Tag Archive for Class of 2022

Student Researchers Discover Potential “Plastic-Eating” Bacteria on Campus

Chloe De Palo '22

Chloe De Palo ’22 explains how potential plastic-degrading bacteria were collected from a soil sample at Long Lane Farm.

A team of researchers at Wesleyan has discovered new strains of bacteria—located on the University’s campus—that may have the ability to break down microplastics and aid in the world’s ongoing plastic waste crisis.

Microplastics, which measure less than .20 of an inch, enter the ecosystem— and our bodies— largely through the abrasion of larger plastic pieces dumped into the environment. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, the average person consumes at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and inhales a similar quantity.

“Plastic is typically classified as a non-biodegradable substance. However, some bacteria have proven themselves to be capable of metabolizing plastics,” said Chloe De Palo ’22. “Ultimately, through our research and experiments, we hope to find an effective method of removing plastic pollutants from the environment.”

Fatai Olabemiwo

Fatai Olabemiwo

De Palo ’22, along with Rachel Hsu ’23; Claudia Kunney ’24; and biology PhD candidate Fatai Olabemiwo are members of the Cohan Laboratory in Microbiology, led by Fred Cohan, Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology. The team has spent almost two years working on a project titled “Isolating Potential Plastic Degraders from a Winogradsky Column.” They presented their most recent findings at Wesleyan’s Summer Research Poster Session.

On March 7, 2020 the research team gathered soil samples from Wesleyan’s Long Lane Farm. They placed samples of the agricultural soil, along with plastic strips, inside a modified Winogradsky column, a microbiological tool for culturing broad microbial diversity. The device—invented by Russian scientist Sergei Winogradsky in the 1880s—is still commonly used today to culture bacteria from natural soil and sediments.

project

Pictured is a Winogradsky column on day 1 (March 7, 2020) and day 496 (June 28, 2021)

“We modified this wonderful device to yield a range of plastic degrades by placing plastic strips at four different zones inside the column,” Olabemiwo explained. “Then we added a medium called Bushnell-Haas Broth, which contains all the requirements for the growth of the microbes except for carbon, to the modified device.”

Now that the columns are sealed, it’s time to wait—for 16 months.

“During this time, we expected the bacteria to ‘tickle’ the strips and eventually adhere to the strips,” Olabemiwo said.

The experiment worked surprisingly well. After 496 days in the soil-broth mixture, Cohan Lab members removed the plastic strips aseptically. Not only did they weigh less, proving that bacteria were effectively decomposing the plastic, but the strips also hosted a diverse community of bacteria from which the lab members isolated 146 strains.

While the majority of the bacteria cultures could be identified through the National Center for Biotechnological Information (NCBI) taxonomy browser, the researchers learned that 24 were discovered species but not characterized and classified, and 28 were novel, undiscovered species.

“We’ll actually be naming them, genomically sequencing them, and adding them to the NCBI taxonomy browser, ” Cohan said.

Now that each bacterium is isolated, the Cohan Lab is working this fall to confirm their potential plastic-degrading abilities by feeding them minute plastic discs in a petri dish. If confirmed, the “plastic-eaters” could help biotechnological companies create a product that could remove microplastics from the environment.

Rachel Hsu '23, Kunney, Chloe De Palo '22

Rachel Hsu ’23, Chloe De Palo ’22, and Claudia Kunney ’24 are the undergraduate researchers working on the project.

bacteria

Rachel Hsu, a biology and psychology double major, holds samples of the isolated bacteria in a petri dish.

Scientific Images of Nanoparticles, Colliding Stars, Learned Words Win Annual Contest

We had 13 submissions this year.

Thirteen students, majoring in chemistry, physics, astronomy, molecular biology and biochemistry, biology, neuroscience and behavior, psychology, and quantitative analysis submitted images for the 2021 Scientific Imaging Contest.

At first glance, a viewer sees a single image of pink-tinted cubes, resembling a bacteria culture from high school biology.

