At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, several students were removed from campus for breaking rules enforced to keep Utica College students and faculty safe and to ensure that campus remained safely open until Thanksgiving Break.
One such student was Freshman Bruce French. French was part of the first group of 12 students to be transitioned to online learning following a gathering in South Hall, the first big incident violating COVID-19 policy that President Laura Casamento had to address.
French said he has found the academic aspect of being online difficult, particularly in classes that are in-person for all his classmates.
“I struggle with math and doing that online has been really hard,” French said. “I wish I had that one-on-one attention that you get from being in-person.”
French said that he thought the punishment to be harsher than he had expected. French had received a message inviting him to spend some time with some of his teammates. As a new student, he decided to take the opportunity to meet some new people. According to French, he was unaware of how many people were going to be in attendance.
“I went an hour after getting the text, I decided to go last minute because I wanted to get to know the people I was going to be on a team with for the next four years,” he said. “I was in there for maybe thirty seconds before there was a knock and Campus Safety came in.”
French did not realize right away that he would be in any trouble, as he had thought Campus Safety was there to be sure nobody was drinking, and as he had not been, he was not concerned.
“I’d just walked in – I didn’t even know how many people were there,” he said. “I wasn’t worried because I didn’t even realize what we were in trouble for.”
Campus Safety recorded the IDs of all students present, and a hearing was scheduled.
According to French, the hearing consisted of the 12 students all being handed letters of suspension, and they were not given the opportunity to speak to anyone and present their cases before parents and the rest of the college was informed that the twelve students involved had been transitioned to online instruction.
“I wasn’t even at college for one week before I was sent home,” he said. “I left before classes even started. I felt like my family was disappointed in me. I should’ve been at school, not home.”
Senior Nicole Wollin was in the second group to be transitioned to online instruction.
“I think the school had to do what they needed to do in order to keep students safe and healthy to keep the semester going in person,” Wollin said.
However, Wollin added that UC was unclear with instructions prior to the event. She was in an off-campus house, with seven other students, and was under the impression that it was within the allowed numbers, as the people in attendance thought the limit to off-campus gatherings was 10 people.
“Being online has impacted my semester greatly,” Wollin said. “I was already used to it after switching to online classes in March. I don’t always mind being online because I feel that my attendance is better, but I do miss seeing my classmates and professors in-person.”
As a therapeutic recreation major, Wollin’s classes are often very hands-on, which she said can make her feel left out at times, as she is there virtually rather than physically. However, Wollin feels her professors and other classmates have done a great job at including her in Zoom meetings during classes and have adapted well to teaching virtually.
“These are new and different times with new expectations and guidelines,” Senior Vice President for Student Life and Enrollment Jeffery Gates said. “Hopefully students realize that UC takes the pandemic seriously and took all the steps necessary to continue to have an in-person academic year.”
Gates added that UC is doing the best they can to keep the entire community safe and the campus open through both education as well as enforcement of the new guidelines. He added that, in doing so, some difficult decisions needed to be made.
“My hope is that students have learned from their situation and will be more cognizant of all expectations and guidelines in the future,” Gates said, adding that he hopes students at home understand that UC had to follow through on the advertised consequences for safety violations.
“We don’t create rules and protocols just because – we create them to ensure the utmost safe experience for the community, and when protocols are violated, there are ramifications,” Gates said.
According to Gates, any student who was sent home or moved to online only instruction will be welcomed back for the spring semester.
French said that he would like to return in the spring, but he is not sure that he will.
“My family feels like it wasn’t handled very fairly, especially since there have been parties since,” French said. “We feel almost like an example was made of us.”
Gates defended his original stance, noting that an example was not attempted to be made of the students early on.
“There was no setting an example here, let me be very clear about that,” Gates said. “What I would say is that someone is always the first to be held accountable.”
According to Gates, UC set an expectation for students to abide by COVID rules and those rules were broken.
“As you know, there were more students who received disciplinary action after the initial group,” he said. “While most students have been compliant, there have been others who have not and action has been taken with those individuals as well.”
Gates added that he hopes the initial group of students knows that similar decisions were made throughout the semester to keep the UC community safe.
“I think that Utica College students and faculty should be proud of being one of the few colleges that stayed open and in person through the whole semester, even if it took making a few of the students go online,” Wollin said.