As students of UNC Asheville were on their third day of spring break last semester, the Chancellor’s Office decided to extend the break for another week. At the time, UNCA track and field student athlete Claudia Prieto thought nothing of the extension.
“I was in Wilmington for spring break. We had scheduled, me and my boyfriend, to come back two days after that so we were like okay that’s great that school has been canceled for another week, we will just go back and take a little break,” Prieto said.
Prieto’s spring season was scrapped nearly a week later on March 18 when the Big South Conference announced the cancelation of all spring athletic activities. Two days later, the Chancellor’s Office announced to the campus community that remote instruction would be extended through the end of the semester.
With remote instruction in place, many students decided to go home. According to UNCA’s enrollment numbers from last semester, in-state residents make up 89.1 percent of the student body, meaning most students had only the state of North Carolina to drive through in order to go back home. For Prieto, a return home was not so easy.
Prieto arrived at UNCA to study and compete in the track and field team in the fall of 2018 from Madrid, Spain. With no spring season and all her classes moved online, Prieto decided to return home to Spain before it was too late.
“I decided to go back home because they were threatening with actually closing all the flights that went from Spain to America or from America to Spain and my mom was worried that I was going to be stuck here. So, she thought it was better for me to go because if I were stuck here, who knew when I was going to be able to fly back to Spain. So I just went back right after, and that was it,” Prieto said.
Due to all the chaos surrounding containment the virus during its outbreak earlier in the year, international flights in late March and early April were hard to come by. Prieto witnessed this firsthand.
“It was expensive because the prices for the flights were going up because there were very few available and very few that weren’t cancelled,” Prieto said. “It was hard to pack, I had less than 24 hours to pack everything and leave.”
Last semester, Prieto was one of 19 other international student athletes at UNCA. Many of the other international student athletes faced the same challenges in trying to get home.
Christina Rizleris, an international student advisor at UNCA, said last semester was very chaotic for international students.
“It’s just really sad to think about how everything just changed overnight. Nobody knew what to do and everyone was kind of following other people and I don’t know this is like something I have never experienced in my entire life. I can’t even imagine the toll it took on international students who maybe felt stuck here, maybe they were scared to be here. I just really feel for students, I feel for people who are far away from home and feeling really isolated,” Rizleris said.
Rizleris also works as an academic advisor and faced the same challenges with non-international students as well.
“We were also trying to deal with just the unknown of what was happening to domestic students because I also advised with that and it was during the middle of advising season, nobody knew what was happening and it was really hard to calm students down, but I do think that just saying ‘Hey we’re looking into these things, we’re doing the best we can do, we’re going to do whatever we can to let you stay if you need to stay, just know we’re trying our best to make students feel supported,’” Rizleris said. “For me I was feeling for the first time in a long time just completely helpless because there were all these regulations and policies that I just felt like I had no control over and it really made me sad.”
Eventually, Prieto was able to make it back home. However, her home would soon be one of the first hotspots of COVID-19.
Prieto spends the summer in Spain
According to the World Health Organization, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Spain went from 24,926 cases on March 15 to 220,141 cases one month later on April 26. Prieto arrived back home right in the middle of this dangerous period.
“It was bad. We were in a very strict quarantine. We had to stay at home, we couldn’t go out. Only one person from your family could go out to buy groceries or go to the pharmacy, those were the only places open. Everyone else had to stay at home, we were not allowed to go out for a run or go out to see anyone, or even just go out to go out because we were stuck at home. It was pretty rough not being able to see the rest of my family for that long, or my friends,” said the UNCA junior.
One challenge for Prieto while home was the six hour time difference between Madrid and Asheville. While this time difference was not difficult for all of her classes, it did provide a challenge for some.
“Some classes were on a better schedule for me because I would wake up and then have my classes in the afternoon. But I had a couple of labs that went on until 9 p.m. here, so it was like 3 a.m. there. My professor actually worked with me pretty well to change my assignments and all of that,” Prieto said.
The ability to practice and stay in shape was another challenge faced by Prieto while in quarantine.
“I tried as hard as I could to find workouts online and call my coach from Spain, because I knew that every single one of his athletes was in the same situation as me, so he would send me their workouts. I pretty much did abs, core development. I clearly couldn’t run in my house, I live in an apartment so I didn’t have a backyard or anything. It was hard to stay in shape, when I started running again after I felt it,” Prieto said.
Current Head Coach of Track and Field Joel Williams, who coached last year as an assistant coach, said previous head coach Danny Williamson set a great example of communicating with his players during such an unprecedented time.
