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Emma Frieze: 'Will I be able to go to college in the fall?'

Emma FriezeDuring her first semester at KU, Emma Frieze has tried to take the pandemic in stride, accepting the bleakness of the times while maintaining hopefulness over the future of virtual learning.

The strategic communication and marketing double major from Chapman, Kansas, echoes concerns from other students regarding the many transitions to virtual meeting rooms the university has arranged. 

Frieze enjoys her classes and meetings with student groups such as Ad Club, The Agency and the Undergraduate Business Council. However, she can’t help but notice the human connection that just isn’t quite there in the virtual environment, as well as the inevitable interruptions, connection issues and more.

While that may be the case, it has not stopped Frieze’s excitement over college, nor her excitement over the future of virtual classrooms and work environments. She has found Zoom meetings make for very flexible meeting times and locations, and that this flexibility has often led to especially notable guest speakers. 

Reflecting on the nation’s struggles with COVID-19 as well as her own, Frieze is confident virtual meetings and remote work have staying power in the field of marketing communications.

► Listen to the audio version here.

Sam Blaufuss: This is Sam Blaufuss. Today is Nov. 6, 2020. I'm interviewing Emma Frieze for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project.

Emma Frieze: Hello, I'm Emma Frieze. I'm a freshman at KU this year, from a small town called Chapman, Kansas. I am a strategic communications [major] in the William Allen White School of Journalism, and I'm also majoring in marketing in the School of Business. Some of my student involvement so far has been Ad Club and the Agency with the School of Journalism. And I've also been helping out with the National Student Advertising Competition as part of the Agency. And then through the School of Business, I am a junior council member of the Undergraduate Business Council, and I'm specifically the director of media for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion task force. Other than that, I'm a member of the Business Leadership Program, which is an academic cohort through the School of Business. I also take ballet in my spare time.

Sam Blaufuss: Going back to March. What was your initial reaction when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Emma Frieze: In March, I was a senior in high school, and I think our last day of school before spring break was March 6. And I remember at that time, everything seemed pretty normal. There was a little bit of talk about the coronavirus, and I think, like the idea had been brought up that the virus might spread in the United States and, you know, maybe affect school, but I'm not sure that it was something that a lot of the people considered super seriously at the time. But I remember that day like it was yesterday… and then we went on spring break, and we never went back to school. That week, I just felt like with each day there just seemed to be more and more foreshadowing and eerie-ness. I think we left school that Friday at my high school, just thinking that we'd return after a week.

Emma Frieze: And then by the following Friday, I was preparing to quarantine in my house… so it was definitely a quick turnaround, and an odd time. I guess my initial reaction was just sort of like trying to think of what someone would do in a survival situation if it got to be bad. My family had started quarantining, following stay-at-home orders on, like, March 14. And I just remember us being like, “Okay, we have to stock the house with a bunch of grains and healthy food and granola bars.” And I think that's about the time when like the toilet paper rush was happening around the country. It was just a weird time. It was kind of scary. I think it's kind of funny being someone who's always been a writer and a storyteller –

I actually told myself that day like, “Hey, I should start a journal about this weird time,” and the journal ended up lasting through August because that's how long we were at home. So it was just sort of this crazy thing, but I just remember thinking like, “Oh, I have to do all these things to boost my immune system.” I think I exercised pretty well and ate healthy that week because I was like, “Oh, I have to protect myself.” Outside of that, it was just sort of a scary time because we weren't really sure how long things would last, or what life would look like. I feel like a lot of people's initial reaction was like, “Oh, this will be a short term thing; it won't last that long,” and I remember that my dad – being someone in the medical profession – warning us that it could take several months and that we might be at home until August, and of course that's how it played out.

With that in mind, I think I had somewhat realistic expectations, but… I still had hope that it would end a lot sooner than it did and not get as bad as it has, but of course that's the way it went. I don't remember where I was exactly when I heard the news that KU was closing. At that time, I think I had just decided that I was going to KU, so obviously that was on my radar, and I remember the most significant part about that for me was just the fact that a higher education-level institution was closing, and I think when universities started closing, I think that really sent a message to a lot of other types of institutions, organizations, businesses… that this was something to be taken very seriously. It just raised a lot of uncertainty because, after I figured out I wouldn't be going to high school for the end of the year, I was just questioning – will I be able to go to college in the fall? And that was… that was definitely kind of scary.

