Interview with Tom Cermak, 11/16/2021

UW Oshkosh Campus Stories
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´╗┐BK:This is Brandon Kaiser interviewing Tom Cermak on November 16, 2021, for campus COVID stories. Campus COVID stories is a collection of oral stories from students and staff at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh about their experiences in the time of COVID. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. First, could you please pronounce your name and spell it out for us?

TC: Tom Cermak T-o-m C-e-r-m-a-k.

BK: For good audio recording can you tell us again who you are, your major here at UW Oshkosh, what year you are, and your age?

TC: My name is Tom Cermak. I am a sophomore here at UW Oshkosh. My major is criminal justice. And I am 20 years old.

BK: All right, let's do a couple a little bit of a warm up getting to know you. Can you tell me where you grew up?

TC: I grew up in Palatine, Illinois, a suburb just outside of Chicago.

BK: And tell me a little bit about your parents. What did they do?

TC: My dad is a fiber optic splicer. He was technically a required worker, or 00:01:00they have that during COVID? What was it called?

BK: I know you're talking about, I can't remember.

TC: Yeah, no, yeah, it's um yeah, he was able to work during COVID. So that was huge.

BK: Awesome. And then are both your parents college educated?

TC: No, actually. My brother and I are the first ones to go to college, in our family.

BK: Awesome. Did you always plan on attending college?

TC: I did. Yes. Baseball definitely helped with getting to college. That definitely was huge.

BK: And why did you choose to go to UWO specifically?

TC: Actually for baseball as I was just talking about. It was the first school 00:02:00that came up to me when I was playing. The summer back in 2019. The head coach came up and said, "Do you want to play for us?" And I just said Yes, right away.

BK: That's awesome. We're gonna get into your sports experience a little bit later. Right now we're going to cover the beginnings of COVID. Where you were, what you were doing at the beginning of the spring semester 2020? Where were you in your college career? And then did you have a full class load? And what was your living situation?

TC: I was a freshman. I was living in South Scott Hall. I had 15 credits. It was pretty tough actually, it was a lot of work.

BK: Assuming all your classes were in person at the time?

TC: Yeah, it was all in person

BK: How did you feel going into your first semester here at UWO?

TC: I was pretty nervous, because I didn't know what to expect. I couldn't really rely on my family for experiences in college because none of them went. So it was kind of a first ordeal for me and my brother.


BK: Awesome. Did you remember the first time you heard about COVID-19?

TC: I do. Actually, I was in my journalism class. One of my professors before she started class, she just mentioned that there was a virus overseas that could possibly be threatening to the US. And as a college student it kind of goes over your head. You don't really think about it. And then next thing you know it was here.

BK: Did you ever think at the time that it was going to be such a huge ordeal?

TC: No, not at all. Not that I've heard that there was like a virus overseas. I didn't think that all this overseas, like it's probably not going to become a huge global pandemic. But little did I know that. It spread that quick.

BK: How did you feel knowing that a disease like this was spreading as it kind 00:04:00of went along? And then did you fear it was coming to the US and specifically Oshkosh itself?

TC: Yeah, I remember because it was the journalism class. It was the same professor that kept us up to date. For the most part, I didn't really follow the news. I had so much going on. We had baseball practice, we were getting ready for the season upcoming. And obviously, I had the classes as well. So it was my first time getting adjusted to all that. So I didn't really follow the news, obviously. She kept us up to date. And then it seemed like day by day, week by week. She was like "it's spreading from this country to that country." Next thing you know, she said that it's here in the U.S.

BK: What were your first opinions on campus closing down? Were you pretty worried about it? Were you kind of just worried that it was ruining your first year of college? What were your thoughts?

TC: Yeah, it was actually devastating because we were literally, we just started our season. We had one tournament in St. Louis and everyone was so excited for 00:05:00the season to come. Everything just shut down within a week. It was devastating.

BK: How did you feel about that? We were pretty worried or kind of just upset they ruined your school year or what?

