Seeing KU’s campus through students’ eyes — and Plexiglas screens

photo by: Ashley Golledge

KU students Denniel Correa (left) and Petricia Hall practice a scene through plexiglass during an acting class in Murphy Hall on Thursday, October 1, 2020.

Life on campus at the University of Kansas looks different these days.

Signs on buildings tell visitors which doors to use to enter, and which to exit. White tents across campus offer people an outdoor place to rest or study. Red stickers on floors say “Thank you for practicing social distancing” and “Maintain distance.”

For third-year law student Mohammad Hameed, none of these changes were unexpected — because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — but they were something new, as are numerous aspects of his final year.

About half of Hameed’s classes are online, and half are in person. The law school classroom is “stimulated by conversation,” he said, but the hybrid education model makes that more difficult. And if Hameed tells a joke, well, with masks, he’s not quite sure if it lands.

“For me personally, the difference has been apparent but not destructive to my education,” Hameed said as he sat in the Burge Union at the end of September.

photo by: Lauren Fox

Third year law student Mohammad Hameed studies in the Burge Union at the University of Kansas on Sept. 29.

The Journal-World talked to students and viewed different buildings across campus to get a sense of what the environment is like this semester at KU. Older students commented on how their experience this semester differs from previous years, and new students discussed their strategies for making friends and becoming engaged.

To get the sense of what a class is like, the Journal-World sat in on one that typically hinges on touching and reading others’ facial expressions. But this year, the students remain separated, and communication comes through the eyes.

An acting class during COVID-19

On either side of a Plexiglas screen, two students in an Acting III class repeated a line back and forth to each other on Oct. 1.

The performers were in the center of the room, facing one another but separated by the screen between them and the masks on their faces. Surrounding them were their peers, seated in distanced chairs on the outskirts of the room or zooming in virtually on a projector screen.

“Take me with you,” Gabrielle Morris said to classmate Freddie Mwangi. The line comes from Jean Anouilh’s “Thieves’ Carnival,” and the students chose it for professor Laura Kirk’s “key line” exercise.

“Take you with me?” Mwangi replied.

“Take me with you,” Morris said again.

The actors continued to repeat the lines, focusing on staring into each other’s eyes and not allowing pauses between their statements. At first, they said the lines with a frustrated tone, but then, about halfway through the exercise, Morris took a step forward. She raised both hands and placed them on the plexiglass as she said quietly and passionately, “Take me with you.” The class let out a collective gasp.

Freddie Mwangi and Gabrielle Morris

photo by: Ashley Golledge

KU students Freddie Mwangi (left) and Gabrielle Morris practice a scene through plexiglass during an acting class in Murphy Hall on Thursday, October 1, 2020.

“She just made it come to life,” Kirk later said in an interview with the Journal-World. She said she encourages students to touch the plexiglass, but don’t worry — she also sanitizes it afterward.

“I think the big trick right now is using what you have, because you’ve lost so much,” Kirk said.

At the start of her class, Kirk discussed how important it is for actors to listen to one another with their eyes — especially while wearing masks.

“We were talking in the last class about how hard it is not to see the face,” Kirk told her students. “But as we know in film, eyes are everything, and a lot of times in film we say, ‘Hang onto the eyes.’ So watch the eyes. Build it together, but don’t say anything or do anything unless the … eyes, or the tone of the voice, propels you into it.”

KU professor Laura Kirk

photo by: Ashley Golledge

KU professor Laura Kirk gives direction to acting students Aubrey McGettrick and Kalen Stockton in Murphy Hall on Thursday, October 1, 2020.

As the students took turns stepping up to the plexiglass divider and practicing their key lines, Kirk would frequently remind them: “I want eyes on eyes.”

Because of the hybrid structure of her class, Kirk sees half of her students one day, and half the next class period. But some students have opted to only participate in class via Zoom, and that’s OK too.

For those students, Kirk would occasionally bend down to speak closer to the microphone, which she had placed on the ground at the center of the room. She said the students seem to hear and see fine online, and they participated in the “key line” activity just like the students who were there in person.

One in-class student did joke, “I need a shield in between their screens.”

Kirk said it’s been stressful and exhausting to adapt her class to a hybrid model, but that her motto comes from her former acting teacher Wynn Handman, who died of COVID-19 this year. “Stay with it,” he would say.

Students comment on campus atmosphere, changes

On Sept. 30, a woman jogged on Jayhawk Boulevard in a red mask, and a Catholic mass took place outside Danforth Chapel.

In Watson Library, around noon, there were hardly any students inside, but those who were there wore masks, sat alone and hunched over books on the second floor. Select computers were turned around with “do not use” signs attached to them, to ensure social distancing. The stacks, a sign proclaimed, were closed.

For junior Athena Schnorr, life on campus this year is lonelier.

“I used to be on campus from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and I would talk to so many people,” she said. “And now I am at home, not able to talk to them, not able to have that experience and that interaction with people.”

Schnorr isn’t at home all the time; she does have one in-person class. And she also works as a building manager at the Memorial Union. She said it’s been obvious that there are fewer students walking around.

“It is not as filled, and it’s really upsetting because I was obviously here my freshman year and you could see everyone from a mile away,” she said. “And so it does feel a little bit emptier, but due to the stuff that is going on, I’m happy with it.”

Schnorr said she hopes the precautions and protocols on campus will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Lawrence.

photo by: Lauren Fox

The ballroom in the University of Kansas’ Memorial Union is pictured on Sept. 30, set up for classes with socially distanced seating.

Despite the atmosphere on campus being different this semester, first-year student Lilly Cleveland said that for her, “being on campus … makes all the difference.”

“I’ve been loving the atmosphere,” she said. “I don’t have anything to compare it to, so it’s a new environment for me and it’s gorgeous and it’s kind of a place I’ve been able to create for myself.”

Cleveland, who was studying in a tent outside the school of law, said that making friends under these conditions is difficult, but not impossible.

“It’s not necessarily the masks that are the barrier,” she said. “I would more say that the lack of activities is the barrier. But so far I’ve met a good group of friends.”

photo by: Lauren Fox

First year Lilly Cleveland studies inside one of the white tents on the University of Kansas campus on Sept. 29.

Two other first-year students, Meg Friday and Michael Maldonado, said making friends can be strange. Friday said sometimes she’ll meet people online through her classes, but then not see them in person until weeks later. And when trying to meet people in person on campus, Friday said the masks at first made it difficult, but “then you just kind of realize you have to get through the uncomfortable to have that experience.”

Maldonado said he’s made a majority of his friends just by passing them on the street.

“We’re already kind of looking at our phones and stuff before having to wear masks, and then wearing masks just encourages more isolation,” he said. So reaching out and greeting someone or complimenting their outfit can go a long way, Maldonado said.

“They want to make friends, and you want to make friends,” he said. “Everyone’s pretty lonely, I feel like.”

When asked to describe the campus atmosphere, Hameed, the third-year law student, had something to compare it to, unlike the new students. Despite only half of his classes being held in person, Hameed is still on campus every day. He said that helps him stay engaged and not get distracted, like he might from home. Hameed said he’s noticed that organizations on campus are trying to have the same reach they’ve had in previous years in order to create a similar environment, but that it seems like there are fewer students on campus to take in the information.

For Hameed, “It’s pretty much everything that campus was before quarantine, but much more muted.”

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to show Laura Kirk’s correct title.

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