But upon closer examination, the viewer begins to see a series of other shapes—triangles to hexahedrons to tetahexahedraons (cubes with four-sided pyramids on each face).

“If you stare at this image for a while, you can see that it’s actually a series of five images in the top row, and five images on the bottom row, and each of these images show us nanoparticles that are made of gold and copper,” said Brian Northrop, professor of chemistry. “It’s intriguing, captivating, and visually very interesting.”

The image, which depicts bimetallic gold-copper (Au-Cu) nanoparticles synthesized with varying concentrations and amounts of sodium iodide, was created by Jessica Luu ’24 using a scanning electron microscope. It also was the first place winner in Wesleyan’s 2021 Scientific Imaging Contest.

Jessica Luu

Jessica Luu ’24 took first place with a series of 10 images of bimetallic gold-copper (Au-Cu) nanoparticles synthesized with varying concentrations and amounts of sodium iodide. They were imaged using a scanning electron microscope (SEM).

The annual contest, spearheaded by Wesleyan’s College of Integrative Sciences, encourages students to submit images and descriptions of the research that they’ve been conducting over the summer.

Shu Tokita Prize Winners Reid ’22, Choi ’22 Use Literature to Cope with POC Experiences

tokita

East Asian studies major Jasmyn Choi ’22, at left, and English and African American studies double major Jada Reid ’22 are the recipients of the 2021 Shu Tokita Prize, established by friends and relatives of Shu Tokita ’84. The prize is awarded annually to a student of color majoring in literature, in area studies, or a language major with a focus on literature, who demonstrates financial need. They received their awards during a virtual reception on June 23. 

Jasmyn Choi ’22 vividly recalls when her Korean-born mother was pulled over by police in Los Angeles 12 years ago. Rather than speaking to the driver, who had broken English, the officer leaned into the vehicle to question 8-year-old Jasmyn instead. Jasmyn, after all, had “perfect” English.

“I’ve always dealt with the particular trauma of strangers diminishing my mother’s intelligence because of her accent,” Choi recalls. “I tremble in anger thinking of the times she’s had her voice stolen from her. We both sat in the car in oppressive silence, yet it was comforting because silence is all we have been trained to know.”

Growing up in a white flight suburb, Choi grew accustomed to overt and covert racism, and most recently, tried to comfort her mother’s insecurities about not feeling safe due to comments made about the “Chinese virus.” As Asian women, Choi says, “the depth of our pain is an immense chasm from which to fall deeper and deeper into. We are trapped in the eternal, isolating birdcage of ourselves.”

Barnes ’22, Du ’22 Receive ASBMB Undergraduate Research Award

Lily Barnes ’22 and Amy Du ’22 are recipients of the 2021 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Undergraduate Research Award. They will each receive $1,000 to support summer project research. Both students are members of Wesleyan’s ASBMB chapter.

Barnes works in the lab of Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Teresita Padilla-Benavides, and Du works in the lab of Fisk Professor of Natural Science and Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Ishita Mukerji.

Following the research Barnes and Du conduct in their respective labs, each will submit a report to the ASBMB summarizing their findings.

Students Receive 2021 Academic Prizes, Scholarships, Fellowships

monogramThis month, the Office of Student Affairs presented the 2021 student prizes. The recipients and awards include:

George H. Acheson and Grass Foundation Prize in Neuroscience

Established in 1992 by a gift from the Grass Foundation, this prize is awarded to an outstanding undergraduate in the Neuroscience and Behavior Program who demonstrates excellence in the program and who also shows promise for future contributions in the field of neuroscience.

  • Kian Caplan 2021
  • Ana Finnerty-Haggerty 2021
  • Andrew Northrop 2021
  • Fitzroy “Pablo” Wickham 2021

Alumni Prize in the History of Art

Established by Wesleyan alumni and awarded to a senior who has demonstrated special aptitude in the history of art and who has made a substantive contribution to the major.

  • Nia Felton 2021
  • Riley Richards 2021

American Chemical Society Analytical Award

Awarded for excellence in analytical chemistry.

