A Capstone About Cats: Reflections on Our Senior Capstone

By Claire Golden and Erika Nelson

It was complete coincidence that two PSU Chronicles bloggers — Erika and Claire — ended up in the same Senior Capstone, but we wanted to reflect on our experience. This was far and away the most involved class we’d ever taken, but it was also one of the most rewarding…in large part because our work impacted the real world.

Our class was called “Grant Writing for Shelter Pets.” In a Capstone, you work directly with a community partner — in our case, a non-profit cat shelter in Vancouver, Washington called Furry Friends. We worked in groups writing grant proposals for Furry Friends (Claire worked in the group seeking medical funding for seriously ill cats, and Erika was in the group focused on building a new “kitty condo” structure.) This wasn’t just another course–it had real-world ramifications. The fate of hundreds of cats were directly influenced by our commitment to the grantwriting process–for example, these grant proposals could be the difference between Furry Friends getting funding for life-threatening medical conditions, influencing whether cats live or die. 

This course was intense! Capstones always take up a lot of time and energy. We found it’s best to plan for contingencies that could affect your stamina and focus–life happens sometimes (sometimes in ways we can never anticipate), but you can try to be prepared for things likely to happen. Remember that this class is six credits, which is basically a class-and-a-half. So it’s going to take longer than you’re used to…and it’s a 400-level course. To be safe, treat this class as two regular classes and then you’ll know how to budget enough time.

A huge part of the class involved communication, and while we’d done group work in previous classes, it was nothing to this extent. It was tricky doing distance communication; although this was an online class even before most other classes were remote, not being able to meet with the whole group in person proved challenging. We found group emails, group texts, and Google Docs to be invaluable (pro tip: make sure everyone is looking at the same Google Doc to avoid confusion). It’s essential to communicate with your groupmates, your instructor, and the community partner. It’s way better to double-check something than to miss something.

It’s important to keep in mind that since Capstones involve community service, you might be emotionally affected by the project and the community partner’s stories. Be sure to practice self-care and make use of your support network if necessary. We read stories about animal abuse that made us feel sick, but that was just more motivation to work hard.

In the end, we’re both proud of our work and happy that we made the decision to take this Capstone. We both learned so much–not only about the grantwriting process, but about collaboration, research, and harnessing empathy to do good.

Not-So-Great Expectations: Adjusting Plans During the Pandemic

By Erika Nelson

I’m a list-maker: Homework assignments, goals, chores, funny things I overheard in the Park Blocks…you name it, I have a list for it! Four times a year, I create a “bucket list,” itemizing everything I want to do that season: swimming and barbeques in the summer. Haunted houses and pumpkin-picking in the fall. Holiday parties in the winter. Travel for spring break. 

At least, that’s what my bucket lists consisted of in simpler times. I now look back on my Spring 2020 bucket list—compiled just before the lockdown—and laugh: buy new warm-weather clothes? Pfft—fitting rooms were havens for germs even before the pandemic! Go to the gym every other day? Ridiculous—even if the rec center was open, I’d still want to stay home and social distance myself. Get involved in campus activities? Ha! I was so young and naïve six months ago. 

As fate would have it, Spring of 2020 was not a good time to make plans. Events were cancelled all over the world, and people abandoned their new years resolutions even faster than usual. Hopes that everything would quickly go back to normal were shattered when the days in quarantine turned to weeks and months. Needless to say, I didn’t bother creating a Summer 2020 bucket list. 

I’m trying to be optimistic for this autumn, though. I’m making two lists: one for if things stay as they are now, and places are open with social distancing measures, and another in case another shutdown happens. On the first list, I have things like socially-distant pumpkin picking and attending a limited-capacity haunted house. On the second list, I include seasonal things I can do on my own in my apartment, like decorating the outside of my door with paper skeletons and baking pumpkin cookies. 

2020 is the year of uncertainty. We don’t know what the world is going to be like in a week, a month, a year, or even tomorrow. It will be a long time before the novel coronavirus is fully understood. We might have to wear masks long-term, and we all need to make radical adjustments to how we socialize and celebrate (I’ve heard rumors that “Zoom-or-Treating” might be a thing, and the term “Halloween mask” has an entirely different meaning this year). But life goes on, and being flexible with your expectations is better than having no expectations. Even if you have to tweak your plans to comply with 2020’s new world, we all need things to look forward to. 

