months.

While LSU recently announced a phased reopening plan that will bring some people— mostly “critical personnel” — back to campus in a limited capacity, it’s unsure if campus will bustle as it once did when the fall semester gets underway.

The News spoke to a few Livingston Parish natives who will graduate this spring, albeit not in the way they had originally envisioned when the semester started in January. All considered this to be “a challenging” semester, both emotionally and academically, while commending LSU and specifically their professors for ensuring that no one was left behind.

Senior Mary-Claire Johnson said she had to learn “six new syllabi” when professors were forced to alter their teaching methods to an online format. An English major, Johnson said most of her classes were intended to be discussion-based, meaning professors had to add “a lot more essays” to make sure students understood the material.

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“Organizing six new syllabi is very difficult, especially at the end when you’re trying to do your finals,” Johnson said. “The whole first week was me constantly emailing teachers asking if I’m doing everything right. We had to take things out, add things in. So it was a big adjustment, and a lot more papers.”

Besides the added difficulties on her academics, Johnson said she was unprepared for her time on campus to end “so soon” and before she had a chance to properly thank some of her “inspiring” professors.

“It was sad because that Friday (March 13) was my last day to walk on campus and be an LSU Tiger,” she said. “I have a few inspiring professors that I’ve taken multiple times and I wanted to thank them for all they did for me, but I didn’t really get to do that in person.”

Ashlyn Polito, a political science major, also said her discussion-based courses were switched to an online format, which made the last semester much more difficult even though her course load was relatively light with 10 hours. She also had to “double down” on communication with her professors to make up for the lack of face-to-face meetings.

However, the closing of LSU gave Polito a chance to take uninterrupted graduation photos in her cap and gown around campus.

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“No one was on campus, so that worked out pretty well,” she said with a laugh.

Like Means, Polito was also heavily involved with campus life, and what stung her the most was knowing what she’d be forced to miss from her final semester in the Alpha Phi sorority, such as her Senior Tea and her last Formal event.

And that doesn’t include just being able to spend time with her sorority sisters, who she hasn’t seen in months and likely won’t again as they all go their separate ways.

“You have all of your last events and seniors things, and then they all get completely cancelled,” she said. “I totally understand why they had to be cancelled, but it still hurt that they were.”

Polito is set to graduate this spring and begin graduate school in the fall at Texas A&M, but even that is “up in the air” as colleges across the country determine if they’ll resume face-to-face instruction in August and September or continue with virtual learning.

“It’s hard to determine if I have to move to another state like I planned to originally or stay if it’s going to be totally online,” she said. “Everything’s just up in the air.”

Means is facing a similar predicament, having accepted a job in Houston that starts in July but unable to look at apartments in person.

“It’s very difficult to do things virtually that way, so there’s stress knowing that I’m moving in less than two months without actually seeing an apartment,” he said. “But I have a lot to be grateful for.”

For more than 4,300 seniors, the moment they’ve worked four years — and in some cases, longer — for was altered on March 24, when Galligan announced that this year’s spring commencement ceremonies were being cancelled from their traditional format, citing “the safety and well-being of everyone in our LSU community.”

However, LSU is holding a virtual graduation ceremony on Facebook Live starting at 10 a.m. on Friday, May 15. The ceremony will feature remarks from Galligan and LSU alumni as well as performances from Grammy award-winner Lauren Daigle, who will sing the national anthem, and opera star (not to mention LSU alum) Lisette Oropesa, who will lead the LSU Alma Mater.

Along with the virtual ceremony, LSU will honor its 4,347 graduates by displaying all of their names in Tiger Stadium.

Polito isn’t sure if she’ll watch, saying she’s “kind of accepted you’re just getting your diploma in the mail.”

Johnson said she and her parents will be tuning in on Friday, one day before her family and friends come together for a crawfish boil to celebrate her achievement.

Means said he’s “definitely watching” and is planning to get together with “a group of close friends” to watch together. They may even wear their caps and gowns to “enjoy the moment.”

“This one day is something you’ve worked for four years to get to,” he said. “I was really upset at first when they made the decision [to cancel graduation], but again, I think LSU has been very accommodating with that.

“I can’t be too upset because I have a lot to look forward to.”

David Gray | The News

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