TC: Yeah, it definitely ruined my school year. I was definitely worried because of how fast we shut down. I mean, it was literally within a week. I don't remember exactly which day it was, but say it was a Monday. We came back from that weekend from the trip to St. Louis. And then four days later, we're packing up our things in South Scott and leaving for home. That's when I started to worry a little bit. I was like, oh, this is definitely bigger than I thought for sure.

BK: So did they cancel all your following games? Or did you ever come back to play any games that year?

TC: So, for athletes, we just had to stay an extra three or four days to hear 00:06:00about the sports director was talking with other schools to see what everyone was doing, because obviously, no one was expecting us to come so quick. So all the athletes stayed for those couple extra days. And then we finally had a meeting. And the sports director said "You know, it could be worth it. But we're gonna take the safe route and cancel all the games."

BK: Let's get a little background on your sports history. So you played baseball here at UWO Oshkosh. Did you play baseball your entire life up to this point?

TC: Yeah, I started when I was five years old. From way, way back.

BK: What position did you play?

TC: Middle infield.

BK: Awesome. So when it got canceled? How did you feel then? With all this work? You've put in the whole school year training. And then in the beginning of the year it got canceled. How did that feel?

TC: It was terrible. Because we practice I mean, so every high school season we 00:07:00would play. We'd practice all through the winter and then play all during the summer. But our coach told us that before college, he wants us to be 100%. So we didn't really play that many games the summer before our freshman year of college. So already going into it I didn't really have many games under my belt. I was already like 100% ready to go. And then we practice for that another winter. So basically, we practice for a year and a half straight, leading up to college. And then we're finally getting games going. And it gets canceled. So then it's another summer of practicing. So we really didn't get to play many games and it did suck.

BK: Do you think COVID-19 affected your performance in sports? Just the long wait to have games, did it just kind of affect your mentality getting prepared for those games?

TC: COVID really took a toll on my motivation for the sport. Because I mean, the 00:08:00whole purpose of sports is obviously you got camaraderie, you got practice, and you got play. Camaraderie and practice was there. But obviously the most important part of baseball is actually playing the games. So we didn't really get to play at all up until my sophomore year, when I decided to end or quit baseball. I'd really didn't have any official games in Oshkosh,

BK: Then I'm assuming COVID had a big impact on your decision to quit the team?

TC: Yeah, it definitely did. I had no motivation to play because I didn't have any games under my belt, it was just constant practice for a year and a half, two years straight. So, that's definitely not what I'm used to. Because I'm used to practicing through the winter and then playing all summer and spring. So it was definitely a big impact.

BK: I can definitely understand how that can be mentally draining. Was there anything you did to ease your mental state at the time? Keep you motivated to do 00:09:00anything you do? Keep you motivated for baseball or anything like that?

TC: At that point, I was actually really focusing on my grades because I knew that the transition from all in person to online was going to be difficult. I took the time. Since we all got canceled, no one was playing baseball, even back home, we weren't really practicing or anything, no one was going to our training camps or anything. So I really took the time to focus on my grades and work out. I was about it.

BK: You mentioned online classes, did the change to online classes affect your performance?

TC: Yeah it did in a positive way? I would say because I think just personally, online experiences are a little bit easier in a way. It's just for example, the lectures are recorded and posted to canvas that we use. You can just rewatch them instead of going to a lecture in person once and taking notes and then 00:10:00going back and just relying on your notes in total. You can rewatch the lectures and it would just help tremendously.

BK: Oh, that's good. And he said, some good aspects coming out of it. And then I guess I should ask, have you or any of your family members ever contracted the COVID-19 virus?

TC: In my immediate family, no. My cousin did have it. He lost taste and smell for six months actually, a long time he couldn't taste but he got really sick for about two weeks and almost got hospitalized. But other than that, no one in my family got it.

BK: You've never had it correct?

TC: No, I was around four to five people that had it. Including some of the baseball players and I just never contracted it, or I was asymptomatic everyone.

