By Dan Gerardi

This semester has definitely been different. With all the changes to our class schedule, and then the coronavirus pandemic, it was not easy. We got through it though, and I learned a lot. 

From a news perspective, it is hard to imagine something not only dominating the news cycle for as long as COVID-19 has, but also shutting down as much of American everyday life as it has. COVID-19 has wiped out virtually all events and stories that do not have some sort of coronavirus connection. Many people lost their jobs, and many others are working from home. All 'nonessential' businesses are suspended. Schools are closed and students are learning from home. All sports and public events are suspended. People are supposed to stay six feet away from each other and gatherings of ten people are deemed dangerous. It is hard to imagine anything having this kind of a truly global impact. Outside of a world war or some kind of horrible global natural disaster, I can not think of anything else than can touch the lives of virtually everyone around the globe like a worldwide pandemic can. Very quickly, these wholescale changes to the most constant pillars of our everyday lives have become the new normal. It is not ideal, and it is not a very happy time since some of the events postponed were very near and dear to our hearts. It is also not something to feel angry or discouraged by either. The cancellations, postponements, and social distancing are all necessary to slow the spread of the virus, and (somewhat) normal life will return before too long. With all that in mind, there were still classes to finish, chiefly this one – Journalism 445, the last of my major classes. Despite everything that happened this semester, this class really did teach me a lot.

I remember first hearing about the virus over winter break probably in early January. I felt bad for the people of Wuhan and of China, but I never imagined it would affect our daily life like it has. We talked in all my classes about how the virus was affecting life in China as cases started to pop up in South Korea, Italy, Spain, Iran, and other countries throughout Eurasia.  I could see it spreading and figured we would eventually have some cases in the United States. For a long time, I never thought it would get worse anywhere else in the world than it was in China, As the virus started to get a lot more widespread in Italy and other European countries, we started to get a few more cases in the United States. By early March some smaller events started to get postponed, and some precautions started to be put in place, but it still did not seem that bad to me. Then in the span of less than a week, starting on about March 10th, my entire world changed. Large scale events started being postponed. Professional and college sports leagues announced they would continue without fans in attendance. On Wednesday March, 11th Utah Jazz basketball player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the following day actor Tom Hanks tested positive. This put an immediate halt on all American culture. Sports leagues were suspended indefinitely. Then, the University of Illinois announced all classes would convert to online indefinitely. The NCAA College Basketball Tournament was cancelled. All spring NCAA sports were cancelled. After going home for spring break on Friday, March 13th, we were ordered by Governor J.B. Pritzker to 'shelter in place' and gatherings of 10 or more people were banned. All Illinois public schools were ordered to move to online learning. Stores even started limiting the number of people allowed inside at one time.

My Mom and I had to wait in line for over 15 minutes just to get inside our local Costco.

My daily life had been so dramatically changed in less than a week that by the time the U of I announced commencement was postponed, it had little effect on me. I had become numb to such massive change.

As an aspiring journalist, this semester was incredibly unique. It is not often that a single news story completely dominates the news cycle for an entire semester, and this one will continue to dominate for a lot longer than that. Even before mid-March brought large scale, COVID-19 related changes to everyday American life, we were doing news stories about the novel coronavirus. As early as January, we were talking about the massive outbreak in China and how it was spreading to Italy and Europe. By mid February, we were talking about the small number of cases that were in the United States. The story was beginning to have Champaign-Urbana related consequences. We have a large population of Chinese students at the U of I and many of them were concerned about their families back in China. I remember I produced our class's first newscast on February 6. We changed the show from 30 minutes to a full hour because coronavirus was already such a big story. I'll also never forget Megan Xu's story during that newscast about U of I students from China who were buying masks in Champaign-Urbana and sending them back to China because there was such a shortage of masks there. This caused Champaign-Urbana to have a shortage of masks. That was the first time I got a sense for how big this virus could get, and Megan brought a perspective I had never thought about. 

As a student, this semester was certainly challenging. Being a second semester senior and having to finish up my classwork while trying to find a job was hard enough without the global pandemic. It was not easy at first to convert all classes to online learning. Through it all, I just had to be flexible. I just had to roll with the punches. As classes resumed after spring break, I got into a rhythm of how to handle each class, and it was working out fine. The social aspect of being a student was incredibly missed, especially in the last semester of my academic career. I am a lot more engaged and applied to my schoolwork when I am seeing my friends everyday in class and talking with them about our assignments. That is especially so in a class like this – where we put on a newscast and everything I do affects someone else. I hold myself more accountable if someone else needs my package or VOSOTVO for the newscast as opposed to me having a lot of time to complete an assignment that does not affect anyone else but me. If having to do schoolwork is the price to be paid to go to a classroom full of people who truly are my friends, I will pay it all day long. Being a solitary student unable to truly interact with my peers was by far the hardest part about being a student through all of this. It is a reminder that the drive and motivation to get things done has to come from me. At the end of the day, I am the one who has to care about the quality of my work more than anyone else, regardless of whether anyone else is depending on me to do it. 