Nailing Stress

By Erika Nelson

“I actually used to be a nail tech … not that you can tell.” I force a laugh and brandish my bitten stubs. I admit it — I’m a nail biter. Gross and unattractive in the best of times, it’s a literal life-and-death habit in Corona times — a danger to not only myself by introducing new microbes to my system, but to other people as well. Each bite transfers germs from my mouth to what I touch. I don’t bite in public, sanitize regularly and thoroughly scrub my fingers with soap and water before leaving and after returning to my apartment. But when I’m at home, in front of my laptop … I find my fingers floating to my lips.  

I’ve mostly been able to kick this habit. I say “mostly,” because no matter what methods I use to quit, I always come back to the form of tension-relief that borders on self-cannibalistic. If there’s a pervading collective emotion in the world today — it’s stress. Stress from isolation. Stress from economic turmoil and job insecurity. Stress from systemic injustice. Stress from having to “keep calm and carry on” with our regular lives, as if all of this is normal, when things are as abnormal as they’ve ever been. When I spoke with a PSU employee earlier this week, he summed up what I, and a lot of other people, are feeling: “a kind of stress I’ve never known.” We’re all bobbing along with the bumps and dips of the new-case graphs; paddling however we know how while the water continues to rise. 

Stress. So much stress. Meditation apps abound. #selfcare tips feature prominently across social media. The CDC even has a page on ways to deal with stress during the pandemic. I’ve tried pretty much everything I can to translate an unsanitary, destructive coping mechanism to something constructive that involves minimal microbe transfer … but gratitude journals and deep breathing never seem to be as instantly satisfying as shredding the tips of my fingernails with my teeth. 

The only thing that seems to work to curb the compulsive nibbling is engaging in what I used to do for a living — doing nails — but on myself. The process of meticulously applying polish is soothing, and forces me to slow down and exercise hand-eye coordination. Carefully placing polka dots and painting tiny flowers on my nails is just what I need to distract my thoughts — even for a few minutes — from everything else. When I’m done, I can’t bear to chip my painstaking work by biting!

Decorating (and maintaining) my nails has been helpful at chipping (haha) away at stress. Stress always comes back … but in the moments that I’m picking a color, filing, putting brush to nail … stress is on vacation. There are myriad reasons why I decided to ditch being a nail technician to go back to school — that’s a post for another day — but I still adore everything to do with it. There are many ways to de-escalate stress: for some people it’s yoga, video games or screaming into pillows. Some people are taking this time in quarantine to experiment with new hobbies or re-discover old ones. Thank goodness for my stockpile of polishes to get me through another day without mangling my own fingers.

Growing Pains: Turning Discomfort into Change

By Erika Nelson

This summer, I’m taking my senior Capstone, Grantwriting for Shelter Pets. Our community partner is Furry Friends, a no-kill cat shelter in Vancouver. Our mission this term is to draft the proposals that will compel donors to fund important shelter projects, such as medical care and a new kitty condo.

Before I signed up, I thought this would be a lighthearted, fun experience. I love animals, have a passion for animal rescue and love writing. It seemed like a no-brainer. I assumed that upsetting images and facts would be present in the coursework — after all, animal welfare is an emotionally fraught topic. What I didn’t anticipate was the extent of the information. To help us understand the real-life implications of the work we’re doing, a book and corresponding documentary about the history of animal shelters and the no-kill movement were assigned. These materials were difficult to get through — images of shaking, pacing animals in cages; upsetting statistics (millions of shelter pets are euthanized every year); graphic descriptions of euthanasia that turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes.  

My discomfort in the first weeks of the Capstone made me question my involvement, and I thought maybe I should have signed up for a different Capstone altogether. However, I began to wonder: why is discomfort bad? Why do we avoid it, and seek out situations that avoid discomfort instead of facing it head-on? After all, change stems from discomfort in the first place. Just as we must face the discomfort of noticing and calling out oppressive institutions, we must push through to change things for the better — to harness that emotion and translate it into concrete actions. 

