As Summer Opportunities are Canceled, Students Tread an Unpaved Road

Gavi Forman ’22 opened her email inbox on March 26 to a message notifying her that her summer research internship through the Institute of Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis had been canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. With the click of a send button, her original vision of the summer had disintegrated. Instead, the months ahead looked more like “an unpaved road,” as she put it.

Forman received the news about her internship at the tipping point of summer cancellations. Not knowing whether her cancellation would be the exception or the rule, Forman was left with a growing sense of isolation: “What if everyone else has internships and I get left behind?”

Nearly a month later, it has become clear that Forman would not, in fact, be the only one.

In an email sent on April 17, President Biddy Martin called off all events and activities scheduled to take place on campus this summer, following suit as colleges nationwide did the same. As a result, all on-campus summer programming at the college is either canceled or moved to a remote setting.

These changes will affect college-sponsored programs like the Summer Science Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program as well as non-affiliated youth programs that had planned to use Amherst facilities like U.S. Sports Camps, Noonan Scholars and others.  

Just like Forman, many other students have received emails over the past month that begin with “in this unprecedented time…” and end with “we encourage you to apply next year.” 

Reminiscent of the job market after the stock market crash in 2008, college students nationwide must now try to recover with whatever opportunities are still available. Last week, the Labor Department reported that 3.8 million people have filed for unemployment for a grand total of 30.3 million in the short span since the national lockdown began. About 37 million unemployment claims were filed during the entirety of the 2008 recession. 

In response, Congress has invested $2.2 trillion in stimulus packages so far and has signaled its intention to invest more in the weeks to come. At a press conference on Wednesday, Chair of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell noted that “we are going to see economic data for the second quarter that is worse than any data we have seen for the economy.” As a result, the outlook for college students hoping to advance their professional lives has appeared remarkably bleak. 

Amaya Smole ’22 received an offer through the Amgen Foundation to conduct research at a biotechnology company in Boston; her offer was ultimately postponed because of the virus. For Smole, her sophomore summer was supposed to be a “stepping stone” for next summer and the rest of her career.

The cancellation of summer internships due to the COVID-19 pandemic places members of the class of 2021, who are now approaching their junior summers, in a uniquely precarious situation, as they try to salvage what is often seen as a pivotal time to make connections, gather career experience and, hopefully, receive job offers. 

Witter Swanson ’21, who had already returned home after his study abroad program in Copenhagen got canceled, was “originally feeling pretty good.” He had an internship with a strategic communications firm in Washington D.C. arranged since January. However, by mid-March, the company let him know that all summer internships were canceled. 

“As soon as I got that email, I just started to apply to everything I saw for a couple weeks,” Swanson elaborated.

Ben Gilsdorf ’21 — who also writes for The Student — had planned to intern with NBC Sports at the Summer 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But on March 24, the Olympic Games were postponed, along with Gilsdorf’s summer plans.

“By the time I got the news, there were relatively few summer opportunities left to apply to, especially not ones that could still be done remotely,” Gilsdorf said. 

These struggles are especially serious for seniors graduating from the college this May. Rana Barghout ’20, one of the 179 students still living on campus, described her worry about searching for a job as the whole campus shifted to remote operations. 

Barghout has had to send “tons of applications” for jobs while also troubleshooting the problem of how she will find the funds to move to a new place, which is, as she put it, “a very tough challenge that I haven’t figured out yet.”

Students like Barghout, Gilsdorf and Swanson have found themselves in a storm of last-minute applications, sending out resumes and cover letters in order to make the most of the remnants of summer opportunities that the coronavirus left behind. 

After these efforts, Barghout has been able to land a job at a lab in Boston. Gilsdorf was able to secure unpaid work for the North Dakota Democratic Party and will also use his newfound free time to work on his senior thesis. Swanson has also been able to obtain a new internship with Vineyard Power, a partner of an offshore wind company. 

Lucky students are those whose plans were  pushed remotely rather than canceled all together. Matt Lee ’21, who was supposed to intern in sales with Amazon Web Services (AWS) in their D.C. office, will now complete his internship  remotely. As more people require adult coloring books and 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles to pass time in quarantine, Lee joked that there has been “a greater demand for AWS services like data storage and cloud computing services.”

For all students, these cancellations and modifications raise anxiety-inducing questions about what a life of continued interruption will look like and how to keep it in motion. The college has been making efforts to ease this summer scramble for students as things continue to change.

On April 18, Dean of Students Liz Agosto sent a follow-up email to students offering a potential summer research opportunity named the Gregory S. Call Student Research Program. This program provides a stipend of 15 dollars per hour for 240 hours of remote research work conducted by an Amherst student with a faculty advisor.

Caroline Hanna, Director of Media Communications, affirmed that  “the college will be making more opportunities available this year than in previous years. Remote opportunities will be limited to 240 hours (or six weeks of full-time work) so that more students can be accommodated.”

The administrative team and faculty organizing SURF have been working to translate their research plans to a remote setting. The program will now begin on June 8 and continue for six weeks as opposed to the originally scheduled eight weeks. It will offer 63 student fellowships, three more than initially arranged prior to the pandemic, and be led by 28 different faculty members across STEM departments.

Jess Martin, the SURF program administrative director, was pleasantly surprised by the administrative team’s ability to salvage the logistics of the program. She has also been impressed by how academic departments have come together “to think of something that is still going to offer students something meaningful and not just be a placeholder like ‘hey, just so you don’t get bored.’”

