FAYETTEVILLE -- Seniors at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville described a pandemic year that made the familiar turn strange.
And looking back, some said it's the small things that they came to cherish.
"I got emotional the other day when I heard the Old Main bells. I haven't heard that since my junior year," said Stephanie Barber, 22, a journalism and political science double-major. Traditionally at 5 p.m. the bells ring out the university's alma mater.
Not many people have been around to hear it. For semesters last fall and this spring, a majority of UA courses were taken online rather than in person, making students' visits to campus few and far between.
Another tradition, commencement, once again has the campus buzzing. A total of 4,168 graduate and undergraduate students registered to walk in one of 19 ceremonies that began Thursday and continue today and Saturday, a UA spokesman said.
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Health and safety protocols, such as mandatory mask wearing, are in place, as they were for December commencement events at the university.
Limits on attendance mean students are allowed six guests, who need tickets to attend.
It's another example of how efforts to reduce the spread of covid-19 have affected almost all facets of college life. Students found themselves having to adapt to new modes of learning and living after covid-19 first emerged in Arkansas in March of last year.
Barber, who is from Argyle, Texas, said the pandemic led to some personal realizations.
"The pandemic helped me slow down and figure out what my priorities are for my senior year," Barber said.
With a new focus, Barber said she came to appreciate family and roommates, after feeling "very burnt out" before the pandemic.
"I feel like the biggest word is 'growth.' I feel like I've grown a lot," Barber said.
Devin Boggs Riley, 26, said he struggled to deal with the changes.
"I feel like a lot of college students faced mental health challenges. I think a lot of people went into depression from being so isolated," said Boggs Riley, who is earning a bachelor's degree in human environmental sciences.
A first-generation college student, Boggs Rileyof Fayetteville said he felt the loss of "social capital," referring to the connections he normally would have with professors and friends.
He credited professors with reaching out to him after his academic performance started to slip.
"If it wasn't for professors individually checking in on me, asking, 'Hey, how's everything been going?' I don't think I would have been graduating this semester," Boggs Riley said.
Along with the initial outreach, he said he received assistance through the campus program U of A Cares, which gave him a plan allowing for some extra time to meet class deadlines.
He said he missed not having tailgate and other campus events, but he thinks he and others gained something overall from the experience.
"I do believe that this generation that's graduating is developing a level of grit that it didn't have before," Boggs Riley said.
Christine Prichard, 22, from Coppell, Texas, said students "had to learn how to kind of motivate ourselves."
The pandemic forced her to learn "how to really set up my own time management and organizational skills to be able to get everything done," Prichard said.
Something that couldn't be overcome was losing out on social experiences, she said.
When she went to campus to use a computer lab printer or have a meal with friends, "it was completely ghost town," Prichard said.
"It was really depressing to go onto campus, so I avoided it at all costs," Prichard said.
Covid-19 restrictions made holding events difficult for her student group, Sigma Phi Lambda, a fellowship organization for Christian women.
"I feel like I missed out on a lot of things, a lot of opportunities, especially with it being my senior year of college," said Prichard, who has earned a degree in human environmental science.
Margo Leavitt, 21, a new nursing graduate from Fayetteville, said the pandemic caused big changes in her studies.
Normally, she would have spent more time shadowing working nurses and learning in clinical settings.
Those opportunities were significantly reduced because of the pandemic, Leavitt said, while at the same time she came to understand what it means to be on the front lines in dealing with covid-19.
"It was very overwhelming to see how health professionals had to bear the burden of this crisis," Leavitt said. She called it "inspiring" to learn of their sacrifices, yet "also pretty scary to think about that responsibility."
As a student, "it was really difficult to feel like you had other people going through this same thing as you, because they were far away," Leavitt said. "It was very isolating."
Technology like group chats and Zoom calls helped, she said, and students "have supported each other in really difficult circumstances."
Before the pandemic, she said she wanted to continue in college and study public health. The pandemic "has really galvanized" her to pursue those studies, Leavitt said, adding that she's interested in studying epidemiology and emergency management.
Aysia Nguyen, 22, said the pandemic affected her visits home to Fort Smith and trips made by her roommates.
"We're all from the same area. We'd all get tested before visiting our families and then get tested after," Nguyen said. For months, a concern for her grandmother, considered at high risk, led her to skip visits home, she said.
"Obviously, we all didn't expect a pandemic to put our lives on hold," Nguyen said. With her family now vaccinated, she's come away from the pandemic "definitely cherishing the little moments that I got to spend with my friends and family."
Nguyen, who is earning a degree in exercise science, said Thursday that she's glad to be able to participate in commencement. She said that as a first-generation college student, she feels some disappointment that a limit of six tickets per student means her extended family can't all be there.
"My mom and my grandmother, they get to see," Nguyen said, calling the graduation "a really exciting time for all of us" in the family.
Leavitt said it's important to her that the university have its covid-19 safety protocols in place for the ceremonies, including allowing for distancing among students and families in attendance.
John Thomas, a UA spokesman, said the maximum size for any one ceremony will be 288 students at Bud Walton Arena and 180 students at Barnhill Arena.
"I am so glad. I would not attend if they were not going to such great lengths to implement the safety" protocols, Leavitt said.
The 4,168 registration total for students registered to participate is down from the 4,499 who registered to attend spring commencement in 2019, Thomas said. UA did not hold commencement ceremonies in the spring of 2020.
Boggs Riley said that with no restrictions in place, he would have anticipated having maybe 25 members of his extended family and several friends in attendance.
"I really wish I could say that it didn't matter to me," he said of the attendance restriction. "It's been a big disappointment."
Barber said she has two sisters who each missed out last year on their commencement ceremonies. One finished high school, and the other earned a college degree, she said.
"I'm grateful I get to do anything at all," Barber said.
Kimberly Carol Thompson receives her diploma Thursday during the University of Arkansas 2021 graduate degree commencement ceremony at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)