BK: Did you ever have to quarantine because of exposure to it at all?

TC: Yes, I did. The Fall coming back. I had to quarantine for two weeks.


BK: Did you quarantine here on campus or off campus?

TC: I quarantined at Gruenhagen Hall?

BK: How was that? Can you tell me a little bit of your experience with all that?

TC: That was pretty bad. I kind of felt lonely? In a way because I was the only one. Some people had two in the room and some had one. And I had one. It was just me. You just stay there, you go down and get meals. It was all online learning. I'm so used to working out every day. No physical exercise. I couldn't leave the building. So yeah, it definitely took a toll mentally.

BK: What were some of the restrictions that they had on the whole building?

TC: You couldn't really leave. They didn't want anyone going room to room hanging out. And I know, I don't want to say but some people did. And some people hung out with each other.

BK: Could you even go outside at all?

TC: No, not at all. So that really took a toll mentally.


BK: Were there bathrooms on each floor?

TC: On each floor and every time I went there, there's someone sanitizing it.

BK: At least they kind of kept up with the cleanliness there. How were you able to get food then?

TC: It was packaged down on the main floor. They Black Hawk was I think it was the Black Hawk food package up. Actually the food was pretty good. I'm not gonna lie. It was better than I expected. It was all packed up and written down for each breakfast, lunch and dinner.

BK: Did you do anything to help with the loneliness you felt or the mental capacity to do anything to kind of ease it? Was play video games or something else?

TC: I did play a little bit of video games. I FaceTimed and called my family a lot. During that time was just about every day. I called them to talk for about an hour, which would help pass the time. WaTC:h some movies. But other than 00:13:00that, it was just a long, two weeks, very long.

BK: Throughout the whole after quarantine did you continue to live in your apartment or in your dorm at the time when the whole school closed down?

TC: Repeat that again?

BK: When the school closed down did you continue to live in your current living situation at the time? Either your dorm or apartment or wherever you live?

TC: Yeah, I did. Um, we stayed there for probably two weeks.

BK: Did you have roommates at the time?

TC: Yes, I had two of my baseball buddies.

BK: And then neither of them ever contracted the virus?

TC: No.

BK: Were you working at the time that the virus came here?

TC: No, I wasn't. I was going to get a job. But, that ended up going south. I just felt like I didn't know. It just didn't seem right to get a job during the 00:14:00time just kind of felt weird.

BK: It was also pretty hard.

TC: Yeah, it was definitely hard to get a job.

BK: During the lockdown, do you think it affected your social life at all?

TC: Yes I definitely say it would. I'm usually a sociable person. I go out all the time. I had probably had to turn down the most hanging out opportunities of my life during one summer so yeah, we definitely stayed in. After quarantine it's almost felt like it took a little bit getting used to getting back to normal life in a way, social wise.

BK: Did that affect you to this day that you're a little bit scared to go out with people? Or not really?

TC: Yeah, a little bit. Not as much as it used to, like right after quarantine. Definitely right after quarantine was when it social wise is was definitely different.

BK: How would you describe your feelings about the disease? Either today or way 00:15:00back when it was during lockdown? Did your feelings change about it?

TC: Yeah, throughout quarantine and when it first hit and everything, it definitely changed when it first hit, I was kind of scared for about two, three weeks, and then stuff started coming out saying about, you know, elderly people that could get it. It was affecting them more. So I was actually worried more about my grandparents, more than anything, because one of my grandparents had a stroke at the time, about two months prior, and my grandma had a heart attack. Four months prior to that, they had some medical stuff going on. So I was actually really nervous if they contracted it, because, you know, with their complications that it just would not seem good if they got it at the time.

BK: Did they stay safe during the whole period so far?

TC: Yea, they lived in a lake house at the time. And we usually go up there for 00:16:00holidays, and no one went up there. I mean, we had groceries delivered to their house, we wouldn't let them go out. We were really, really focused on them not getting it.

BK: Then how did the pandemic affect the way you prepared for your college life? If it was after the lockdown coming back? Did you prepare any differently?

