Interviewer: Lily K. Szwejbka
Interviewee: Aurora M. Shafer
April 7, 2021
At East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina
LS: Hi, my name is Lily Szwejbka. I am a sophomore at East Carolina University. I'm an exercise physiology major, with a psychology minor and I am originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina.
AS: Hi, I'm Aurora Shafer. I'm a sophomore at East Carolina majoring in entrepreneurship with a minor in disability studies. I'm from Orlando, Florida, and I'm autistic.
LS: So, today we are going to be conducting an interview to cover some experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic at East Carolina University and today's date is April 7th 2021. So the 1st question: Thinking back to March of 2020, what were some of the discussions about COVID when news was really new?
AS: Well, in March before we went home from spring break, everyone.it was still.it was in the news and everyone was very much aware of COVID but in terms of communication, from my teachers in my classes, there really wasn't any. It was very much just people that were thinking about it individually. There was no communication about it that I was aware of, on my end.
LS: And then, at that time, would you say that you were concerned about COVID at this point?
AS: I was definitely concerned. I was really tuned into international news, especially, and I was seeing how it was spreading and although it wasn't prevalent very much in the U. S. yet, I saw how it was in other countries, and I definitely knew it was going to get bad in the US. So I was definitely concerned.
LS: Yeah, and how concerned would you say other students seem to be?
AS: I think, um, my closest friends and students that were closest to me, you know, were friends who were very similar so they shared a lot of my concerns. But in general, the rest of the student population definitely wasn't as concerned and if they were, they thought it was going to end very fast and as we're now aware, it didn't end very fast.
LS: Okay, and so how did you end up finding out about ECU's decisions to close campus and cancel activities starting right after spring break of 2020?
AS: Well, I'm from Orlando, Florida, so I, you know, packed a bag for a week and went home for spring break. And then after the week, ECU extended their spring break another week so I stayed home for another week. And then we found out that everything was canceled and we were going to be doing things remotely. So I found out while I was home for spring break and then I had to go back to school to pack up all of the rest of my stuff and moved back home.
LS: So when we moved to online distance education, how well would you say you handled that?
AS: I think, because I'm autistic, any transition to something different, especially something as drastic as that, can be difficult. But overall, I'd say I handled it pretty well. I think it definitely helped when I was in high school I spent a year doing school exclusively online, so I was used to a virtual school format and used to making my own schedule and things like that as well.as a lot of.as a disabled student when you transition to school remotely a lot of the physical barriers that inhibit me from performing as well in school were taken away. So, in a lot of ways, I performed a lot better academically.
LS: Okay, so eventually East Carolina had started showing some sort of interest in returning back to school in fall of 2020. So, if you want to go over some of the general policies and precautions that they took. So, for example, East Carolina had a mask rule, which was true for everywhere else; masks were very highly advised to be used. Social distancing was a practice that was going to be used, changes in dining situations. If you want to go over some of those, just your general thoughts on those precautions.
AS: I fully support all of those policies that went into place. I think that they definitely make a huge difference in stopping the spread of COVID. On my end, I would've practiced all of those regardless. I definitely would have worn my mask, I definitely would have practiced socially distancing, and I probably would have stuck to take out food from the dining hall, regardless of if they required it or not. So, I was happy that they required it because it meant that a population of students who probably might not have done it were going to do it.
LS: Yeah, so hearing all of these precautions and just knowing the general state of COVID, it was starting to get really, really bad in summer 2020 in the United States. Did that cause some hesitation in thinking about returning to campus for the fall?
AS: Definitely, uh, in the.in the fall, um, it was definitely not something I was really interested in and.hold on.did I move back in the fall? I don't remember.
LS: We did for like 3 weeks.
AS: Okay. Yeah. So, because when we moved home and when we moved home in spring break, obviously, it wasn't an option and we all had to be at home. And overall.overall, I really did well in that environment, but due to the communication deficits and the difference of communication that I have being autistic, it's really important to me to be in social situations to kind of develop those communication skills further. So we thought it would be a good idea to transition me back to college because if I'm away too long, sometimes that can affect me socially and we wanted to get me back in that environment. And we also knew that.my parents and I knew that I was going to be safe and they trusted me to remain safe and still practice kind of a lot of restrictive, um, safety precautions when I'm back. So we weighed it, and it was a really tough decision, because we knew how it could potentially be dangerous, so we also knew that I was going to remain very safe and my classes would still be online, so, I wouldn't really have to worry about the in person class formatting.