Sam Blaufuss: How was your spring semester in high school prior to the pandemic and lockdown? Beginning, of course… how does that compare to this fall semester at KU?

Emma Frieze: In terms of how, like, the virtual formats were different?

Sam Blaufuss: Yeah. Obviously they're different, high school/college, but the workload, your involvement…

Emma Frieze: A little bit apples and oranges here, but I'll try my best to kind of compare. I felt like… so my spring semester in high school started as a pretty normal high school semester. I was very involved in extracurricular things. I spent a lot of my outside-of-class time doing those activities. I was taking two college level courses; I was taking college biology 105 or 150, and then English composition – 102, I think. And so those were kind of like the college prep classes, but overall, my experiences… the traditional high school experience. And then when lockdown started, I think it just caught everyone by surprise. I think we took some time off before going online to give the teachers time to prepare, and then I just remember we had a very loose schedule after that. It actually kind of reminded me of college scheduling when we went online because our high school schedule wasn't 8 to 3 p.m. anymore. We had kind of this block scheduling thing, which my school had never really done or hadn't done since I'd been there. I think a lot of the teachers were very overwhelmed at that time. I feel like, compared to now, a lot of my professors, they've had experience having at least a partial semester online, so they've already kind of had some things figured out versus in the spring. I felt like my teachers were kind of grasping at straws a little bit because they'd never had that virtual format before. I think definitely in the later part of the spring, our workload decreased just because teachers weren't sure what they could expect of the students in the virtual format. I think weirdly enough, just the stress of the time made that… lessened workload seemed like the exact same amount of work, or maybe even more just because sometimes it was hard to motivate myself or have that time management. Versus now, there's definitely much more of a routine with things, more structure, but at the same time, I think there are some universal things of being a virtual student and feeling a little bit isolated socially from other students, and sometimes having a sense of detachment.

I definitely feel like through this time… I mean, professors have tried to really be there for students, you know. Even if they haven't changed their workload, they've at least maybe expressed that they're willing to take late work or listen to suggestions. Something like that. I guess I can't really compare what the workload would be compared to a normal college semester. I feel like I'm probably doing about the same amount of work. One thing – some of my quizzes have been more open book, which is something that I wouldn't necessarily expect in a normal semester, but I feel like that's been helpful. There haven't necessarily been easier tests or less work or anything if that makes sense.

Sam Blaufuss: Lord knows it has been helpful. What has been the biggest challenge for you adapting to the changes – as in, the precautions that have been taken on campus?

Emma Frieze: I think the biggest challenge in general is just meeting other students. I feel like, in terms of the academic experience, it's been different doing virtual learning, but I think [it’s] not necessarily more detached in terms of just having academic success, but I do feel like in terms of social well-being, there's definitely a lag because… I'm afraid to go up to people in real life because, you know, everyone has their different comfort levels and I don't want to make anyone else uncomfortable. I guess it's kind of changed for me. In the first two weeks, I was just very, very nervous about all the COVID-19 precautions – you know, washing my hands all the time, wiping down my desk… but unfortunately I ended up getting COVID-19 after the first two weeks.

So then I quarantined for two weeks at home, and I guess the bright side of that is that… knowing that I've already had it makes me a little less anxious about getting it. I think if I hadn't had it, I'd still be very nervous about it for myself right now. And so I guess that has helped me a little bit, to not be as anxious about all of the precautions, but yeah, I think definitely just the social aspects. Of course, also just navigating some of the logistics is a little hard. I think my first day of class I accidentally entered a building on the wrong floor. It was like Ritchie Hall, and the street view entrance is the second floor from one side, and so I entered the building on the second floor. My class was on the first floor and all of the stairs were upstairs, meaning that because of COVID-19 people can only go up the stairs.

So I was like, “Well, I'm on the second floor. I need to get down to the first floor and there's no stairs to do so.” I had to quickly run over to Slawson Hall and then try to find downstairs in Slawson Hall and was struggling with it, and the whole process took like 15 minutes, and I was with two other panicked freshmen… and we were like, “How are we going to get into this classroom? We don't even know how to get there…” but we figured it out. I think it's just one of those funny stories of trying to figure out how buildings work, and how getting food works, and all of that. But – I think more than that, it's just been the social challenge of meeting people because I think we've adapted to those logistical changes.