“Coach Williamson did a great job of making sure we had Zoom so everybody during that period stayed as connected as they could. The new normal was sort of becoming the new normal right about then. He did a great job of leadership, communicating with people, making sure if we have to be apart, we’re still going to be as close together as we can in this time. The team did a great job on it, as well as they could have,” Williams said.
Government regulations cause a scare
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced in July a policy that would have required international students to leave the United States or transfer to a different university if their course load remained entirely online. This policy caused a lot of controversy for colleges and universities across America. Prieto said she and some of her friends heard news of the policy before it was officially announced.
“We all heard about that even before the government announced it. Me and most of my international friends work with this agency that was sending us the news before it even came out. We didn’t believe it at first and we called our coaches, we called our friends that lived here, and nobody had heard anything so we didn’t believe it. Then two days after, everybody started talking about it,” Prieto said.
Although UNCA announced their plan to resume classes in person for the fall 2020 semester a month before the ICE policy, Prieto said she and other international student athletes still worried about the possibility of not being able to come back.
“We knew that Asheville wasn’t going fully online yet, so at least I knew that I was going to be able to come back. But things were starting to get worse here so it was hard to think that they might actually end up going fully online but then they haven’t yet,” Prieto said.
According to Prieto, not coming back to UNCA would have been detrimental to her educational career.
“There’s this thing in Spain where if you study here, you get your degree here, you can’t work in Spain because it’s not valid, you need a masters to translate it. So if I had to stay in Spain I would have had to restart college all over again and I was really worried about that.”
Because of the nature of ICE’s policy, both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to issue a lawsuit against the government agency. ICE would reverse their policy on July 14 as a result of the lawsuit.
According to Rizleris, many of their coworkers at UNCA’s academic advising were irate when the ICE policy came out.
“When we saw that policy come out, a lot of higher educational professionals were just livid because we thought it was completely unfair. I do know that a lot of higher ed institutions, you know, have a little bit more pull legally, a little more funding than little ol’ UNC Asheville if you will. I think that their advocacy was really able to kind of put that on a halt,” Rizleris said.
Rizleris said the advising team worked hard to help students who needed clarification and explanations of the policy during the short time it was in place.
“We did have a lot of students get concerned about it. Marcus Webb was sending out messages as the principal designated school official to kind of say ‘We’re looking into this, to see how it’s going to reflect our students and so we were just kind of teetering between that July notification and what to do going forward.’ I do know that at the end of the day if they were continuing students it was okay if things were online,” Rizleris said.
Prieto returns to campus
After a long summer of uncertainty and living life under strict quarantine, Prieto returned to America in late July. Though grateful for her arrival, the Spaniard again went through difficulty in finding international travel on her return to the U.S.
“Coming back was hard, also very expensive because there were very few flights, but we found a decent one. Two weeks before I got on the flight, everyone in the agency started saying that the flights were canceled, that airports were closed, that we couldn’t fly,” Prieto said. “It was scary and I didn’t really believe that I was coming back until I sat on the plane. The flight was very short and when I got here, I flew to Miami because it was one of the only airports that was open.”
Once back in school at UNCA, Prieto and her teammates began to practice as a team again. However, the practices for all sports teams at UNCA and across the country are quite different from the normal, pre-coronavirus practices due to safety measures put into place by the NCAA. Despite the regulations, Prieto said she and her teammates continue to enjoy practice like normal.
“I’m really happy about how the team is working right now. We’ve got a lot of new freshmen and the workouts are really adapted to the fact that most of us have been in quarantine so we’re not on our top competition mode just now. Our coaches have worked together pretty well to adapt our workouts and I think we’re all doing really well,” Prieto said.
Two days after the start of UNCA’s semester, on Aug. 12, the Big South Conference announced the postponement of all fall sports to the spring. Track and Field compete in the spring, however, news of the delay forecasted doubt over athletics for the year as a whole. According to coach Williams, the mood among the Track and Field team remains confident despite the uncertainties about their season.
“It’s positive, nobody knows what kind of season we’re going to have,” Williams said. “It’s tough for people to stay motivated when the whole reason that you train is to compete, otherwise you would just be training for fitness and then you wouldn’t put yourself through all these different things that the student athlete goes through. There’s nothing wrong with that but if your end is to compete, not having any competitions on the horizon is kind of tough so what we have to emphasize over and over is let’s get the best preparation we’ve ever got, let’s be better in this week and this week and this week.”
Despite all Prieto went through this year, the student athlete said she and her teammates will remain positive and keep a hopeful attitude for their spring season.
“Outside of track, I’ve talked to some of my other athlete friends, they’re all really worried their seasons have been canceled fully, they don’t know if they’ll be able to do anything in the spring so it’s a really rough time for all the athletes. We’re just trying our best to practice as if nothing had happened and in the slight chance we might actually have a season,” Prieto said.