TC: Not so much. I know that the school prepared definitely differently. Baseball wise, we had to test three times a week. We had to wear masks at practice at games or at scrimmages, I should say not games. We didn't play any games at the time. But no, personally, I did not prepare differently. I just figured that I knew it would be different, but I didn't prepare differently.

BK: What are your thoughts on COVID protocols that the school has enforced with masking and social distancing?

TC: I think it's pretty good. I think the on campus testing is smart because 00:17:00those freshmen kids are around people all the time. But yeah, the mask policies, I mean, I get it. I get the whole thing, not spreading it.

BK: I know I'm kind of jumping around here. But for the lockdown your freshman year, did you end up going back home? Or did you stay in your dorm?

TC: So everyone got the emails the school sent out. Everyone left. I stayed in South Scott for an extra week or two and then I went home.

BK: How was your relationship with your family during the lockdown?

TC: Definitely the strongest it's ever been. I feel like before that everyone was just on the run working. My brother and I were both in school. I felt like it was just kind of chaotic. And then for that month, the first month that we got back everything just kind of paused. And then we just were able to spend 00:18:00more time together. We did things like we sat down at family dinners. It was different. It was nice in a way.

BK: So would you say you had a positive experience during the lockdown living situation?

TC: Yeah, being with family definitely was awesome.

BK: Then when you learned UWO Oshkosh was returning to do in person classes for the fall of the 2020 semester, what was your reaction?

TC: I was actually very surprised because leading up to that, those couple of weeks where schools are deciding whether or not they go back. The majority of the big schools were not going back. A majority of my friends from back home we're not going back so I just assumed since we're a bigger school like 10 to 15,000 around there. So I figured there's no way that we would go back. I was 00:19:00very shocked when we did get the email saying everyone's coming back.

BK: Were you worried at all? Or more excited that you guys are going back? Or scared?

TC: I'd say I was excited at that time because I get back to playing baseball again. I didn't really play all that summer. Which was the first summer I didn't play baseball my whole life. So I was actually excited to get back and start playing baseball again.

BK: With the semester having hybrid online and in person classes, what were your feelings about that since you did well online? Did you want to go back to continue doing online classes?

TC: After that experience that was part of the best grades I have had in my life. I definitely wanted to be back online. I believe, if I can recall, I had half and a half I in person and online.

BK: In retrospect, do you feel like that was a good decision for you to do half 00:20:00and half?

TC: Yeah, I think it was good. A good mix up.

BK: Did your grades continue to do well afterwards?

TC: Yeah, they did.

BK: That's good. What are your thoughts about campus dining? For a very long time you couldn't even eat together? What was that like?

TC: That was very strange. So we'd have baseball practice in the mornings, about 4:30, 5. And we'd practice for three or four hours. And then we get done before our 8am's and we would all as a team, go to Blackhawk and get team team breakfast. It was funny, because we'd walk in and the lunch ladies just know that we're coming in. So they made double, they'd had trays of food, and they'd always double them up like the bacon and sausage because they knew we were coming and we just devoured them. So it was definitely kind of weird. Because 00:21:00we're used to that. And it's now that, like, at that time, we just walk in, get our food and leave, not sit down as a team. So the camaraderie at that time was different.

BK: So it really affected your team dynamic in your relationship with other teammates?

TC: Yeah, the chemistry was definitely different. Definitely different.

BK: With the chemistry being different. Do you think that affected the team's play and overall performance at all?

TC: A little bit. We had less practices, we had to space them out more. We couldn't practice every day. We had to practice two to three times a week. And then if someone got COVID, we had to stop practice for that week. So it was just really on and off. Kind of felt disheveled in a way. And, yeah, it definitely had an impact on our camaraderie, though.

BK: So what were the protocols if like you said, a teammate contracted COVID? At the time when pretty much the whole team have to go and quarantine?

