In 2020, students all across the world faced an unsettling transition as the world shut down in chaos due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Three years post-pandemic…where are some of these students now?
A few days off from school led to the remainder of the academic year confined inside homes, joining monotonous zoom classes, submitting ample amounts of assignments through online learning management programs such as Blackboard and Canvas, and being separated from the world and the normal as we knew it.
For Cyenna Ulrich-Cech, a Cleveland State University senior double majoring in environmental science and anthropology with a minor in environmental studies, the lockdown created deep feelings of isolation and an unwelcoming presence of mental health battles, though not all hope was lost.
Meet Cyenna Ulrich-Cech
Ulrich-Cech is a first-generation college student who enjoys hanging out with her friends, playing the Legend of Zelda games and cooking delicious meals.
Not only does she have a knack for cooking, but she is also a strong support on campus for students who, like her, are first-generation college students. Ulrich-Cech spends many of her days aiding students in navigating their college careers through TRIO/Student Support Services at CSU as a success coach.
“Now that I’ve been on campus and have had the amazing opportunity to work in the office and support other students, it’s made me realize just how important TRIO is to me and how much support they’ve offered,” Ulrich-Cech shared with The Cauldron. “I think if a student is experiencing hardships, it’s important for the student to find someone to listen to them first and foremost. Finding that support could be the difference between a student staying or dropping out. Any organization, group, professor, or friend you can connect with and that makes you feel heard, hold on to them.”
In March 2020, Ulrich-Cech was immersed in her final months of her senior year of high school before the sudden lockdown transformed the course of everyone’s lives, including hers. This drastic change affected her chance to do what every high school senior looks forward to: walk the stage.
“Honestly, I was really looking forward to the end of my senior year of high school,” she said. “The senior activities always looked so fun, and I couldn’t wait to experience them.”
For this diligent student, she envisioned the end of high school as a time for celebration and reaping the rewards of her academic perseverance. However, the most exciting parts of her senior year, such as “Physics Olympics,” where you take part in events like paper airplane making or catapults, along with “Clap-out,” where students and teachers applaud seniors who are graduating, were all taken away.
Ulrich-Cech felt cheated, to say the least.
“At the start of 2020, COVID wasn’t even on my mind, and I was just excited to graduate. I didn’t realize just how impactful COVID was going to be,” Ulrich-Cech shared.
The Trials of COVID-19
As the lockdown began, Ulrich-Cech took action to protect herself and her family since her grandmother was considered high-risk and could not be exposed to the virus that was wreaking havoc on the world. For example, while her friends continued to have in-person hangouts, she chose to sit out. This, however, created animosity in their friendship.
Ulrich-Cech shared that lockdown introduced a challenge for maintaining her high school relationships, making it difficult to find stability throughout the rest of the pandemic and leading into her first year of college.
“That really impacted my relationships because my friends felt differently about how to approach everything,” she said. “It was a difficult time trying to find support. When my first semester of college started, I could just focus on classes and that made it easier, but it didn’t feel like college to me. I felt like I was just in another year of high school, and it was difficult making connections in class.”
For Ulrich-Cech to have recognized the importance of ensuring the safety of those around her during such a scary time, even at the expense of her friendships, dreams and goals, showed the utmost accountability and maturity.
Unfortunately, there’s no denying it also chipped away at her spirit, leading her to not only feel defeated, but disconnected. She shared that she felt depressed and isolated living with her mom in their small two-bedroom apartment.
Not to mention, when Ulrich-Cech began her first year of college, the stress of meeting deadlines, experiencing a new chapter of life and growing as an individual were all newfound challenges she faced.
“Everyone says your college years go by fast, and I think that was even more true since it felt like I only had 3 real college years being on campus…” Ulrich-Cech said.
Regardless, Ulrich-Cech pushed onward, as she navigated through online courses, transitioning into in-person classes with what seemed like endless days of wearing face masks and commuting to and from campus. She expressed her success began to reveal itself to her as she found support in TRIO/SSS.
“During my first year, I joined TRIO and I wasn’t expecting much, but they hosted virtual events and were honestly the only thing I was feeling connected to at that point,” she said.
For Ulrich-Cech, TRIO was the perfect outlet for her as a first-generation college student who had few people to turn to during the difficulties of the college experience, expressing that it really shaped her college career.
College Graduation Around the Corner
Ulrich-Cech, who is now powering through her senior year at CSU, fully embraced the challenges that COVID-19 brought to the table. The lessons she has learned from the once-in-a-century experience, she shared, have helped her become more excited for the future.
With graduation right around the corner in May 2024, Ulrich-Cech strides forward happily, recognizing that everything happens for a reason, and that experiencing life through a pandemic has taught her resilience in hard times.
“I’ve been able to use this resilience when I really start to struggle now,” she said. “I also think that being present is something that I’m still trying to learn. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your future or struggle with your past, but the present is where you’re living now, so I’ve been learning to ground myself more with that in mind.”
Months away from (finally) walking the stage, Ulrich-Cech is seeking to further her academic career by pursuing a doctorate degree. Some of her biggest interests involve how humans interact with the environment, climate change, physical geography and technology like GIS and remote sensing.
Wherever she finds herself, Ulrich-Cech is confident that she wants to be a part of bridging the gap between humans and the outside world.
“I feel like I have the best chance of succeeding by working in a government agency to be able to fast track what we know about science and what policies are implemented,” she said. “I think having a strong science background would be really helpful. Plus, I really do enjoy learning and Ph.D. programs really allow candidates to explore this process tailored to their passions, which I think sounds really fun.”
Ulrich-Cech, despite all the trials and tribulations in her young adulthood, has gained strong connections with her peers on campus, empowered herself to find the good within the bad, and believed in herself at times when all she had was herself.
Undoubtedly, Ulrich-Cech has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a stepping stone to her success. Eager to see who she becomes in the future, regardless of her experiences, she can’t wait for the journey of graduate school and her future endeavors—no matter what other unprecedented changes come her way.