Sam Blaufuss: Would you say that over time, your perception of the pandemic has changed?

Emma Frieze: Not necessarily. I think to some extent it's like there's almost like this numbness that comes from increased bad news. You know, I don't think I've ever really started to take it less seriously. I think from the very beginning, I was contemplating all the ways that this could play out, and I think there's just such an element of grief that comes with it. You know, whether that's literally losing someone, or just losing an experience, or a sense of self... and so now I feel like I'm in a better mental health place to some extent than I was this summer, just because I feel like there's a little more certainty in terms of what my life looks like in this “new normal,” but at the same time, you know, I don't feel like my overall fear of what the pandemic could do has decreased…

I mean, as I said, temporarily in my personal life, yes. Since I've already had it, I'm less afraid of getting it again, and two of the people I was most worried about were two of my grandparents, and they unfortunately got it as well and got pretty sick… and it was stressful, but, luckily they survived and they recovered. So I think knowing that two people I was particularly worried about and then myself… knowing we've been through it helps lessen my personal stress. But I definitely feel like… in terms of looking at how it's impacted the country or the world to some extent… I feel a little better knowing that people are finding ways to cope, but… I think the other day they just announced that the United States had had the highest cases it had ever had in one day, and, you know, just hearing that is just… it's so sad and discouraging. And so… I don't know. I still take it very seriously and see it kind of in a sad light, but luckily I feel like we're far enough in this, that we're also starting to see some positive silver linings emerge from this. I think just how much people are realizing what the digital world can offer them is really changing the way we do education, business, connecting with our family, and so, even though it's come at far too great costs, I'm glad that those progressions are being made that kind of… make some of this positive, I suppose.

Sam Blaufuss: You're pretty involved already as a freshman. How has your involvement in J-School organizations and other student organizations – for example Greek life – been affected?

Emma Frieze: So I'm not personally involved in Greek life, but I can kind of speak to other student organizations. One group I've joined with the J-School is Ad Club, and I really like going to meetings. I've been to a couple… it's just so hard with student organizations because the majority of them are meeting all or mostly online. I think one really awesome thing about digital meetings is I feel like a lot of student organizations have been able to host these amazing speakers from across the country or across the world that wouldn't have been able to come in person, but can now present online. Getting those experiences of seeing speakers, that's been a benefit of virtual connection. But at the same time, I feel like, going back to that social aspect, I don't necessarily feel that like emotional connection to other people in the student organization, and I don't necessarily feel like I have that deep connection. I kind of go to a couple of Zoom meetings and they might be interesting, but I don't know that I have something deep enough that I could really talk about or expand upon. I think that that's no criticism of student organizations, who are really trying their best in this time, but I think that's just a general obstacle of virtual learning, like, how do you get the students to be connected to each other? When you're in the Zoom format, that seems kind of stiff sometimes. I guess that's just been one thing that's been hard with that student organization [Ad Club] in particular, actually meeting other students in the club and feeling that connection to it. I'm also starting to get involved in the Agency.

I've been to a few in-person social-distanced meetings for that so far, and then I've also participated in virtual meetings for the National Student Advertising Competition. I feel like that's been a really great and engaging experience so far. I'm glad that I've had the opportunity. I think that's one area in which, once again, there are pros and cons to meeting virtually, or in person. I think one benefit of most of the NSAC meetings being online is that I feel like it's very easy to just like get on the meeting wherever I'm at, and I don't have to worry about making it across campus to a certain destination. I feel like that part of it is really convenient. You know, I think to some extent it's easier to communicate when you're in person – one thing that's quirky about Zoom I think is you don't really watch people's facial reactions as much, or at least I feel like I've observed that because sometimes people accidentally interrupt each other a lot more than they would in person, just because they kind of miss some of those like facial or bodily cues that suggest that someone's about to speak. I feel like there's some other communication barriers present as well. Like if someone's video is off, or their audio is not working… all of those things cause problems. But I think in general, student organizations… they're still existing, they're still trying to do their specific purposes for that organization. I feel like it hasn't been too negatively affected just outside of the fact that I think it's a little hard to build friendships and peer relationships and really have deeper conversations with people because of the virtual format. On the other hand, I think student organizations now have the opportunity to offer certain things – like speakers – that they might not have been able to offer in the way that they could before.