  • Cole Harris 2021

American Chemical Society Connecticut Valley Section Award

Awarded for outstanding achievement to a graduating chemistry major.

  • Emma Shapiro 2021

American Chemical Society Undergraduate Award in Inorganic Chemistry

Awarded to an undergraduate student in inorganic chemistry to recognize achievement and encourage further study in the field.

  • Abrar Habib 2021

American Chemical Society Undergraduate Award in Organic Chemistry

Awarded to a senior who has displayed a significant aptitude for organic chemistry

  • Niels Vizgan GRAD

American Chemical Society Undergraduate Award in Physical Chemistry

Awarded in recognition of outstanding achievement by undergraduate students in physical chemistry, and to encourage further pursuits in the field.

2 Staff, 1 Student Receives Peter Morgenstern-Clarren ’03 Social Justice Awards

Mario Torres

Mario Torres

The Peter Morgenstern-Clarren ’03 Social Justice Awards recognize students and staff members who promote social justice and activism on campus and beyond. This year, the staff recipients are Mario Torres, who works for Physical Plant, and Astrid Vidal, a Service Management Group employee who works in residence halls. The student recipient is Kevonte Payton ’22.

The award was created in memory of Morgenstern-Clarren, who dedicated his time on campus to social justice.

His activism included securing benefits for Wesleyan custodial staff, participating in the United Student and Labor Action Committee, and contributing his leadership to the campus chapter of Amnesty International,” the award description reads. “We are grateful to Dr. Hadley Morgenstern-Clarren and The Honorable Pat Morgenstern-Clarren for their generosity in sponsoring this award honoring their son’s activism for the public good.”

Each recipient will receive a $1,500 prize.

Mario Torres serves as a materials handler for Physical Plant and is actively involved in student life on campus, notably through Forklift Danceworks, which uses performance and storytelling to shine light on essential workers.

“Mario has been instrumental in helping with location selection, working with students directly, attending meetings, giving up personal time, and being a mentor to myriad students over the years via this program [Fork Lift],” Director of Physical Plant Operations Michael Conte wrote to the award committee. “The program continues this semester as it has for the past 5 years or so. Mario has been along for the ride since its inception and has provided invaluable service to this program.”

Astrid Vidal works diligently to keep residence halls on campus clean and shares her positive energy with the students she sees on a daily basis. Especially during the pandemic, her work has been essential to keeping campus open.

“I have worked with her and actually seen the work she does – clean every bathroom, every study room, wipe every window, take out all the heavy trash bags even as an older woman,” Tamara Riviera ’21 wrote to the award committee. “While doing all this strenuous work, she still manages to smile and stay positive. I could not imagine doing it all myself. We appreciate our professors on campus for providing us with education, but Astrid deserves this award for providing students with back-breaking work in order to keep the campus running.”

Kevonte Payton ’22

Kevonte Payton ’22

Kevonte Payton ’22 is a double major in government and history. He is involved with three hip-hop dance groups, Fusion, Xtasy, and Troupe, was a research assistant for Professor Wendy Rayack, and served as Wesleyan’s Questbridge Chapter President for the 2020-2021 academic year.

“Academically, Kevonte has chosen to take classes and pursue research projects that explore social justice issues, such as race, education, employment, and incarceration in the black community,” Senior Assistant Dean of Admission Jane Tran wrote. “Recently, Kevonte shared with me he was selected by the Meigs History Society to perform research for the local Middletown museum pertaining to black-owned barbershops. These businesses were overlooked, deemed unimportant by history as their records, stories do not exist. Through this studentship opportunity, he plans to bring them back to life.”

Additionally, when the pandemic hit, Payton started a tutoring and teaching service in his community.

“This small program that I started cost families nothing because I wanted to give back to my community and take down this barrier because of the lack of financial resources,” Payton wrote in his personal statement for the award.

He emphasized that he tried to help the kids he worked with in as many capacities as he could.