As the logistics of summer research programs adapt to coronavirus’ reality, for some, the content of the research does as well. Associate Professor of Physics Ashley Carter’s lab had already been “thinking about things that were important for this problem.” Carter investigates the ways that DNA gets folded into a sperm cell and how this folding affects genetic outcomes in organisms. Carter now plans to look at these same biological mechanisms in the context of the coronavirus. Though the majority of the research plan will remain the same, her lab will now also buy the proteins of the virus to examine RNA folding functions within it.

However, there is more to SURF than just the academics. As Martin expanded, one of the elements that makes the experience special is the community that develops among student fellows living in the dorms together. Developing the same strength of community via Zoom has proven to be an obstacle in replicating the program.

Typically, Martin enjoys organizing special breakfasts, taking students to Six Flags and watching Independence Day fireworks at the University of Massachusetts Amherst during the SURF program.“We’re not going to have any of that, and that’s kind of a bummer,” she lamented.

Still, Martin and her staff have used this as an opportunity to get creative in thinking of how to build community across state lines. One idea has been sending the fellows summer care packages that could include anything from a mammoth-logoed picnic blanket to blue light glasses.

At the heart of these initiatives is the ultimate question plaguing the college community’s minds, even beyond SURF: “What are other ways we can do creative outreach to feel connected to each other?”

The college will also continue to offer research opportunities for students enrolled in a colloquium course. Throughout the semester, students in these tutorial-style classes have been learning about a niche subject of study from “Future People Puzzles” to “America’s Death Penalty” and “The Making of Dictionaries,” to name a few.

Colloquium students have been conducting individual research with the intention of continuing into the summer through a college-funded program. This built-in summer research component was originally supposed to take place on campus for up to six weeks but will now operate remotely for the same amount of time.

Hannah Zhang ’22 plans to participate in summer research for her tutorial, “Secret Lives of the Late-Soviet Stage: the Archive and the Repertoire.” The main difference she foresees for the research will be the physical process of obtaining sources. “For my research tutorial, we’re supposed to be working with archives and actually digging through the documents, so that aspect is definitely really impacted.”

Instead, Zhang speculates that someone with access to the archives will scan digital copies of the sources for the class’s use. However, with the status of building access still unclear, this prediction is only a hope.  

Even with the specific logistics of Zhang’s research not completely figured out, she feels more secure knowing that “at least to some extent, my time will be filled … It’s definitely a reassurance.”

But as with many students, the unpredictable nature of Zhang’s summer has added a level of anxiety about the future in general.

“I hope that whoever is looking at my resume in the future will understand … It’s a time when everything is put on pause and … we’re the ones who are really at the threshold of looking at the future and trying to plan the future. So hopefully people understand that there’s really nothing any of us can do right now,” Zhang said.

Beyond what students will do this summer, for some students, there is the added weight of where they will live.

In particular, students currently living on campus face an unsettled predicament. Some still may not be able to return home by the end of the semester either because their home countries have travel bans, because of immuno-compromised persons living in their household or for other reasons.

For instance, Molly Sanderson ’22, from Seattle, originally petitioned to stay on campus because of her sister’s severe health issues. Sanderson knew it would not be safe for her to return home and potentially expose her sister to the virus. Sanderson’s days have thus been carried out almost completely within the confines of her dorm room.

As she described, “If you think about it, this is my bedroom, my kitchen, my classroom, my study space, my living room, my dining room — it’s everything.”

Even so, if the alternative is risking her sister’s safety, Sanderson requires this living situation, which is why going home at the end of the semester would not be an option.

International students would also face difficulties if forced to leave campus at the end of the semester. Pedro Morais ’21, an international student from Brazil, said that he had originally stayed on campus “because I was afraid if I returned home I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the U.S. for my summer internship starting June 10 — I anticipated things would get better by then.”

Now, with things not getting much better as he had hoped, Morais is trying to return to Brazil to conduct his internship there remotely.

Arzoo Rajpar ’22 would have to go home to Tanzania, which has had a travel ban since early February. With countries on different points of the coronavirus trajectory, it is difficult to know which ones are truly safe for travel. As Rajpar explained, “Africa has not even peaked yet. In Tanzania, we’re getting a hundred new cases a day and they’re not testing everyone so there are a lot of issues with that because it’s very uncertain.” Like Sanderson, a summer at home for Rajpar thus may not be feasible.

However, as reported in The Student, at a virtual town hall held on Wednesday, April 22, Dean of Students Liz Agosto assured that students still living on campus will be able to re-petition to remain there over the summer.

On many fronts, the college has been able to answer questions that summer cancellations have spurred. Still, a common sentiment among students is a continued desire for more administrative transparency.

Sanderson commended the college’s efforts in handling these unprecedented circumstances, especially relative to other schools. However, she still notes, “I would love to see just a daily email saying, ‘Here’s what we figured out today. Here’s what we still don’t know.’ Or even just a section in the Daily Mammoth, something like that.”

Rajpar agreed that while Amherst has done an impressive job of keeping students supported through this time, “at this point, they need to be more transparent with what they’re doing.” 

As the coronavirus disruption stretches further into future months, the next question on the Amherst community’s mind is the status of the fall semester. Regarding this, Martin expressed, “If we don’t come back together in the fall, that will be tough,” adding what seems to be the universal follow-up: “But better to be healthy, right?”