Sam Blaufuss: I think you hit the nail on the head with the interruption thing. How do you feel about your fellow students’ response to the pandemic? KU specifically.

Emma Frieze: I feel like as a whole people are taking it pretty seriously and have been, like, at least respectful of other people's boundaries. Whenever it seems I'm making a meeting with another student, there's always this kind of discussion of like, “Hey, we can meet virtually or in person, whichever you are comfortable with,” and I feel like there's a respect to the fact that different people have different boundaries. As a whole, I would say I see people wearing masks and obeying guidelines, but I think there's also a little bit of a difference between how people are responding in public versus private. I think that most of the time in classes or, you know, just walking on campus, people are following the rules. I sometimes think that, behind closed doors… like I still see pictures of people at parties or people hanging out with their friends, and not necessarily following the rules. To some extent I'm like, we really have to take this seriously because even if it doesn't seem like it's a big risk to you, I mean, you may still encounter older professors or older staff or family members or people who have certain health problems, and the more that you engage in these activities, the more you might slow our progress and expose people in their risk. And so, I think overall students are doing a good job of responding appropriately and following the rules. I think there's just a couple instances where maybe it’s a little gray area, but at the same time… I understand that, like, this is a time that's very socially isolating for people. I understand to some extent why gatherings are happening. And I don't think that gatherings in themselves are inherently bad if they're regulated. I just think that there's maybe a few situations where private gatherings maybe should have a little more social distancing or mask-wearing enforced. But then again I feel like, at least in public and on campus, most students are doing the right thing and they care about it and take it seriously.

Sam Blaufuss: Real quick, we're at 10:26 a.m. We're definitely on schedule with the interview, but we had that little hiccup and I just want to make sure – Do you have any reason you need to be out of here?

Emma Frieze: No, I'm good. Just let me know if I'm taking too much of your time with my responses.

Sam Blaufuss: No, you're fine. Like I said, the interview is definitely on schedule. It's just with the little hiccup we had… sounds good. That being said, we'll just move on to the next question. Do you have plans to adapt your education or career to the current situation?

Emma Frieze: I mean, I wouldn't necessarily say that… you know, I think one of the biggest just like career trends that's happening right now is just people being able to adjust more to the digital world. But – I think being someone who's always been interested in strategic communications and digital communications, I think transitioning to the digital world was kind of always part of the plan. I can't say that I've had specific adaptations in my mind in the long-term, just… obviously education right now is kind of changed in terms of virtual learning, but I don't know that it's necessarily affected my long-term plans.

Sam Blaufuss: I agree with “This was always part of the plan.” That's a point I have not heard yet, actually. How do you feel about the School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Emma Frieze: I definitely don't have particular complaints. I feel like, as a whole, one thing that's great about just the School of Journalism in general is because, you know, the school is teaching [students] how to communicate and how to put out information. You know, I think with the -- with the UDK and with weekly newsletters, the School of Journalism is really doing a good job of communicating to students what's happening on both -- from the student perspective and from the administrative perspective. So I feel one good thing has been the communication about it, which I suppose you would expect from the School of Journalism. But as a whole, yeah. I'm glad that there's been hybrid offerings. I really enjoyed getting to go to journalism classes at least a couple times a week.

Also, having that online format, I would say, I think it just kind of depends on a specific class or a specific professor, if there are any issues or things that are being done particularly well… I do have some classes where I feel like there's… I think some classes have more pressure to come in person versus other classes are very, like… you could never show up in person and you'll be fine as long as you show up on the Zoom. To some extent, I maybe wish there was a more, like, consistent guideline on that, because I think I sometimes get mixed signals from professors on how much I need to come in person, especially if I'm feeling like, when I was feeling nervous about that… when I was worried about having COVID before I tested positive, I feel like as a whole there's been good communication. I think there are always things that can be improved, but I feel like so far professors have been helpful in terms of adapting.