“I did everything from ACT prep for high school students to math and writing workshops, helped with FAFSA, and even made personalized plans for some students who needed extra help,” Payton wrote. “I tried my best to fill every role that I could, from teacher to college counselor, so that students in my community would not fall as behind as we already were compared to other communities. I met with students as often as their parents would let me.”

Lin ’22 Wins Poster Award for Work on DNA, Chromosomes, and Gene Regulation

Shawn Lin '22

Shawn H. Lin ’22

Shawn H. Lin ’22 is the recipient of a 2021 poster award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s 25th Annual Undergraduate Poster Competition. Lin’s poster took the prize in Category 3: DNA, Chromosomes and Gene Regulation.

This is the second poster award Lin has won this year. In March, he was honored with the Biophysical Society’s Undergraduate Poster Award for his work titled “Elucidation of Interactions Between Integration Host Factor and a DNA Four-Way Junction.”

Lin is a Freeman Asian Scholar from Taiwan and is majoring in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (MB&B). Lin also works in the labs of his advisors, Ishita Mukerji, Fisk Professor of Natural Science and professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and Candice Etson, assistant professor of physics.

Lin, along with four other students, has recently been inducted into the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Honor Society.

5 Students Inducted Into American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Honor Society

ASBMBThis year, five Wesleyan students were inducted into the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Honor Society. Thirty-one students nationwide were given this honor.

Inducted students must be juniors or seniors with a GPA of 3.4 or higher on a 4.0 scale, belong to a student chapter of the ASBMB, and “demonstrate exceptional achievement in academics, undergraduate research and science outreach,” according to the website.

The inducted students include the following:

Nour-Saïda Harzallah ’21, a College of Integrative Sciences student majoring in molecular biology & biochemistry (MB&B) and physics. Harzallah, from Tunisia, works in Professor Francis Starr’s physics lab, belongs to the Wesleyan Women in Science steering committee, and is a STEM intern for the Office of Equity and Inclusion.

“Her involvement in racial and gender equity in STEM has shaped her commitment to work on projects that serve the underrepresented and marginalized outside the lab and from the lab bench,” reads her ASBMB bio. “Her wildest dream is to develop initiatives that translate cutting-edge technologies into accessible and marketable means of diagnosis and therapeutics in her home country of Tunisia.”

Jack Kwon ’21, who works with Professor of Biology Michael Weir to study the ribosome.

“We are aiming to elucidate the function of a highly conserved region of the ribosome called the “CAR interaction surface” through wet lab experiments and dry lab Molecular Dynamics simulations,” Kwon wrote in his ASBMB bio. Kwon intends to graduate with a master’s degree in MB&B through Wesleyan’s BA/MA program before pursuing a PhD in a related field.

Shawn Lin ’22, who is majoring in biology, MB&B, and biophysics. Lin works in the MB&B lab of Professor Ishita Mukerji and the physics lab of Professor Candice Etson.

“His research topic is “Elucidation of interactions between integration host factor and a DNA four-way junction,” reads Lin’s ASBMB bio. “In addition to research, he is also the founder of NORDSAC (National Organization for Rare Disorders Student Association Connecticut). The goal of this organization is to raise awareness of rare disorders among students in Connecticut through fundraising, guest lectures, and rare disease day events.”

Alex Poppel, a master’s student in the MB&B department. Poppell works in Professor Amy MacQueen’s MB&B lab.

“As a member of Wesleyan’s ASBMB Student Chapter, his outreach involvement has mainly focused on improving his school’s community, such as by promoting undergraduate research opportunity awareness and equity and inclusion efforts in the sciences,” Poppel’s ASBMB bio reads.

Maya Vaishnaw ’21, a double major in psychology and MB&B. Vaishnaw works with Professor Erika Taylor in her chemistry lab.

“The Taylor Lab takes a multidisciplinary approach to characterizing enzymes with applied chemical and biomedicinal applications,” Vaishnaw’s ASBMB bio reads. “In the future, Maya hopes to pursue research in clinical genetics.”