For example: no one becomes a veterinarian because they don’t have compassion and empathy for animals. Yet veterinarians regularly see sick, injured, neglected, or abused animals, and continue to do their jobs. Discomfort is a regular part of the profession, yet people find their calling in veterinary medicine. While vets no doubt are affected emotionally, the opportunities to improve animals’ health outweighs the discomfort from seeing suffering animals. 

It’s tempting to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the important issues in the world. Sure, you could purposely only sign up for innocuous courses with benign subject matter and tune out everything upsetting. Yet college is an opportunity to grow, and growth comes with growing pains. Knowledge and awareness of the injustices and difficulties of the world is a springboard to change. Ignorance is NOT bliss — ignorance only perpetuates the status quo, whatever it may be. 

The hard truth is that many aspects of life are inherently uncomfortable. This is inescapable. Instead of avoiding the negative emotions that come up in this Capstone, I’m choosing to embrace them. I’m challenging myself to persevere through discomfort to help these shelter cats, and I’m looking forward to documenting what I learn and how I grow along the way.

Crafting in Quarantine: “Quaranzines”

By Erika Nelson

Whether in mandatory or self-imposed isolation, people are turning to hobbies like arts and crafts to keep themselves occupied.  One fun project having a moment on social media is zine-making: The hashtag #quaranzine has over 5,000 hits on Instagram.

Merriam-Webster defines a zine as “a noncommercial often homemade or online publication usually devoted to specialized and often unconventional subject matter.” There is no right or wrong way to make a zine — it can be handmade or digital; thrown together or carefully planned. Zines can be anything you want — a mini-book of self-published poetry, a political manifesto, your own comic book…the possibilities are only limited by your imagination and materials available. 

I made two different zines using this paper-folding tutorial. One is called This is Your Life Now, and I used acrylic paint and magazine clippings to create a tongue-in-cheek manual for embracing the new normal. 

I included a spread featuring things I do in quarantine, such as sleep, play games… 

…and fantasize about being productive. 

My second zine was a parody of Time magazine: The cover features an image of more innocent times — a crowded beach — and the headline, “There will be no summer (and probably no autumn).” 

Of  course, I had to include fake advertisements. 

I encourage everyone to try making their own quaranzines! Arts and crafts do more than just fill free hours — they can be therapeutic during scary and uncertain times, and sharing your art on social media can help foster community in a time of isolation. So grab some art supplies, fire up the publishing software, or simply use a paper and pen — let’s do some quarantine crafting!

Making Do

By Erika Nelson

Recently, I wrote about my experiences under lockdown in student housing. Although being alone in quarantine was weighing on my mental health, I said that crashing with family or friends in Southern Oregon was not an ideal option for me. Since that post, I tried really hard to make the best of my situation —  I went through every coping skill I could think of: working out, journaling, playing computer games, texting friends and family, virtual therapy, throwing myself into homework — but I cracked. Living alone became too much to bear—so when the opportunity to fly down to Medford arose about a week ago, I took advantage of it, and set out for the Rogue Valley by way of a very, very lonely PDX.

I thought a lot about whether I would divulge that I fled Portland — I’d made such a big deal about staying put and weathering the lockdown on my own. Surely I can just pretend to still be in the dorms? Who would know the difference? Do I want people to think I’m weak? Besides being embarrassing to admit I broke down, I had traveled when not absolutely necessary, and still feel rather of ashamed about that. But I ultimately decided to be vulnerable in these vulnerable times, and share my experience.

The truth is, it’s ok to be overwhelmed, and it’s ok to make do with the resources you have. Like making do with frozen vegetables instead of fresh ones to avoid a trip to the grocery store, we are all making do in other ways with the resources available to us — mentally, physically, socially. It’s ok to break. It’s ok to be strong one week and a sobbing mess the next — because these are uncertain, scary times. 

I’m making do with what I have, and I am filled with so much gratitude that I have support available to me. I was lucky to get that flight to Medford. I’m lucky to have a family to take me in. I’m lucky that I went through the gauntlet of air travel without bringing disease into my home (well, as far as I know. I really hope that my next post isn’t written from a family member’s hospital bedside.) 

