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The Most Influential Year, So Far

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Photo by Annah Johnson.

By Sean Chase

For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the worst year and counting of their life. Whether it be from a loss attributed to COVID-19, the restrictions imposed forcing people to work and attend school from their homes, with businesses shut down and their social life as they knew it disappeared, people’s lives were turned upside down.

As Grand Rapids Community College announced they were stopping in-person classes for two weeks, I found myself rejoicing over the slight break in the midst of a grueling winter semester. Five days a week, I was on campus and struggling under the weight of my course load. So, as I said, I welcomed the time away, but with the switch to virtual learning, I realized this was more than just a second spring break.

After GRCC shifted to remote learning, I found this was actually something that I could get behind. I’ve always been a homebody, so when our living rooms became our classrooms I thought I would find my groove. Being the oldest person in most of my classes at GRCC, I would catch myself thinking that I had this school thing figured out, and turning 30 only solidified that in my mind. I had lived through seemingly everything life could throw at me, and kept it moving. However, being at home, introduced distractions that weren’t present in the classroom, as well as the opportunity to turn off your camera and mute your microphone.

Now as long as your name appeared on screen, you could attend class, while napping or cleaning or even playing video games. Due to this, my grades slipped, as the isolation caused my anxiety to fester. Without an outlet I let it run rampant, often sleeping for 14+ hours before diving into an extended stretch with a PS4 controller in my hand. As the final weeks of the semester began to disappear I was in jeopardy of failing my classes and disrupting my G.I. Bill benefits. But with the help of great professors and personal dedication, I locked in on my classes and managed to scrape by with passing grades. However, I hadn’t dealt with the anxiety and abandonment issues, instead I was burying them, and with the two-week shutdown of on-campus classes continuing into the summer, it felt inevitable that I would once again leave GRCC disgraced, even if only in my own mind.

Even though I was battling my own self-destructive thought patterns, my mind became my biggest asset. For most of my life, I have been driven by a fear of not being enough, and if I was going to fail to cross the finish line at GRCC, I was going to go down swinging.

With the way the G.I. Bill is structured, you’re only covered for classes in your degree path, it is hard to find a break from the grind of classes to explore what interests you. So I would try to find an easy class on the list and had been lucky thus far. But the first half of the summer semester showed me that I don’t actually know what constitutes an easy class. I once again found myself behind and prepared to find a new avenue to pursue a career in sports talk radio. Then, as I was reaching an overwhelming level of anxiety due to the extended isolation, my brother went back to work.

This meant that someone would have to babysit my niece during the week. At this point in the pandemic, I was begging to leave my house and the neverending cycle of Minecraft, stressing about homework I wasn’t willing to commit time to and overthinking, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Not only would it give me the ability to leave my house, but I would be able to spend valuable time with my niece at a time where the world seemed like it could end at any moment. At first it felt impossible to keep her entertained, help with her classwork, and knock out the insane amount of homework being assigned in my classes. Then slowly but surely we developed a rhythm. Once she woke up, we would leave the house for a quick, but expensive, trip to the local pizza place/gas station for pigs-in-a-blanket and yellow sport-top Gatorades.

After eating, it was time for homework, with intermittent breaks filled by watching the Hermitcraft series on Youtube or an impromptu lesson on life, courtesy of Uncle Sean. Lunch. Homework. Then my brother or his wife would get home from work, I would chat for a bit and dip-out before dinner to head home and respond to the discussion board posts for my classes.

Without noticing, as time went by I found the structure I was looking for. I got by through the first half of the summer semester, and then in the second portion I took multicultural literature for children. Going in, I was excited because I have always enjoyed reading, but as the stressors of life mounted, it fell to the wayside. What I didn’t expect was to find books that explored every range of emotion. With the books being set in Michigan, I found a connection which intensified because they touched on personally relevant subject matter such as losing a parent, adoption and abandonment issues.

Having dealt with all of these issues I was drawn into the texts of the class and would often read while my niece was reading next to me. Instead of constantly being plugged into the TV, when we weren’t working on homework, we would read books from my class such as “Bud Not Buddy” or play board games in an attempt to add something to her summer vacation.

Once the summer was over my niece began the third grade virtually. While it was a drastic change to our structure, I was able to see what it is like from the teacher’s perspective. During her zoom classes, I would find myself encouraging my niece to turn her microphone on and respond to the teacher to break the awkward silence. As I would prod her to respond, I realized that I was one of those students. While I wasn’t in the third grade, when the pandemic hit and teachers were scrambling to adjust their lesson plans and adapt to virtual learning, I too turned off my camera and went silent.