 

Bello ’22 Awarded Beinecke Scholarship

Zubaida Bello ’22

Zubaida Bello ’22

Zubaida Bello ’22 is one of 16 people nationwide to win the Beinecke Scholarship in 2021. Bello, who aims to pursue a PhD in history and become a college professor, will receive $4,000 immediately prior to entering graduate school, as well as $30,000 while attending.

Last year, the scholarship was awarded to Mellon Mays Fellow Katerina Ramos-Jordán ’21, who was the first Wesleyan student to receive the award in 13 years.

“The program seeks to encourage and enable highly motivated students to pursue opportunities available to them and to be courageous in the selection of a graduate course of study in the arts, humanities and social sciences,” reads the scholarship website.

At Wesleyan, Bello is a double major in African American studies and history, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and a Fall ’21 Center for Humanities fellow. She transferred to Wesleyan from Hampshire College, where she worked on a project that incorporated history, ethnography, and poetry to share the stories of the women in her family. This led Bello to enter and win New York City’s poetry slam, create an open mic collective, and write a manuscript called How to Stop the Burning, later published as her debut chapbook.

On campus, Bello’s Mellon Mays research focuses on the causes of gentrification in Brooklyn. She compares colonization and gentrification and uses archives and ethnography in order to delve into gentrified people’s experiences, as well as those of housing rights activists, redevelopers, and gentrifiers. Bello intends to share her research with Brooklyn nonprofits, such as the Brooklyn Tenant’s Council Inc. or the Housing Rights Initiative.

“Ultimately, I want to become a professor because I want to teach other people with my new understanding of history, build bonds with the communities I research, and publish books that exhibit my interdisciplinary understanding of history,” Bello wrote in her essay for the Beinecke Scholarship.

Bello, quoted in the Wes and the World blog, explained how she wants to use her studies in history to forge new paths for marginalized people and communities.

“I want to develop a pedagogy of history that gives due importance to the rebellious actions of marginalized people, that evades the apathy that often comes with Eurocentric, patriarchal standards of neutrality, and understands diverse modes of storytelling as other forms of history,” Bello said.

Banka ’22 Co-Authors Article on Pandemic Food Insecurity for COVID-19 Action Coalition

Darshana Banka ’22

Darshana Banka ’22

Darshana Banka ’22 volunteers with the COVID-19 Action Coalition (COVAC-MA) a group of over 25 students and alumni (led by Amy Fogelman ’97) who advocate alongside Massachusetts physicians for public health measures that will reduce the spread of the virus and save lives. Currently, Banka leads COVAC-MA’s Medium Research Team.

Banka recently co-wrote an article about food insecurity during the pandemic as part of COVAC-MA’s outreach titled, “Hungry for Change: Food Insecurity During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity for low-income individuals and changed eating behaviors for many Americans of different socioeconomic levels,” Banka wrote. “Because these changes have harmful health implications, action must be taken at both the individual and governmental/policy levels to mitigate food insecurity and the disruptive effect of pandemic-related guidelines on our eating behaviors.”

Banka’s article also discusses the disparity of access to food among different populations in the United States, and how this disparity impacts eating behaviors and overall health. Banka also outlines the potential dangers of letting this problem go unaddressed.

“Given the significant negative impacts of pandemic-driven food insecurity on eating behaviors and poor health outcomes, it is important to address this issue at both the government/policy and individual levels,” Banka wrote. “Programs currently exist to support families struggling with food insecurity; however, they are not sufficient. Recent research has found that while programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) make food more affordable, the cost of food in states like Connecticut was 40–50% higher than these benefits in 2015. This emphasizes how policies fall short in providing access to basic nutrition needs to low-income communities that are disproportionately affected by rising food costs. New policies need to be implemented in tandem with community-based organizations that work to boost economic opportunities and access to food.”

At Wesleyan, Banka is double majoring in neuroscience and behavior, and psychology, with a minor in chemistry. She’s also an Academic Peer Advisor.