As a citizen of the country, it feels like I am going through a historic time. Granted, I would love everything to go back to normal, and I wish this pandemic never happened. I cannot help but feel somewhat fascinated to be going through such a historic time. I feel it is my duty as a citizen to follow the shelter in place order and do my part to ensure I do not spread the virus to others. I get the feeling this is something that will be a 'before and after' time in our country's history. What will a post-coronavirus United States look like? What about the globe? What aspects of everyday life will be different forever because of this pandemic? My dad always talks about what airports were like before the tragic events of 9/11. He mentions the lack of security compared to now and how now it takes so much more time to get through the airports because of increased checks and security measures. I wonder if things like high fives or hand shakes will start to disappear from everyday life after this pandemic. I think about large gatherings like sporting events, concerts, or even churches and wonder if there will be measures put in place at events like these to ensure people do not catch diseases. Living through this unprecedented event in United States history makes me wonder how much of the rest of my life this pandemic will shape.'

This semester made me use many technologies in ways I never have before. Even before the pandemic, things like Facebook and Google Calendar were critical resources to finding story ideas. Facebook was great for finding events on campus that I did not even know existed. Once I found an event that intrigued me, it was also very easy to message the event organizers on Facebook and set up an interview. As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, I was constantly checking my email for messages from my teachers about how classes would change as well as MASSMAIL updates about how the university would be handling the pandemic. In the past, I really did not use my laptop super often for schoolwork, but it quickly turned into my classroom as I started attending video classes on Zoom. My sister, who is a student at Ohio State University, also used her laptop more than usual for all her online work.

My sister takes a test online during quarantine.
My sister used her laptop, iPad, and her phone to help her do homework at home.

Technology also really influenced my mom while at home. She is a preschool teacher, and her class has been sending her videos of them counting and finding different shapes around their house. I also helped my mom film several videos for her to send to her students.

This is a screenshot from a video I filmed of my mom teaching her preschoolers about farm animals during quarantine.
My mom watches videos of her preschoolers finding different shapes around their house.

Television also played a key role in staying informed throughout the pandemic. My family and I watched countless press conferences from Governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot talking about how our local areas and our state were handling the pandemic. We also watched many press conferences from President Donald Trump as he explained the national response to the virus. Where I once went to class with dozens of other students every day and talked to them about our common experience of our class together, my phone became the only way to keep up with these people both as fellow students and as friends. Technology played an instrumental role in helping me get through this semester. 

I think I viewed the events of the coronavirus pandemic as part journalist and part citizen. As a student journalist studying towards a journalism degree, I naturally viewed the pandemic through a journalistic angle. Coronavirus completely dominated the news cycle in the U.S. from mid-February or early March on so much so that it was very difficult to find a story that was not coronavirus-related from a local or nation news outlet. News has been very important throughout this entire pandemic. News outlets have been the only way people have been able to stay informed throughout this unpredictable pandemic. Many people know very little about the virus or the best practices about staying safe during a global pandemic so it has been the duty of news organizations to give health experts and local and national leaders a platform to reach every American and help them stay safe. There were also times where I naturally took a step back and noticed all the little parts of daily life that were impacted by the pandemic. It is hard not to think about missing my last semester of college and all its fun events. It is also difficult not to get caught up in the struggle of social distancing. It is very painful to not be able to see my friends or some extended family members. We have not been able to be with my sick grandpa, but we have been going to his house and talking to him through his door.

My family and I have to talk to my sick grandpa through this door during the pandemic.

Social distancing has been something that has been difficult for everyone. Viewing the pandemic with a journalistic eye is not so different from viewing it from the perspective of an everyday citizen. As journalists we give a voice to everyday citizens and bring to light events, issues, or feelings that everyday citizens may not have noticed they share with each other. The human interest stories of how people are coping with social distancing and their new normal are even more important because they remind people they are not going through this alone and we all have to do our part to help get through it. 