This changed how I viewed the lockdown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and my future education. After being a camera-off, mutedmic participant in most zoom calls, I told myself that I had to be an active participant in my education while enjoying my final semester at GRCC.

With only Intercultural Communication left looming over my head before I could call myself an alumni of GRCC, I had the freedom to add classes into my schedule that were aligned with what I wanted to do professionally. After signing up for a hybrid digital media production class, I stumbled across Introduction to Journalism.

Going into that class I didn’t know about The Collegiate and I was anticipating a textbook heavy briefing on how journalists go about their day-to-day business. However, once again I was wrong. Having missed the first class meeting, when I showed up for the second class filled with new faces, I found out that we were going to have to interview people and the whole nine yards, with the goal of writing articles to be published online.

Consistently during the lockdown, I would tell my niece, “no matter what, chase your dreams,” which was often followed by a self-deprecating joke about my status as a 30 year old community college student. Though I would constantly downplay it, being able to write stories and work in sports for a living had always been my dream.

All of a sudden, my anxiety and low self-esteem allowed me to begin questioning if I was capable of covering sports in any form. Once again I would turn my microphone off, and at times my camera off, disappearing into the background of the class. Then as I was preparing for an annual fishing trip, the opportunity to cover the GRCC men’s and women’s cross country teams was offered to the class. With no one speaking up, I turned on my microphone and volunteered to cover the team.

One negative of living in the moment constantly is that I rarely know the exact date of things that I commit myself to, because of this I had double booked. So when it came time to head out, I was packing my newly purchased recorder, my green notebook, and my computer for a weekend fishing trip on the Pere Marquette River.

Although I wasn’t able to reach Matt Sicilia, the head coach of the GRCC cross country teams at the time, I wrote up an article. After adding his comments, and extensive edits, I was a published writer. As soon as I got a taste of telling a story, I was hooked, and I dove into the class. All the while, slowly building confidence as I printed the articles off for proof that I had done it. Just as I was beginning to find my footing, while still finding time to pick my niece up from the bus, I was asked to apply for the Sports Editor position.

Once the interview process was complete, via Zoom, I closed the application, at least I thought, and proceeded to unleash an expletive laced celebration, as I realized I had attained a deep-seated life goal. Then the fear of failure set in.

While covering the cross country, I was able to bring my niece to take pictures of a practice, which ended up on the publication. Every-step of way, I kept the people closest to me involved in everything Collegiate. After an outrageously successful season for both the men’s and women’s cross country teams, their incredible performances allowed them to attend the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II national championship meet. Prior to the teams heading out for Fort Dodge, Iowa, GRCC held a socially distant event in celebration of their success. Once again, my niece was by my side, as I met the President of GRCC, Bill Pink, the Interim Athletic Director, David Selmon.

As the fall semester progressed, my fear turned into passion as I developed a love for reporting and writing. With the end of my career nearing, I attempted to change my degree path to reflect my newfound desire, but because I had completed all of the requirements for a communication degree. I was left with a decision, walk away from the Collegiate, just as I was on the verge of accomplishing more goals or pay out of pocket for the classes required to stay on the staff. The decision was easy, the process was a different story.

Although it took a good deal of effort to find financing, at the last minute Sallie Mae came through and I kept pushing forward. However, due to the stress surrounding if I would even be able to afford continuing my education, a sentence from my niece brought me back to earth. On a normal trip to the store, while I was talking to her about the situation. She mentioned that she was proud of me, because I always tell her to chase her dreams, and I’m doing just that.

Now that my last official semester at GRCC is over, I’m left with a bittersweet feeling. While I was able to develop a sports podcast, write some quality pieces, and help others grow as writers, during the busiest time in community college sports history. It is sad to walk away from such an incredible group of people in search of personal growth, but life is all about perspectives. I learned so much about how I interact with my family from the pieces shared by other students, and for that I must be grateful.

As the process of handing over my responsibilities to the next Sports Editor began, the Michigan Community College Press Association 2021 awards were announced. Many of the top awards were given to the people who have helped influence my life, in such a short time. If COVID-19 hadn’t forced virtual learning upon the world, I wouldn’t have found the career I want to pursue nor would I have been able to tell my story. So as crazy as it sounds the yearlong shutdown has been life-changing for me. By being forced to adjust, I learned to appreciate every bit of the journey and if you share as much of it as possible with the ones you love, it can have a lasting effect on the world.

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