LS: So, just to elaborate on that a little bit more: with being autistic, um, there were a lot of transitions between home and college. Um, would you describe, like, how, like, if that was difficult for you being autistic or if you adjusted really well? What were some thoughts you had in mind about things that you knew you were going to need to adapt to?
AS: Yeah, a big part of being autistic is having difficulty with adapting to change. It was.it was definitely difficult and I'd say disorienting. I moved then I went back home for spring break and, you know, stayed there an extra week, and that was unexpected so that threw me off. And then I had to come back to school just to pick up my stuff and then come back. And then I had to move back in the fall, and then had to move back 2 weeks later. It was a lot of back and forth and that's really disorienting for somebody like me who's autistic. And I definitely had to.especially when it was in the middle of semesters at some points, I definitely had to set aside a whole day of not doing anything that day that I was moving - well, the 2 days that I was moving since it's such a long, long drive back home for me out of state. And I really had to totally rearrange my schedule for a couple of days because of that.
LS: So eventually, we had those 2 or 3 weeks of being on campus in the fall and then, as you said, we went home and stayed online for the fall semester. And then we were told that we would be able to move back to campus if we wanted to; it was up to the student's choice, um, in spring of 2021, so starting in January. But the precaution that East Carolina chose to take was to use single person dorm rooms rather than dorming with a roommate. So, what were your initial thoughts on living in a single person dorm?
AS: Um, it was something that, uh, my parents and I talked a lot about. There was a pro-con list, it was definitely back and forth, and it went either way for a while. Um, single dorms were a big concern for me because I'm not entirely ready to live independently just because of a lot of the difficulties I have being autistic in terms of remembering to do certain things and also the social aspect. So it was.it was definitely a big decision, because living in a single person room, I wouldn't have a lot of the support that I would have by having a roommate living next to me. But we also knew that the alternative to that would be me staying at home and having basically no peers, and that also wasn't a great situation. So we really weighed back and forth and I ended up going back to school living in a single dorm, and the compromise was I made sure I was living right next door to 2 people and we make a very big point of checking in with each other typically, at least once a day, if not every other day and that really helped bridge the gap. So it ended up not being that much of a problem, but we definitely debated it and it was a difficult decision to make.
LS: Yeah, so you would say that your experience with living in a single person dorm was different from what you were expecting.
AS: Yeah, I definitely expected to feel a lot more isolated, but instead I felt like it was almost a better situation because I still had the same access to people right nearby that I would see all the time while I actually had a completely independent safe space when I needed it. So, it ended up being almost a better scenario than a double occupancy dorm.
LS: And so, would you say that you're generally happy that you chose to move back to campus in spring 2021?
AS: Definitely, definitely it's been, uh, honestly, the happiest I've been in college this far. The situation with the single occupancy dorm while having our friends right there has been really great. And although school was going pretty well for me back home and I enjoyed being back home, I definitely missed out on the social aspect of college and it's been nice to get that back.
LS: Yeah. So, after living on campus with all of ECU's precautions, it's been about 4 months now. So, would you say that those precautions have been effective? Or are people listening to the precautions? What is your take on that?
AS: Uh, well, I don't go out a lot um, just because I'm very COVID safe. And when I do go out, it's typically just to pick up food, so I'll occasionally see people on campus. Campus is still pretty empty in general, but when I do see people on campus, uh, I think because of the mask mandate, people always have masks on them, but it doesn't necessarily mean they will be wearing them. And so it's.I'd say about 50/50 when I'll see people actually wearing masks fully and adhering to social distancing guidelines. It's about 50/50. Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't.
LS: What about the scheduling of the COVID testing for on campus students? Do you think that's a good method of trying to gauge the percentages of COVID-positive people on campus?
AS: Yeah, I think that's really great. I definitely think that's a great idea that they've been doing that.
LS: Yeah, um, so, do you prefer online classes more or less taking them on campus compared to taking online classes from your home?
AS: Well, first off, I mean, in terms of just the class itself.I mean, obviously, it's not much different the location you have it. But I think being on campus, I just enjoyed the social aspect of having friends near me a lot more. And I have a lot more friends at school than I do back home, so it's nice to have access to people there. But the course itself, you know, regardless of where you take it, isn't inherently different.
LS: With that, what are some accommodations you had from Disabled Student Services that you had in your in-person classes in your freshman year that, um, you don't necessarily benefit from when taking online classes?
