Class of 2023 looks back on pandemic, college experiences

As graduation approaches, seniors are reflecting on their experiences and time spent at Virginia Wesleyan. In the past four years, a pandemic disrupted the world, a tumultuous presidential election heightened polarization and rising costs of living tightened and stressed budgets. Despite these challenges, students completed their course requirements, participated in student activities and made the most of their years at VWU. 

When the class of 2023 enrolled at VWU and moved in during August 2019, they were not expecting COVID-19, which resulted in remote learning to finish their first Spring semester and stringent regulations when they returned to campus. 

The Fall 2020 semester came with daily health screenings, carry-out only from the Boyd Dining Center, masking requirements and a ban on social gatherings on and off campus. 

After going remote that Thanksgiving and January Term, an announcement on April 27, 2021 from President Miller stated the requirement of the COVID-19 vaccination prior to returning to campus for the Fall 2021 Semester. Students who did not provide their vaccination record prior to the deadline were not permitted on campus and were withdrawn according to institutional policy. Limited exceptions, for medical or religious reasons, were considered on a case-by-case basis.

As rules that regulated in-person gatherings lessened, masks remained until after the COVID-19 booster requirement on February 28, 2022. 

Senior Paul Jordan, an Earth and Environmental Sciences major from Charlottesville, Virginia remembered college before the pandemic, how much COVID-19 changed things and that his senior year had redeeming qualities. 

During his first day on campus, he remembered a speech from Taylor (Tip) Major ‘20, the Student Government Association president at the time. 

“He said, ‘Well, this school is so small that if you say “hi” to everyone that walks by you, you’ll eventually know everyone,’ and that really stuck with me,” Jordan said. 

After that speech and the other orientation sessions, Jordan went to Major because of his advice and asked him “what frat is the most lit?” where Major pointed out Phi Kappa Tau. Later that semester, they both joined the fraternity. 

According to Jordan, the worst part of the era of strict regulations on campus was “the mentality of everyone and the way it was kind of like Salem Witch Trials. We weren’t looking out for each other. We were just looking out for ourselves. It was a lot harder to meet people and it probably alienated a lot of people from the rest of the school.”

Jordan did consider transferring but felt like he was in too deep to leave, especially knowing not all of his credits would directly transfer over to another university. Instead, he “made the best of it, the best of a not-too-good situation.” 

As rules on campus lessened, the number of student activities-hosted events and competitions increased. This led to Jordan’s winning spree of taking home a Yeti cooler and flatscreen television from the belly flop and kickball distance contests, respectively. 

He also hopes that Mud Games will be switched back from the newly created Sud Games. He also enjoyed the Phi Tau Fest held on March 24 and labels that as his favorite event. 

Jordan’s advice to underclassmen is to say “hello” to everyone in order to meet others as well as to become a beach lifeguard. 

“A lot of people miss out on the best part of the year in Virginia Beach, which is the summer, so I lucked out by taking a summer class and working at the beach all summer,” Jordan said. “That made me happier at school because I had that going for me. It gave me more purpose and pride in who I am.”

Additionally, at VWU, he learned who he wants to be from making mistakes. “I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes in college, like not really focusing on my academics and focusing on more of the social side of things,” Jordan said.

Knowing what he knows now, he would work harder and surround himself with more positive people. 

His post-graduation plans include being contracted with the Navy and going to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S) on June 5. For him, it has been a lifelong goal to become a Navy SEAL. 

Overall, Jordan is glad to be moving on but will miss VWU. He will come back to visit under one condition, “when I’m invited back as an honored guest.”

Senior Chloe Dewberry, a Business major from Chesapeake, Virginia was a member of the Women’s Swimming team for all four years. 

During the Fall 2020 semester, the team was not able to compete, but still practiced. “We were limited to one athlete per lane and then we had to go every other lane. We were pretty much six feet apart the whole time,” Dewberry said. 

Once competitions started up again, the swimmers had to walk straight up to the starting block with masks on, take them off to compete and then put them back on as soon as they exited the pool. 

“We were soaking wet with our masks on but we all kind of just put up with it because we knew that it was either that or we don’t swim,” Dewberry said.

Her favorite course was Marketing Principles with Dr. Linda Ferguson where she had the chance to increase her knowledge beyond accounting.

The most challenging obstacle during college for Dewberry was overcoming the sense of being on her own.

“Even though I’m not far away from home, I had to become really independent and it happens very fast and you don’t realize it when it’s happening,” Dewberry said. “But now that I’m looking back on my four years, I can see the type of person I was when I came to college and I’m so comfortable with being on my own.”