Nonfiction Journalism Class Explores the Continuing Battle for COVID-19 Normalcy

tin can

In a recently-published essay, Chapin Montague ’21 tells the story of Wesleyan students Michayla Robertson-Pine ’22 (top left) and Elizabeth “Liz” Woolford ’21 (top right) who created a virtual after-school learning community for children called Tin Can Learners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Montague and several other Wesleyan students wrote pandemic-related essays for their class, The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction.

As part of a class assignment for the spring 2021 course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction, students were tasked with writing short essays on the continuing battle for normalcy while attending college during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The class is taught by Daniel de Visé ’89, Koeppel Journalism Fellow. After graduating from Wesleyan and Northwestern University, de Visé spent 23 years working in newspapers. He shared a 2001 team Pulitzer Prize and garnered more than two dozen other national and regional journalism awards. He’s also the author of three books.

Journalistic nonfiction, de Visé, explained, uses the tools of the newsroom to create long-form stories that read like novels. Books such as Moneyball, The Orchid Thief, The Warmth of Other Suns, “are grounded in journalistic nonfiction,” he said.

“The class is about how to write nonfiction using the tools of novel-writing and cinema,” de Visé said. “It’s all based on journalism—fact-based reporting. We’re reading and writing stories that have central characters who overcome literary conflicts in a scene-driven narrative.”

A sampling of the articles are published here and descriptions are below.

basketball team

Kiran Kling ’24, pictured at far left, wrote an essay about being on the men’s basketball team during the COVID-19 pandemic. Olu Oladitan ’24, pictured in the center, is featured in the essay.

Kiran Kling ’24 focused his essay, “The Call” on being a student-athlete during the pandemic. With spring sports canceled during the 2020-21 academic year, Kling explained how the 15 members of the men’s basketball team would gather on Zoom every Wednesday night to share updates, network with alumni, and “crack jokes in the players-only group chat during the call.” Read Kling’s essay online here.

Sophie Talcove-Berko ’21 shared her experience of being a college senior during the COVID-19 pandemic. In her essay, “Ski School,” Talcove-Berko wrote about the difficult decisions her peers made during their final year at Wes: “some deferred, some returned, and some went remote.” Talcove-Berko framed her essay around Tammy Shine ’21 who originally planned to return to Wesleyan this spring for her final semester of college, but instead chose to study remotely in Lake Tahoe. “While it was her final chance to live with her college friends on campus, she found the mountains rejuvenating for the mind, body, and soul,” Talcove-Berko wrote. Read Talcove-Berko’s essay online here.

Chaiban ’22: “COVID Cabin Fever”

The following essay was written by Shakka Chaiban ’22 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

Perched on the side of highway 191 in a cramped sedan, overlooking the neverending brown, barren desert of Uintah County, Utah on a late October night where only the stars illuminated the darkness, Norm Cotteleer [’22], 21, lightly hit his forehead on the dashboard in a state of perplexity. A little over four and a half hours away from his temporary home in Sandy, Utah, Norm and his two roommates had been pulled over by state police for driving 20 miles an hour over the limit after a day of journeying steep, mountainous hiking trails on the border of Colorado. While Norm himself hadn’t been behind the wheel, it was his car.

As he watched the officer begin a slow strut to his window, he remembered that his registration was two months expired.  Norm began to recognize that he was in a potentially devastating situation. In that brief moment, Norm recounted his months of internal conflict spent deciding if embarking on a cross country voyage with two semi-close-ish friends to the undiscovered terrain of Utah had been worth forgoing fall semester of his junior year at Wesleyan University, and he questioned his decision yet again. As potentially catastrophic scenarios ran rampant through his mind, Norm couldn’t help but surrender to pangs of longing for the comfort and sanity that living on campus had provided him. He thought of his closest friends, whom he hadn’t seen in eons, reminisced on the warm feeling of dwelling within a like-minded community, and missed the little pleasures of Wesleyan.