When time is of the essence, self-confidence is very important to completing assignments. When there is a lot to do in a short amount of time, there is not time to doubt yourself. If you have kept up with the work but just find yourself a little behind, confidence is key. When people lose confidence, they can confuse themselves and become anxious. Self-confidence is especially key as a journalist. It is your story or your package, and that means you are in charge. You are the one calling all the shots when interviewing, filming, and editing. I have found it is critical to trust myself and know that this is not the first time I have done a package. Getting caught up in every single little detail can be overwhelming. Whenever I have been worried about an assignment at the beginning, I usually end up wondering why I was so worried to begin with. I have begun to trust that I have the skills to get the job done and that has helped me immensely in completing my highest level assignments. Self confidence can be very empowering.

I have learned a lot in this class that I will take with me for the rest of my life. I have definitely learned to be flexible. Anything can change at any given moment, and that means you have to adapt. If you stop adapting, you might get left behind. When there is change, just go with it. It can be difficult to think that something is set in stone and then suddenly everything changes. Things happen. The world is always changing, and I will remember that in my career. I had to move the time of my news update on March 5 to an hour earlier than I was supposed to do it. I was not expecting that, but it was not a big deal. I just went with it and it turned out fine. I have also learned it is never too early to get started on something. It can be crucial to always try to stay ahead of the game especially when projects are on deadline. I could always improve at managing my time, but if I know I have to do something, it would be very helpful to get started sooner rather than later. Getting started can sometimes be the most challenging part for me, so I will try to jump in with both feet more often. One thing I will also take with me is my relationship with my coworkers. I always do my best work when I am working with peers I respect. This class was truly an amazing group of people, and seeing their work and drive to do their best inspired me to do my best. I always tried my best to stay upbeat and keep everyone in a good mood. To me, that really makes a big difference. I was lucky enough to get the chance to anchor our newscast on March 5. I tried to keep the mood loose and positive and I really think that helped all of us to be more relaxed and comfortable during our broadcast. I was even confident enough to throw in an adlib about a VOSTOVO I shot for that newscast. I made a lot of friends in this class, and having such a positive environment increased my drive to do my best work in filming, editing, and working in the studio. I want to remember that I can have a positive impact on those who work with me. When they are positive too, that in turn has a positive impact on me and my work. Creating a great work environment and great team of coworkers could start with just one person. Luckily for us, we had a whole class full of great people this semester.'

I learned a few things about leadership this semester as well. We had great communication within the class, and I was able to check in with everybody. For the most part we all knew what each other was doing every week which was very helpful. One major thing I learned about leadership is it is important to rely on other people. People like to feel like they are contributing. Also when a leader tries to do too much, it can seem like the leader is acting like they are above everyone else and make others feel like their work is not good enough. I produced our first newscast of the semester and I could not have done it at all without Becca Wood and Taylor Howard, my assistant producer and assignment editor. I let both of them do their jobs and they were both instrumental to our newscast doing well. I relied on them for a lot and they were amazing. Our packages were strong that week too. I was happy to help people when they needed it but I knew they have all edited packages before. One thing that I do not like is when leaders try to micromanage everyone. It can make people feel devalued when a leader tries to teach people something they already know. For me, the best leaders are ones who are always there when people need help, but also trust them to do their jobs. Inclusion is also a very important part of leadership. As a leader, it is important to check in with everyone and let them know you are there for them. It makes people feel valued and increases their self worth when they see the leader care about them enough to have a conversation with them about how they are doing. One other thing I found to be important about leadership is positive reinforcement. A compliment or some encouragement can go such a long way toward increasing people's confidence. It also brightens moods and helps create a positive environment. Hearing a simple 'nice work' or a 'thank you' can really mean a lot to someone. I think leaders do not give enough positive reinforcement, and telling someone they are doing a good job can have lasting positive effects. Overall, this was a successful semester, despite the pandemic and all the changes it brought. I was most proud of the leadership skills I learned in this class. I enjoyed producing our first newscast, and I was happy I could help some people get their news updates filmed in the studio by serving as director on the night we all got the news classes would be moved online. I knew how to use the switcher as well as how to record and save new supdates, and I was more than happy to direct news updates for Yuhan, Becca, Maddie, Liam, Alex, and Danielle W on that crazy night. Being there with everybody also helped me to feel calmer about all the changes that were taking place. Both situations were very hectic, and I am proud that I stayed calm and positive and was able to help everyone else feel more confident. This semester I was most proud of the opportunities I took advantage of. Both in the classroom and outside of it, I was proud I put myself out there. I do not always jump at leadership opportunities, but I am really proud I did this semester. Being a leader in this class helped me to be a better leader in my job with the Illinois Athletics video department too. I will definitely most remember the people of this class. I made some friendships in this class that will last far beyond our college years. I was so proud of how we all were able to work together. This was a very special group of students, and I was honored to work with each and every one of them this semester.

This rainbow offers a glimmer of hope that things will soon return to (somewhat) normal.

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