Dewberry has been accepted to work at TowneBank in their three-year Leadership Program and looks forward to remaining connected with VWU Athletics to support her friends and coaches and coming back to alumni events. 

Senior Joey Lee, a Sport and Recreation Management major from Fairfax, Virginia, played on the Men’s Basketball team and will be coming back to VWU for a fifth year. He will be a graduate assistant for the team while he completes the Master of Business Administration program.

He had an enjoyable season his freshman year, but things changed because of COVID-19 as he was unable to build relationships as much as he wanted to. 

“Covid affected my teammates because I had a lot of teammates who came in as freshmen and that whole class left except for one person, Eric Rowland,” Lee said. “So, we lost a lot of recruits because of that, and that definitely hurt because I was close with a lot of them.”

He believes VWU handled the pandemic the best it could and understands it was a difficult situation to manage, but recognizes the impact it had on his social life. 

Senior Joey Lee against Guilford College in the ODAC tournament in Feb. 2022. Ryan Hunt | Courtesy

“I remember my sophomore year, going out to eat to spend time with people and being in each other’s cars eating Cook Out or being outside with each other. We had to make do because we couldn’t be in each other’s rooms and that was the worst part,” Lee said. “I think that’s what caused a lot of people to leave or transfer because they didn’t get that initial college experience.”

Regarding classes, a lot of his were online or hybrid, which made it difficult to learn the course material. “I think teachers did the best they could but at a certain point, everyone was just trying to move on,” Lee said. 

His favorite professors are Dr. Joyce Howell, who taught art history courses and Dr. Jill Sturts, who taught sport and recreation classes. “I’ve had her [Sturts] throughout my entirety here and I always call her my second mom on campus. She’s always there for me if I text her or need anything. She’s been super supportive and she’s the best,” Lee said. 

His advice to underclassmen is to meet as many people as they can in order to find their friend group where they can be comfortable and have fun. Lee’s future goal is to be a high school physical education teacher and coach high school basketball. 

Senior Sierra Curney, a Hispanic Studies and International Studies double major and member of the Batten Honors College from Virginia Beach, Virginia, feels bittersweet about graduating because she will not be directly down the hall from her closest friends anymore, but is excited to enter the next chapter of her life. 

During the remote learning aspect of the pandemic, she found the educational impact to be more of an obstacle than the social impact. “However, I think the fact that my cohort had a semester under our belts before being sent home helped with the social hurdles COVID-19 presented.”

As a result, she was able to stay in contact with friends she had already made and reunited with them when everyone came back to campus.

Her favorite memory remains studying abroad in Murcia, Spain during the Fall 2022 Semester. “It was a time for me to grow personally and professionally in a different environment than the VWU campus,” Curney said. 

Senior Sierra Curney visits Budapest, Hungary during her semester abroad. Sierra Curney | Courtesy

Curney’s advice to others is to not let opportunities like internships and study abroad pass by and to start seeking them as early as possible to maximize their time in college. 

Due to Dr. Anjte Schwennicke’s International Law & Organizations, she narrowed down what she wanted to concentrate on in graduate school, which is international law and human rights. Curney plans on taking a gap semester and starting graduate school in the spring. She hopes to work for the State Department and then eventually the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). 

Senior Emily Petsko, an Earth and Environmental Sciences major from Stephens City, Virginia, is excited about graduation but is also nervous about the uncertainty of what comes next. She was disappointed that her freshman year was cut short and the challenges that remote learning had on her education.

“I feel like COVID-19 really put a damper on my college experience, but it was also a great learning experience,” Petsko said. “I learned to adapt to the changes in my education, work and social experiences.”

As a member of the Cross Country and Track teams, Petsko’s favorite memories with her team were at the championship matches, especially the ODAC Championship this year. 

“Our team was so positive and supportive,” Petsko said. “I loved having my last season come to such a great end after all of my hard work.”

Additionally, being a member of Marlins Go Green, the VWU environmental conservation organization, was a key part of her experience. Her favorite memories with the organization were the Earth Day Fair it hosted last year as well as its invasive species removal events. 

“We had such a great turnout, and everyone that came had a great time. It made me happy that our event could reach so many people,” Petsko said. She also loved improving the campus environment as the forests can be overrun by invasive plants, especially English ivy and privet. 

Her advice to underclassmen is to get involved in campus groups to meet people with similar interests. Petsko plans to work in the environmental science field, specifically with water quality or in environmental consulting. 

The Baccalaureate Service will take place on Friday, May 12 with speaker Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 13 with President and CEO of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Hilary Harp Falk. Visit for more information.

By Connor Merk