Many students are still alone on campus, and don’t have any other option but to stay. I feel guilty leaving them behind. Part of me feels like I should be there in solidarity. Another part feels justified that I did what I had to do to take care of myself. Maybe those opposing feelings aren’t mutually exclusive. 

To those who are struggling under the weight of lockdown, whether in isolation or not, here are some resources that might help:

PSU Student Resources: https://www.pdx.edu/unst/student-resources

Multnomah County Crisis Hotline: 503-988-4888.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233

Lockdown in Student Housing

By Erika Nelson

In March, Housing and Residence life sent out a mass email encouraging those of us in student housing to move if feasible. By doing so, we’d be lowering the amount of interpersonal contact in the buildings, and therefore lowering the chance that COVID-19 could spread among us.  The result was a mass exodus of student residents. For the last few weeks of winter term and throughout spring break, students hauled boxes and furniture out of their apartments. Many people abandoned their belongings altogether — and common areas quickly became littered with discarded microwaves, bedding, and half-used bottles of hot sauce. At first, the refuse left behind was annoying. But then the custodial staff removed it all, taking along with them any items that residents used to socialize and bond, such as the puzzles left out on tables for everyone to work on. This served only as a stark reminder of the tenants’ absences.

There are some perks that come from living in an almost-empty building — solo elevator rides save time, and I have yet to have to wait for access to a washing machine. The sheer emptiness of the building is palpable — instead of hearing music and muffled conversations when walking down the halls, there is a conspicuous silence. Common areas are empty. There are no more University Success events in the lobby. Even though those of us who remain are still in our rooms, typing on our laptops and having Zoom classes, it’s hard to ignore that the absence of so many residents is a symptom of the larger changes in the world.

I don’t have family close by. I wasn’t lucky enough (or unfortunate enough, depending on how well you get along with your family) to be able to crash somewhere else while still remaining in Portland’s orbit. Sure, I could pay to rent a car and haul all my stuff back to Southern Oregon, and there’s no doubt that I miss my friends and family … but Portland is my home now. I’ve set up roots, and I’d rather try and stick out the pandemic locally rather than going through the added stress and expense of moving back and forth. 

There are times when I regret that decision. Being cooped up is weighing on me emotionally. I miss my loved ones. I miss socializing. I miss human touch. So many of the things that made me fall in love with the city, like restaurants and the county library, are closed for the foreseeable future. The truth is, no one knows how long this lockdown will last, and if things will ever go back to normal. Public officials are cautious about ending the stay-at-home order too soon. Not knowing a timeline and being able to count down days is disheartening. However, I have hope that we will all get through this and be stronger because of it. Even though the building is lonely, I know I’m not alone in feeling alone.

Why I Save My Course Materials

Finals week is fast approaching, and spring break will be here before we know it! Many students are already thinking about reselling their textbooks and can’t wait to toss their notes. However, I’d argue that there are benefits to keeping class materials.

Old assignments can be useful in future classes

Keeping graded essays from previous courses has been helpful to me in the past, because they can help me ascertain what instructors look for in good papers. Of course, all professors are different, with their own pet peeves and preferences. However, if one instructor makes a constructive remark, chances are that advice can be applied to future assignments with future instructors. For example, in an English composition course I took in community college, the instructor gave us a handout with a list of mistakes English instructors are tired of seeing, ranging from grammatical errors to flaws in logic. This has been an incredibly helpful list to have around as I’ve continued my academic journey. Past research papers have also become a resource — if I didn’t use a source in a previous paper, I can use it in a future paper on the same topic, or use that source as a starting point for future research. 

Keeping old materials can help you get your money’s worth 

Let’s face it: college is expensive, and human brains are flawed when it comes to retaining information long-term. The notes you scrawl in Statistics and the study guide you fashion for French have value in both time and money. Saving materials from a past class is a way of preserving what you’ve learned, especially if it’s been a long time since you’ve taken the class. 