TC: The practices were split up, obviously, three to four times a week, and then 00:22:00it was actually broken up by positions as well. So we had three groups, it was all the piTC:hers, which we had like 20 to 25 of them. We had infielders in one group, which included me and there were about 15 of us and then the outfielders which was about another 15. So, say an infielder contracted COVID. All the infielders would have to get tested. And then, depending on where that goes and how everyone tests, we quarantine for that week, and then we come back and the original kid that got COVID would have to stay another week, obviously because you have to have the two week quarantine. But if everyone else tested negative then we resumed practices. There was one week where every piTC:her, infield, and outfield got it and we all just quarantined for two weeks and didn't do any baseball. So it was definitely weird.

BK: That'd be hard to kind of even get in the groove of things.

TC: Yeah, everything's always changing.


BK: Did you ever have to forfeit any games at all due to too many people having it?

TC: We had no games in the fall. We usually do a scrimmage against Madison college. And we ended up not doing it that year, obviously, because of the COVID thing. But we usually did. We did some inner squad scrimmages, which was fun. We finally got to playing. I mean, it was our first time playing any type of game in seven, eight months for most of the kids. So it was fun.

TC: How did that feel being on the field for the first time?

TC: It was awesome. Yeah, it was awesome.. The first I remember the first inner squad scrimmage that we had, everyone was just so amped up to go. I mean, everyone was talking about it for a week or two in advance. And everyone's like, "we got the inner squad in a week and a half two weeks." And then it finally came. And it was just like it felt like a little kid again. It was fun.

BK: And the whole team was ecstatic about it?

TC: Oh, yeah, it was probably honestly one of my favorite memories was getting back on the field with all the guys and playing against each other.


BK: So how hard of a decision was it for you to decide to quit the team then? Growing up your whole life playing baseball?

TC: Yeah, it was. I can't even put it into words. I mean, baseball has gotten me through so much as a person. It's taught me so many things. And deciding to end it. I mean, what really did it in, was my motivation. It's just something about not playing any games. And just practicing for that long of a period of time really kills your motivation. I mean, I know if I stuck it out we were back to normal. We were playing games that following spring, but I know I decided to focus on grades, it was really hard.

BK: In retrospect, do you think that was a good decision to focus on the grades? I'm sure you probably missed baseball a little bit.

TC: Yeah, the hardest thing was telling my family. Everyone just kind of knew me 00:25:00as the sports guy. And they always come to the games and everything. It was tough.

BK: So what did your family and fellow teammates feel about your decision? Were they supportive?

TC: Yeah, they were. They're very supportive. My dad was probably my biggest fan. So he definitely was, I could tell when I first brought it up to him that he was really disappointed. But, he just supports everything that I do, and if he thinks that my decision is the right thing to do, then he'll back it.

BK: I know sports are a big aspect of your life. Do you do anything involving sports now? A club, or do you coach? Did you do anything with that?

TC: I have not recently, no.I just, I got addicted to working out through baseball. We had to work out. I mean, we had morning workouts. We had morning practices. Physical activity has always been a part of my life. So as soon as 00:26:00baseball ended, I just focused on working out a lot.

BK: Going back to your second semester as a UWO student. It's spring 2021. How did your living and learning experiences change from your first experiences here?

TC: Winter break hit, and I decided to, obviously, stop playing baseball. I was talking to the coach, and he said, "before you give it up, I mean, I'll give you the opportunity to stay and play this spring", and he really wanted me to stay. All my classes are online. So I said, "You know what, man, I'm just gonna go home, be with my family, and take all online classes." So I was home the whole entire semester, taking all online, and it was definitely different because I was on campus, obviously, the fall before.


BK: Now, it's the fall of 2021. Vaccines are readily available on campus, and in fact, strongly advocated by administration and the CDC. What are your thoughts about the Mask Up campaign to get students vaccinated to win scholarships?

TC: That's smart. That's very smart. I know a couple kids that actually took the opportunity to do that. And they did receive their scholarships. I forget how much exactly it was. It was a couple $100. That's very smart, definitely motivated kids to go get it. Obviously, when you're a college student, any type of money that you can receive is good. I got to go do that.

