Talcove-Berko ’21: “Ski School”

The following essay was written by Sophie Talcove-Berko ’21 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

Speeding down the slopes at 20 miles per hour, Tammy Shine stopped to catch her breath and a glimpse of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. For a college senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, this was a drastically different start to the school morning from semesters past, frantically making coffee and rushing to class.

As COVID-19 surged this winter, college seniors from across the country faced an important decision: how to complete their college careers during an unprecedented pandemic. Some deferred, some returned, and some went remote.

At Wesleyan, students were given the option of an on-campus spring semester, as long as they abided by the rules. While students mostly acknowledge that these rules are effective and reasonable for a pandemic, they’re finding that pandemic restrictions have changed the academic and social experience at the school considerably. The rules for the spring semester include a mandatory two-week quarantine, twice-weekly COVID testing, mostly online classes, limited extracurricular activities, and restricted travel.

Administrators tried to replicate the success of the fall semester, when COVID tests yielded a 0.07% positivity rate for students and 0.13% for employees. The restrictions are even tighter this spring. While in the fall, students were allowed to travel within 25 miles of Wesleyan’s campus, travel this spring is limited to grocery stores and medical appointments within Middletown.

Shine, a senior at Wesleyan from Los Angeles, originally planned to return to Wesleyan this spring for her final semester of college. After spending winter break as a retail sales associate at Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, California, Shine reconsidered.

Every morning in January, Shine would step outside her lakefront apartment around 6 a.m., feeling the cool breeze and looking up in awe at the snow-covered mountains and their glistening reflection on the alpine lake. This was usually followed by an arduous half-hour of scraping snow off her rental car, working laboriously to unbury the car from a few feet of snow. Once Shine began the drive to the retail stores at Squaw Valley, she would be generously rewarded for the early wake-up call with a view of the pink illuminated ski and a bright yellow sun rising over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

After a month working at Squaw Valley, Shine began to reconsider whether returning to Wesleyan was the best decision. 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. Reflecting on the fall semester, which Shine had spent on campus, she recalled feeling stuck and, at times, claustrophobic. While she appreciated the safety that a pandemic bubble brings, the COVID-19 restrictions resulted in a great deal of monotony. In late January, days before students were set to return, she made her final decision for the spring 2021 semester. Shine decided to remain in Lake Tahoe, pursuing an option that she felt would be more of a growing experience.

Shine is one of many college students who have decided to create an alternative college experience during these unique times. According to Wesleyan’s director of residential life, Frances Koerting, 2,446 students have chosen to be on-campus for the spring semester and 441 students have chosen to be remote learners. These numbers are almost identical to the number of on-campus and remote learners for the fall semester.

Off-campus college housing “bubbles” have risen in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the options limited to remaining at home with one’s family or being largely restricted to one’s dorm room on campus, groups of college students have rented out houses across the country. These differ in price and location, ranging from Hawaii to Montana and expensive to cheap.

While in the fall, Shine would spend the majority of her time within her living space, an average spring semester day begins on a ski lift. Shine has ditched her dorm-room workout and become a novice snowboarder, shredding down the slopes. Following a morning run at the ski resort, Shine will spend a couple of hours working at the retail stores before retreating to the back rooms of the resort for a virtual class.

Last semester felt very static. In Lake Tahoe, Shine has regained her busy, dynamic lifestyle. However, Shine noted that the academic experience is considerably different as a remote learner in Lake Tahoe. She feels a lot less motivation. She Zooms into her classes from a storage room in the retail shops. Wifi access is spotty, and she finds it a lot harder to sit down and complete her work in this new environment. While she is no longer living within a college community, she lives with two friends from L.A., which has made the adjustment to her new “campus” a lot easier.

Shine said that Wesleyan never felt like the “typical college experience.” So, while she is experiencing an unusual final semester, it does not feel completely out of place. She is taking the experience for what it is, day by day. Growing up, Shine spent every summer in nature, resulting in a lifelong love for the natural world. The mountains have felt like a nice change of pace. As for the impact of going from a suburban college town to living in the mountains, Shine said, “There are all these man-made evils happening right now and it’s really nice to be constantly reminded that there is a lot of beauty in the world…things can be beautiful: you just have to know where to look.”