HELENA — Last year the COVID-19 pandemic completely upended the traditional college experience for higher education institutes across the country, Carroll College in Helena was no exception.
Yet on Wednesday morning, campus life at the Catholic college looked a lot more normal than it did a year ago.
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“I’m very excited and it’s just been amazing these first couple days having everyone back on campus,” said Student Body President Shae Bills. “There’s a lot of excitement in the air, we’re having a lot of fun events and it’s good to be back to a somewhat normal year.”
Bills joined Carroll’s President Dr. John Cech and the school's trustees in handing out muffins and coffee for the first day of the fall semester. The yearly tradition provides an opportunity for students to meet Carroll leadership in a less formal manner.
Cech credits the relative normalcy to the science-backed and proven campus strategy that they learned last year to keep COVID cases down.
“We’re very proud of the fact that Carroll College was one of only 27 percent of the colleges in the United States last year that did not have to go remote for a single day, and we had nearly 1,000 students living on campus,” explained Cech.
Carroll wasn’t immune to COVID last year. In October, the college experienced an outbreak, with 14 students testing positive over a weekend.
Carroll quarantined the students and quickly worked to contact trace others that may have been exposed. The school also offered remote learning options for students that needed to quarantine so they didn’t fall behind.
Those strategies seemed to have worked, with cases never running rampant in the dorms or on campus.
This year, around two-thirds of the students voluntarily got tested for COVID upon arriving at school. Less than one percent testing positive for COVID-19 and are in temporary quarantine until cleared to return.
Cech says the situation has allowed them to host more campus activities that were missing last year.
“We will have fans at our athletic events, students have more functions and other things going on,” noted Cech. “But at the same time, we have precautions in place to ensure student safety.”
Following CDC guidelines, right now masks are only required indoors at the catholic college. Carroll’s restrictions are based on Lewis and Clark County COVID data, and can change should the local number of cases improve or worsen.
Students say they understand how lucky there are to have the opportunity for a more normal year, and they don’t want to waste it.
“I look around and I see my friends and peers from high school and some of them are having normal experiences, and some of them aren’t and just the fact to be able to be here and have the community, the fact to have a chance to expand my horizons instead of just sitting on a little screen allows me to one not only have the college experience everyone talks about, but to discover myself in other ways that are needed for me to become a mature adult,” said Carroll College Freshman Isaac Schitler.
For many of Carroll’s students, the draw of the college is the community it offers. Students will often cite how supportive and accessible leadership and faculty are, and how welcoming and kind the student body is to new students.
“It’s so awesome, it feels more than home,” said Algerian foreign exchange student Safa Korti.
Korti landed in Montana less than a week ago after a 20+ hour flight. Already a trained dentist, she took up a cultural exchange program for the opportunity to take some business management and history classes, and the chance to explore America’s rugged West.
In her short time here, she says the reception has been incredibly kind.
“Everyone is really welcoming, everyone is so nice and generous. I love it. I love it so far.”