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Preparing For The Shock Of College During The Shock Of A Pandemic

Natu and Karnwie Tweh posing for a photo as children.
Natu Tweh
Natu and Karnwie Tweh posing for a photo as children.

Starting college is always a mix of exciting and scary. This year, because of the pandemic, there's even more uncertainty around the experience.

My little brother Karnwie will be attending the University of Florida in the spring. I graduated from UF last year.

Karnwie will be joining the Innovation Academy, which operates on a spring-summer schedule instead of the traditional fall-spring. So Karnwie has been waiting at home for more than five months, getting ready for his freshman year.

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And we’ve been talking about what he’s going to miss out on as he starts college during this pandemic.

I went to Ireland, and in my freshman year, I was in the kickboxing club. I was dragged to do improv and I stayed doing improv. I participated in a lot of activities.

I wonder if Karnwie was mad at the situation? Or envious of me?

"I feel like the club situation is still the same, I’ll still be able to join clubs. Whether it will be online or in-person, so no," he said.

No? And You're cool with that?

"Yeah, I don’t mind."

He’s introverted and a bit shy, so his responses are short. He says it’s OK to say that.

I had to ask him to pause Halo so we could keep the conversation going.

We’re both massive game nerds, we’re hardly ever not playing a video game. Because of the pandemic, he's had plenty of time to sink hours into his favorite games.

He's also been researching urban planning and architecture.

It’s what he wants to study at UF. He hopes to start a company to work on the infrastructure in our parents' home country of Liberia.

I asked if he felt a bit lucky to start in the spring as opposed to the fall.

"I’ve never thought about there being any luck behind it, but now that you’ve mentioned it, yeah. I start school with a potential vaccine that’ll be distributed. But it’s all just coincidence," he responded.

My mother Olabunmi – or Momo, as we call her – drove us to Gainesville recently because she was so, just like, I gotta get answers! She had this determination and willingness to at the least see the campus again.

Natu and Karnwie posing on the University of Florida campus.
Natu Tweh
Natu and Karnwie posing on the University of Florida campus.

She has been stressed about all the unknowns of sending her son to college during COVID-19. But she doesn’t think it will ruin his experience.

"You know you have to wash your hands, you know you have to stay a distance Who said with COVID you can’t mingle? It won’t be as, you know, as juicy I will say, but he can still — he can still get around," she said on the drive to Gainesville.

Momo is so excited for Karnwie to go off and be on his own for the first time. During the drive, she told us stories about her boarding school experience in Ghana.

"I was the oldest, I was 12 when we first went to boarding school. For the first year, we were lost, I cried every day! But it was beautiful at the end because I was like a master," she said.

She also talked about the independence she and her little sister gained from living on their own:

"By 18, 19, Monique and I came to New York, we stayed on our own. We got our apartment. We found jobs. We did everything on our own," Momo said.

However, COVID-19 has brought confusion and uncertainty into our home.

Since my little brother Karnwie graduated from high school, we haven’t received much information from the school about things outside of his classes.

Momo says there is a stark difference in communication with her now compared to when I went up to Gainesville four years ago.

“I am seriously in the dark now. I don’t even know what to expect. With Natu, we knew step-by-step what we were going to do, what was going to happen the first week. I haven’t heard anything from the school," she said.

"There’s been so many changes and unknowns that we are also as an institution working through in real-time with our parents and our family members and our students,"said Sara Tanner, the communications director for student affairs at UF.

She says that reaching out to such a large student body is a big challenge, with all the obstacles of the pandemic making it even harder to do so. UF can have more than 50,000 students enrolled at any given time.

"We’re trying to communicate changes or an adjustment and we may not have all pieces of the puzzle yet because we are living that experience as well."

For the spring semester, the university plans to have the campus open to all students and introduce “HyFlex classes.” This is a hybrid option allowing some students to take a class in person, and others to take it online at the same time.

They plan to maintain mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing measures while offering testing to students and employees whether they are showing symptoms or not.

Karnwie hopes the university’s plan keeps the case numbers low until the vaccine is available to the public.

"You can prepare as much as you want, but there will always be something that comes up. It’s the unorthodox," he said. "So, am I prepared? Right now? Yeah, I think I’m prepared, but there will always be something that comes up which you can’t account for and you’ll just have to adapt to it."

As his older brother, I worry about him more than he worries about himself. However, I’m confident in his confidence. I know he’ll be alright.

Natu Tweh is WLRN's Morning Host.
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