AS: Well, yeah, the, the online class format and in-person class format are definitely different and there's different accommodations that applied to 1 scenario that don't apply to another. With online classes, like with everybody, we tend to use lockdown browser and we take our exams from the comfort of our rooms now. Before, when I was in person, I also had.I had testing accommodations that allowed me to take my exams at Disability Support Services. And so I would take it in their testing room there with my extra time. Now, I still get my extra time with online classes, I'm just able to take it from my room. Um, some other examples would be, uh, when I was at in-person classes, I would have access typically to the lecture PowerPoints ahead of time so I could follow along during the lecture. Now that we have online classes, most of mine are asynchronous so that we can access the course content at any time. So everyone has access to the accommodation that I used to have to ask for before. Now, we all have the PowerPoints that we can look at at anytime.
LS: So, as an autistic student, could you explain some of the other efforts and resources that Disability Support Services have had during COVID for students who may need those?
AS: Sure. I primarily use Disability Support Services at the beginning of semesters when I go over all of the accommodations that I want. And then that gets sent out to my professors so that they can agree to that and we can put accommodations in place for each of my classes. So when we transition to online learning, obviously we had to reevaluate my accommodations and decide on which accommodations would change. So I met with them and they were incredibly supportive and really great, especially when certain professors sometimes have issues with my accommodations, they would negotiate them for me so I didn't have to deal with that, which is really great. So that's how I primarily use them. Disability Support Services also has a lot of resources for students who want them. They have open office hours a couple of times a week that you can go to, and just video chat with them if you have anything to talk about. On the website, they have a lot of resources listed for different scenarios like mental health, or how to engage with other things and they have a lot of just digital resources that you have access to as well.
LS: So just to kind of put a spin on that last question and to kind of elaborate more on the experience with professors: As an autistic student, could you explain your ECU professors' efforts during COVID?
AS: As a disabled ECU student, my professors in general, have been pretty great with, um, the transition to virtually and how that, you know, differs for me especially. Obviously, I'm still able to.one of my accommodations is extra time and I'm still able to access that effectively online with our [unclear] format. Some of the other issues that I've had are.can you repeat the question? Sorry.
LS: Yeah. Yeah. Your professor's efforts during COVID.
AS: My professors' efforts during COVID.
LS: So any like, communication issues?
AS: My professors' efforts during COVID.uh, in general been.been pretty.pretty great. If I tend to have any issues, I recently had an issue with, um, questions being asked during Zoom classes being asked verbally instead of having, um, them written out, as I tend to.I have an auditory processing disorder, so I tend to like questions being written visually, and I was able to communicate with the professor, and we were able to come to an agreement to solve the problem. So, communication's been very great in terms of the adjustments that needed to be made virtually.
LS: So, now that we've kind of experienced over a year of COVD-19, has your view of COVID changed since last year?
AS: Um, for the most part -
LS: -- Or because of school or just any sort of --
AS: For the most part, no. I think I was very aware very early on watching international news of how bad this was going to be. And I knew that it was probably going to be way worse in the United States because a lot of people weren't going to follow the mandates that we needed to have in place. I definitely didn't anticipate it lasting this long. I knew it would be long, but I didn't know it would be this long. So I think that's the major change is me realizing how long it's going to be. But I think I definitely, early on, predicted and knew all of the mandates that were going to have to happen and how it was going to definitely a serious thing.
LS: How has your daily life been affected by COVID?
AS: I'm definitely a lot more of a homebody than I was and I was a pretty big homebody before. Um, my family and I take quarantine very seriously, so we typically, you know, don't, you know, go out and see other people. We tend to stay pretty much indoors. And when I was living at home, my mom would do the grocery shopping, or 1 person would pick up dinner and we'd have takeout a lot. In terms of as a disabled person, there's actually been a lot of benefits because of the social implications of COVID. With face mask wearing, obviously that's difficult for me to do as an autistic in terms of the sensory implications of that. It's very difficult. But with everyone wearing face masks, there's definitely a margin of error people accept now. People are not being able to hear and being able to ask for repetition. Normally when I did that, it caused an issue, but now no one questions it. Facial expressions are something that can be difficult for me sometimes as an autistic to read and to make, so that's not as big a concern now when you're interacting with other people. Sometimes going out and being social can be difficult. I typically will only be able to do 1 big social thing per day and it's very easy now to say "no" to going out socially because it's, you know, most people are [unclear] socially acceptable. So, it's not as big a deal now when I cancel on things or just am not comfortable doing things. That's very easy now. And so a lot of the social implications of COVID have been actually pretty beneficial for me as a disabled person I would say.
LS: Um, so, did you have any major plans such as in academics, or traveling, or job opportunities, or internships that had to be changed because of COVID that really put a dent in the way you saw your life progressing this past year?
AS: Yeah. In the summer of 2020, I had an internship scheduled in Scotland that I was supposed to be doing and so I wasn't able to do that. And, um, just kind of put off study abroad, um, right now, and I'm just kind of waiting until everything dies down so it might be another year. We'll see. I'm just kind of taking it off the board until things get better.