Norm exhaled a deep, cathartic sigh and smiled quietly to himself in disbelief. “That was the turning point,” he later recalled, “The weight of all my decisions and the general anxiety of the situation and life, I never wished for campus more, even if it wasn’t the same as before.”

For university students across the country, the evils of COVID-19 have greatly reshaped the trajectory of the traditional college experience. Amidst a global pandemic that has put the world on pause, college students have been forced to make vastly impactful decisions. While many schools across the country have shut down and switched to completely virtual campuses, others have adopted a plethora of varied testing structures, COVID prevention guidelines, and on-campus hybrid learning models.

At Wesleyan, students were given the onus of responsibility of deciding whether to return to campus in the spring after a relatively successful and contained fall semester, or opt out to either virtual learning or a completely alternative experience. Each student’s decision was fueled by a variety of complex factors, namely one’s socioeconomic situation, family life, and the presence (or lack thereof) of a plan of action if one was not to return to campus.

University administrators expected considerably more students to return to campus in the spring than in the fall. Yet, only 24 more students are physically on campus this semester, according to Director of Residential Life Fran Koerting. She cited the sudden increase in nationwide COVID cases in the weeks leading up to the semester’s start. The numbers also reflect the last-minute nature of these decisions, illustrating a COVID-era dilemma facing students everywhere between opting out or coming back.

For Norm Cotteleer, a junior philosophy major from East Granby, Connecticut, the decision couldn’t have been easier. Amidst the peak of COVID-19 pandemonium in August and uncertainty about campus reopening in the fall, Norm had decided to take classes virtually and drive across the country from his home to the claustrophobic, predominantly white Mormon suburb of Sandy, Utah. There, alongside two Wesleyan peers to whom he was not particularly close, Norm lived in a confined, grey brick house at the base of towering twin peaks and framed by stunning mountain ranges.

His decision to traverse the nation was fueled by an infatuation with the thought of driving cross-country and the desire to explore new lands, a test and reclamation of his independence that had felt dimmed by months of quarantine and isolation spent at home. The plan was for the three to live together within this small ski town, take classes throughout the day, and couple them with a series of nature expeditions and spontaneous trips to nearby states and regions on weekends. It seemed an ideal, fulfilling structure to replace being on campus during these strange times, but the reality of Norm’s experience fell far from what he had expected.

Only a few weeks into the stay, Norm began to witness the impacts of extended social isolation in close quarters: Norm and his friends gradually succumbed to an intense form of COVID cabin fever. The general vibes of the household grew increasingly combative and toxic, cramped proximity bringing the worst out of each housemate. Norm’s relationships with his two casual friends gradually deteriorated to the point of being unbearable. Instead of using his time away to focus on his internal development, Norm found himself looking for ways to remove himself from his situation in search of a sense of holistic peace of mind. His mental health fell into a steady decline.

“In retrospect”, he recalled, “I most definitely was blinded by an idealized, rosy expectation of how my stay and semester was to go. It was a spontaneous decision, and I wasn’t giving weight to a lot of potential downfalls that could have, and did occur. However, I will say, I will be forever grateful for life-lasting lessons sprouted from such vast adversity. Learning the skill of adaptability, facing your own emotions head on, but especially made me realize the significance of those who you surround yourself with.”
When asked about making the decision to return to campus this spring, Norm let out a light chuckle and simply said, “It was never a question.” Norm spent more than 60 hours driving home, entering almost a trance-like state of euphoria as he drew close. For the entirety of the fall semester, he had been robbed of that subtle feeling of relaxation and comfort that he had previously taken for granted. Those feelings would return only when he rejoined a community that made him feel safe. For Norm, that community was still Wesleyan.

On his first day on campus in a year, February 8, 2021, Norm finally felt like himself. Even though the adjustment to a hybrid model of in-person classes and Zoom and the abundance of COVID-19 regulations remained a bewildering journey, he found that he couldn’t care less. The serenity of Middletown, the joy of finally being around those closest to him, and the peace brought by the love of his community: Norm was finally home.