Let’s say you took time off between Class 101 and Class 102. If you kept your course materials, you’d have easy access to what you learned in 101 to refresh your memory before taking 102. Also, you wouldn’t have to pay to take the course again or spend hours combing through Google trying to cobble together a free crash course. Even when you don’t take a hiatus from your education, you forget a lot over school breaks, and having materials around to review before going back can be helpful! Not to mention, the resale value for books is far less than the original price, so if your text has valuable information or you’ll want to read it again, it might be worth it to just keep it. 

Looking over old work can be enjoyable 

It’s validating to look back at my writing from years ago and see how I’ve improved. Depending on the course, re-reading old handouts and texts can also be fun! For example, I’ve kept books from my literature classes I particularly enjoy. A textbook from my Interpersonal Communications class at my last college sits on my shelf, because it holds information on skills and situations that will help me throughout my life — not just within the quarter I took that class. 

How do you select what class materials to keep?

Quality over quantity: it’s important to pare down your notes, books, and assignments to what’s relevant. Here are some tips when deciding what to keep:

  • Is the information novel, or basic? Is this information you could find from a cursory Google search?
  • Is this course relevant to your major? Did you learn things that would apply to future classes?
  • Is this a difficult topic for you, and would it help you to review the concepts before taking the next course in the sequence?
  • Do you enjoy the subject? Were the readings interesting, and if you enjoyed the texts, would it make financial sense to keep them instead of selling them?
  • If it’s an assignment, is the instructor’s feedback constructive? Did you learn something valuable?
  • Do you have the physical or digital space to store old materials?

At the end of every term, I ask myself these questions while I comb through my class materials to help me narrow down what to save. This method has helped me determine what’s useful to toss or sell, and what’s useful to keep around. 

I have a small archive of class materials from previous courses that I keep in binders, and I thumb through everything periodically. Some people might raise an eyebrow at this collection, but this works for me, and a similar system might help you during your time in college.

Portland on Foot

By Erika Nelson

When I chose to attend PSU, I knew I wanted to live on (or close to) campus.  Proximity to classes and university resources aside, living in the midst of a major metropolitan city famed for its public transportation would mean I could forgo the expenses that come with having a car.

Now that I live in student housing, I walk 95% of the time. Before last year, I’d lived in suburbs my whole life, and was lucky enough to have a car (or access to someone who did) for my daily transportation. The first few weeks I lived in Portland required a huge adjustment to my lifestyle and habits. For example, walking home in the rain carrying bulging Safeway bags taught me to pare down my weekly grocery list to the essentials so I would only need one reusable bag, allowing my other hand free for an umbrella.

There are times I wish I still had a car, like when I want to go somewhere more than a few miles away, or when the weather is extreme. However, there are definite benefits to relying on my own two legs. Walking allows me to experience parts of Portland that would be hard to do from a car, like when I pass quirky shops or snap pictures of public art. My health has improved from being more active. I’ve been able to save money on gas, maintenance, and parking passes. Road rage and driving-related stress is nonexistent. Best of all: on any given day, I see a minimum of a half-dozen dogs being walked, and sometimes their owners let me interact with them! It’s times like these when I’m glad I got rid of my car and can focus on the simple things going on around me.

A Major Change

By Erika Nelson

Since childhood, literature, writing, and media have been my biggest passions. I assumed that if I went to college, I’d major in English. However, with near-constant articles and reports warning of a difficult job market, I began to question whether English was a good choice. After extensive advice from well-meaning people, I assumed a business degree was the “safe” route to gainful employment after graduation. Business, after all, is a multidisciplinary degree — it has applications in virtually every field, and can lead to a variety of exciting (and potentially lucrative) careers. I was planning to minor in business anyway, so what would be the harm in swapping my anticipated major and minor? 

As the fall term marched on, I found myself deeply unhappy — I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the “wrong” place. I finally came to the hard truth that an intensive education in business simply wasn’t for me. 

I’d made my choice out of fear; chased a hypothetical future salary that would allow me to quickly repay loans. What was the point of pursuing a degree if my only purpose was to pay off that degree? Next term, I return to my original plan — an English major with a business minor. This decision … it feels right. There is certainly nothing wrong with majoring in business if that’s what you want to do — but I had to learn through experience that it wasn’t for me, in order to make the right choice.