Sam Blaufuss: Question 10. Here's a little bit of a funny one for you since you're a new student… and you've already kind of gone over this… but in case there are any details surrounding how the pandemic has changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU, if there's anything further you'd like to share on that…

Emma Frieze: Yeah. I think one thing that everyone during this time is struggling with, and this is like, beyond the university, is just this feeling of – “How do we maintain this idea of social well-being and human connection when we spend so much of our days sitting in our own room or our own space looking at a computer screen?” I think… you know one of the things that attracted me about KU and made me want to come here was just this idea, the culture of KU, and that connectivity and how everyone works together to form this idea of what KU is and what KU is moving towards. I think it's just a challenge for all organizations and institutions right now to figure out – how do we maintain that unity? I think to some extent the pandemic right now has maybe negatively affected that.

I was surveying some students for another class project, a lot of first-year students, and what I was finding is that a lot of people really were struggling socially. They felt like they didn't have friends or they were isolated in their rooms all day… it's just kind of discouraging, and I think while the School of Journalism and KU have tried to reach out to students and, despite the fact that, you know, professors – I feel like a lot of them are trying to think more about how their classes are affecting students' mental health – I still feel like there's still a challenge at hand to figure out, you know, how can we make students feel more connected? How can we reach out to them? And I think that's not something with a right answer, and I definitely don't place blame on anyone for not doing that more because I definitely feel like efforts have been made.

I think that's -- that's a challenge that will continue to be faced – how do we help rebuild that sense of community, and can we make it better than before with this added technology that we've incorporated, or does technology just serve to isolate students? I think that's something that just needs to continue to be explored, but… as I touched upon before, I think the technological aspects of the pandemic have really opened doors for the School of Journalism and KU as a whole because they've taught us – how can we communicate on new platforms? How can we host classes in a way that we've never done before? I think we're needing to make sure that with those digital advancements we don't lose the sense of community and human connection that I think makes KU and the School of Journalism such a powerful place.

Sam Blaufuss: And a natural continuation from that question – how do you think KU will be better from everything that's happened?

Emma Frieze: I do think that, once maybe the mental health or social well-being piece is maybe a little more structured, I do think that working online can sometimes benefit efficiency to some extent. While I'm excited for a return to in-person classes, I also think that digital offerings sort of make the academic experience more efficient sometimes because you're not spending time getting to class and, you know, getting all of your things put in the backpack and organized. I think just sometimes working from a desk can be efficient. And I also feel like just meetings being more efficient. I think this has really shown that, you know, some things really can just be communicated in an email or done over a quick Zoom versus, like, a long in-person meeting. And while I think there are benefits and drawbacks to both, I think that… moving forward, I hope that KU takes these lessons of how the digital aspects can be really used to improve the academic and professional experience. I feel like that could really push KU’s research and academic standings if we can really just continue to draw upon the benefits of that.

Sam Blaufuss: Our last question, what advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Emma Frieze: So besides the obvious things like, wear a mask, try distancing from people, wash your hands… some other things, one thing that I would say is it's probably better to be more conservative at the beginning than not, in terms of taking it seriously. I think one issue that was faced is that… during the summer I felt like there were lots of people who didn't take precautions, or were kind of under this illusion that it didn't affect them. But – it can affect you, and it can affect you very personally, in fact. I think one thing is taking it very seriously and listening to science and just not being in denial because I think that those aspects have caused a lot of problems, you know, people have avoided precautions and then gotten sick or spread it to other people because of that.

Kind of on a serious lecture-based note, like, please take this seriously or otherwise it could cause issues. Beyond that, I'd say just find something positive and… every day it can be difficult, but during this time, it just seems like there's negative news all the time, anytime you check social media or a new source… there are always the numbers of people with COVID increasing and all of these outbreaks that have happened, and it can just be so stressful, and there's just this anxiety and grief… and so I think encouraging people to find just even one thing to be grateful every day because… those are the things that you live for, the hope that things will get better, or that there's a silver lining.

That can be so difficult to think about, those positives… and focus on them when everything seems to be uncertain. I think the cliche of the year is probably the phrase “unprecedented times.” But you know, I think being able to look back and see to some extent that there are precedents of uncertainty and people throughout history have been able to get through these times of fear and anxiety by keeping up the hope and coping actively by trying to figure out, you know – what can we do when there's so much that we can't do? I would just encourage someone in the future to focus on positives, but not to the extent of denial. And then… just trying to come to acceptance with what's happening and think, you know, what, what can we affect? What can we change… and kind of approach that from an optimistic standpoint.

Sam Blaufuss: That’s all we've got. Thank you, Emma. This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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