LS: Well I hope you get to do that at some point because that sounds awesome. Um, what are your impressions of media coverage of COVID? Because we've seen a lot of different media coverages of COVID in terms of connotation, factually-based versus opinion-based, conspiracy theories. What are your thoughts and your impressions of how the media is covering COVID?
AS: Well, I think COVID's coverage by the media has really opened up the majority of people's eyes to the disparities and how media works. And we've never really seen it like this before. You definitely see a lot of media, you know, is very factual and a lot of media, um, isn't. And it's definitely a big.I definitely realized because of COVID what media sources I should be watching and what media sources I shouldn't. I think it's definitely helped a lot of people determine what are reputable sources and what aren't. And for, I guess in general, the media's coverage of COVID has been pretty.pretty scary and I think that that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think we should be scared. It's a pandemic. And I think if the media is covering it as a very scary thing, it's because it is and it's spreading very fast.
LS: Yeah, good.good thoughts. I feel the same way. Did quarantine result in any major personal growth or life changes? We got to have a lot of time by ourselves in quarantine to just rethink our lives and find identities and all of this interesting stuff. So any, any big life changes you had or experienced?
AS: Yeah, well, I spent most of my time at home for the majority of the quarantine we've been in since I moved back home in March, and I didn't move back to campus until August for 2 weeks. And then I moved back home and didn't come back until January, so a long, long period of time. And I definitely had a lot of alone time to resonate and think on things. And I.I had what I like to call an "identity crisis" but it wasn't necessarily as negative as it sounds. I really thought long, long and hard about what I wanted to be doing in my life. And I think before COVID, I had just been in this, like uh, this very just focused viewpoint and wasn't really considering other options. I'd come out of high school being labeled as, you know, "the smart kid." And I had assumed that that had to mean that I had to go into STEM and I had to do something science-y. And that was just always something I had assumed and I hadn't really looked at other options. And I think while I was sitting at home, just really thinking about what I wanted to do in day to day life; what I wanted my life to be. It really opened my eyes to changing what I wanted to study. So I changed what I wanted to study during quarantine from Speech and Hearing Sciences to Entrepreneurship with a focus on disability advocacy, working in making the workplace more accessible to neurodivergent people. And so, I think being alone in quarantine and really thinking about what I wanted to do really changed the focus of my life. And as bad as COVID's been, I think without that break that I think a lot of us needed to take a breath and really think about things, I mean, I wouldn't be on the path that I'm on now that's making me incredibly happy.
LS: Yeah, so I think it's always important in times of literal pandemic, and just a lot of caution and stress and safety, it's very interesting how psychology can be affected by it and just life view and becoming aware of other problems in the world, too. I think we've seen a lot of that through this pandemic is seeing other disparities not just in, um, healthcare. So I think it's really interesting how such a time of negativity and being scared can bring change and for the good.
AS: I think in a lot of scary situations, people really, you know, sit down and think about what matters and it changes a lot of viewpoints. It's nice to have at least something positive come out of such a negative experience.
LS: Yeah, and I think it teaches you to have a greater appreciation of life, and the family that you have, and the friends and other relationships that you have because pandemics really can make you take some of that for granted when you hear about so many people losing loved ones, or about so many people losing their jobs. Um, so, yeah, is there anything else just to close off that you would like to talk about regarding COVID or anything you want to talk about about the autistic community and just any last words of wisdom you have?
AS: Um, I think in general, um, specifically the disabled community has had a lot of ups and downs because COVID. Obviously, it's a pandemic, and a lot of people, you know, get ill and pass away because of it. And I think it's been especially difficult from the disabled community because we're not necessarily prioritized for care in hospitals for ventilators. If there's ventilator shortages, or even if there's not ventilator shortages, a lot of times hospitals won't treat, um, disabled people. And so that's been very difficult. And then with vaccine prioritization, some states decide not to prioritize disabled people, which can be very difficult. But on the other hand, there has been a lot of advantages from.for disabled people, uh, with the transition of a lot of workplaces and schools to virtual learning, that can sometimes be very accessible to disabled people. Sometimes not accessible to certain disabled people, but for some of us being able to go to class or go to work online and from home can make a big difference. And sometimes when we might not be able to make it to the.to the workplace, but we'll be able to work from home, it can definitely improve the attendance of a lot of people. So, there's definitely been pluses and minuses for the disabled community.
LS: All right, thank you so much. That is all the questions that I have. Thank you.
AS: Thank you.
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