BK: If you feel comfortable sharing, would you mind to disclose if you're vaccinated? And then if so, or if not, would you be willing to share your opinions on the vaccine?

TC: I am not vaccinated. My opinion on it is, I've heard some traumatic stories 00:28:00of reactions to it. I'm not going to say that it happened to my grandmother, but before the semester started, my grandmother passed away, and she got the vaccine, about a month and a half, if not like a month and a quarter beforehand. And it seemed like she got that she felt really bad for that week. And then she was hospitalized for a month straight, and then everything just like, her immune system just went downhill. So that kind of turned me off. I know, even if it's not because of the vaccine, I just, I'll never, probably never get it due to that reason.

BK: That must have been a big impact on your decision not to receive the vaccine.

TC: Yeah, very big impact.

BK: How do you feel about being exposed to the vaccine and being unvaccinated? I know you're a big sports person, do you feel like you'd be safe, that you'd be 00:29:00relatively unaffected, or what are your thoughts on that?

TC: I think I'd be safe. I mean, the fall coming back after quarantine, I stated before , I was around three or four people that had it. One of the kids actually drove me home, two and a half hours to Illinois. And then the next day tested positive. And I just got tested that week, and I just never tested positive. So I think I'm pretty safe, genuinely right now, being around people

BK: After figuring out he contracted COVID After a long car ride you shared together, were you originally worried that you might have it?

TC: Yeah, I was like "you know, I'm with this guy for two and a half hours and I know that if you're around someone for 15 minutes, within six feet, that you're going to get it" so I was like, 'Oh, I definitely have it'. And then I just tested throughout the week my family tested throughout the week and no one got it.

BK: How much do you feel things are getting back to normal here at UWO?


TC: 3Slowly but surely, but coming to class with masks on definitely brings me back to the whole quarantine situation.

BK: I know they recently changed that you don't need a mask to be at the Rec Center now.

TC: Oh yeah, that was huge. I was showing up to the gym and seeing everyone without their mask again, it's like, what is what is going on here? This feels really weird. I haven't seen this since freshman my freshman year.

BK: And then, in terms of normal, what does being back to normal mean to you? What do you picture that as?

TC: Not having to worry about getting close to people, having to be in class a certain feet apart or just having to worry about being close to people. I think that's that's the thing, just like not having to worry about being away from someone.

BK: Are there any aspects about COVID life at school or otherwise that you think 00:31:00won't change back to, quote unquote, normal?

TC: I don't know. I think on campus, it might. I feel like if the vaccine rolling out like this, I think everyone's gonna come back to normal, I don't think there's ever nothing's gonna stay the same. I don't know about that. By the time I graduate, I don't know if it's going to be completely back to normal. And in terms of normal, I just mean, not having to worry about being sick, or contracting a virus.

BK: Awesome. Are there any aspects of your life you think COVID has changed for the good? That COVID maybe made you a better person in a way? And then how do you think this historical event might have changed you permanently?

TC: Obviously my grandmother. That has forever changed me. Me reflecting back on 00:32:00it. I know. I just feel like when we're older that they're gonna mention like, "Oh, do you remember when COVID happened? What happened?" They're gonna ask you about it. And I know historically, this is definitely an imprint in history.

BK: You don't think it's changed you like having more awareness of germs or anything? I'm going to act differently or that you've done before COVID? Or if it's just looking out for other people, do you have a different outlook?

TC: I'd say taking vitamins. It's made more aware of sickness and preventing sickness, washing your hands more often. Just being aware of cleanliness, in a 00:33:00way. Being more clean was definitely I'd say that would be the probably biggest impact on me as being more clean as a person.

BK: Okay, awesome. And then is there anything else you'd want to add for this before this interview ends? Any final thoughts that you can think of? All right, awesome. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. We appreciate your contribution to the campus. COVID stories at UWO Oshkosh.