Mandatory quarantine upon arrival. Remote classes. Months without seeing friends.
As fall semester begins during a pandemic, college and university reopenings are varying dramatically across the country. Roughly a third of campuses are holding classes primarily online, 20 percent are primarily in person and 15 percent are following a hybrid model, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Others have not determined how they will proceed or have different plans). In-person schools have restructured their campuses to enable for social distancing and testing, even as the realities of mask-wearing, sports and parties differ between institutions.
Students at colleges and universities that are fully online are grappling with their own issues. In addition to the social isolation and difficulties of online learning, many students are experiencing the financial loss of on-campus jobs, a reliable Internet connection or access to mental health resources. Some have chosen not to attend college at all this year — a recent survey found that 40 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year residential colleges said they are likely or highly likely to not attend this fall.
Starting college under any of these circumstances is overwhelming. The Lily spoke with three 18-year-old women in Georgia, California and Massachusetts over the course of a week about what their college experience looks like today.
Triniti Brown has one hour to move into college. The clock starts at 1:30 p.m. when she pulls into the unloading zone, her mom and brother in a packed car behind her. With her mask on, she enters the building to get her student ID and the wristbands for her and the two helpers she’s allowed. This is her freshman year at the University of Georgia. As of Aug. 15, Georgia ranks as the No. 1 state in the country for new daily covid-19 cases.
Brown didn’t hesitate starting college in person, especially because UGA is just one hour from her house and was one of her top choices as an aspiring business major. After working at Big Lots this summer, she’s comfortable wearing a mask. Besides, Brown gets to room with her best friend since fifth grade.
When she finishes unloading, Brown feels exhausted. She and her roommate order food from the dining hall, then drive to pick it up and eat in their room. There are restrictions on the number of people allowed in the dining hall; Brown wonders how she’ll meet people.
“It hasn’t hit me quite yet,” Brown says of living away from home. “It feels like a sleepover.”
Over 2,000 miles away, in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County, Natalie Aronno is stuck at home without power, thanks to temperatures in the high 90s. Her mom won’t be home for hours, and Aronno, bored and overheated, makes a decision she’ll later regret — to cook.
Almost three hours later, Aronno has made two giant bowls of potato salad, too much for one person. Her arm is tired from mixing — this was supposed to be her day off from working out. A dancer, Aronno practices five times a week. She used to dance 20 to 30 hours per week, but when classes went online, she dropped to 10. These days, Aronno finds it hard to motivate herself, but she has to be in shape for when she starts studying dance — remotely — at the University of California at Irvine this fall.
For Aronno, the college application process was intense, the financial aid process perhaps even more so. Aronno, a first-generation student, pressed each school that accepted her to offer more financial aid. Tuition will be fully covered at UC Irvine. It was the only acceptance that made her cry.
Even with virtual classes, Aronno doesn’t want to defer a year. She’s used to dancing on Zoom — in the spring, she danced in her emptied living room, her mom standing on a chair to film. Still, she says, “I do miss dancing with people. It’s not the same dancing alone.”
Isabelle Halsey hadn’t seen any friends since March. But just days ago, she attended prom — a satirical, distanced “unprom.” With her twin sister and two friends in Maine, Halsey made seaweed corsages and boutonnieres, posing for photos while standing six feet apart with masks.
Since the spring, Halsey has been in her home outside Boston. Staying put is unusual for her — born in Massachusetts, Halsey moved to France when she was 9, to Taiwan for eighth grade, back to France for ninth grade and finally to the United States in her sophomore year of high school.
In another world, Halsey would be getting ready for her freshman year at Harvard, but she’ll be taking a gap year instead. “For me, personally, the short-term benefit of going to college doesn’t outweigh the long-term concern of keeping my family safe,” Halsey says. Her mom is an emergency room doctor. Her dad is high risk. Moreover, her grandparents, 83 and 88, now reside in her living room, after a recent fall broke her grandmother’s neck.
During her current vacation in Maine, Halsey gets to hang out with her friends. But in the fall, she and her twin sister, who deferred her acceptance to Dartmouth, will be the only ones in their group taking a year off. “It’s not that you’re being left behind, per se,” Halsey says. “You’re sitting on the edge of your seat and waiting for your college experience to happen.”
Brown is convinced she’ll take the wrong bus one day. She and her roommate are riding around UGA’s sprawling campus, plotting where their classes will be to make sure they won’t be late. These days, the bus is set up for social distancing and carries fewer people.
Everything around campus is set up for social distancing. Brown goes to a freshman movie night on a field, complete with Chick-fil-A, Popsicles and water. Staff patrol the students like chaperones at a school dance, making sure everyone is wearing a mask. Brown is glad she’s getting a chance to meet people, even if it is awkward small talk. “You’d think I’m shy until you start to get me to talk, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, can she please be quiet?’” Brown says with a laugh.
Brown feels badly for the students, particularly the freshmen, at the University of North Carolina who were told to pack up this week and head home. “Did you hear about UNC?” someone shouted from a car the other day when Brown was outside the grocery store. Brown heard about the die-in protest a few weeks ago against UGA’s reopening. Still, the school’s efforts have “made me feel way more confident,” she says. She says she trusts UGA to shut down if necessary.
The power has been going out all week. This time, at least, Aronno’s latest cooking attempt was a success — paletas, Mexican Popsicles made with fresh fruit. She’ll eat them later, but first, she has to dance.
Aronno takes ballerina Tiler Peck’s Instagram Live class almost every day, using a chair as a ballet bar. Sometimes she’ll try something new, like a tango video on YouTube, or she’ll do her own choreography, as she did the other day to a song from her childhood with the lyrics: “Don’t you worry now, it’s all about to change.”
Aronno says she really struggled to choreograph her college audition video. She knew the music well and had even improvised to it in a prior performance. But with the stakes so high, every time she tried to make up her own routine, she was dissatisfied. One day, her mom suggested what has become a fitting lesson for these months of uncertainty — learn your improvisation.
Halsey and her sister are on “grandparent duty” — they cook their meals, take their grandfather for walks, help their grandmother to the bathroom. Today, their mom is working. When she comes home from the ER later tonight, she’ll strip in the basement and then shower for 30 minutes; her skin is irritated from the PPE. Halsey feels a responsibility to play her part.
“In October of senior year, I was so focused on myself,” she says. “With the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and my family, my mind-set has shifted to what can I do to make my community and home and world the best I can.”
For Halsey, this means not only caring for her grandparents, but also keeping busy with tutoring, launching a mentorship program for Taiwanese Americans at her former camp, and phone-banking for former vice president Joe Biden.
Today, Halsey works a bit on all of her projects, then makes tomato, basil and garlic pasta for lunch. Her grandfather, who has taken to rating her food, rewards her effort with a rare 10, a ranking usually reserved for sweet smoothies. Halsey has gotten better at cooking — she hopes to make a three-layer bubble tea cake for her sister’s birthday. Later, Halsey and her sister make kimbap, Korean seaweed rice rolls, before the whole family settles down to watch the Democratic National Convention.
Brown starts her first day of class filling out a questionnaire: Are you coughing? Have you been around anyone with covid-19? UGA sends out the survey each day to students. Brown says there are testing sites, but she wasn’t required to quarantine upon arrival.
The calls for UGA to suspend in-person classes have intensified. Today, the student newspaper published a petition from more than 300 faculty members calling the administration’s plan “unwise.”
Brown will have her first in-person class next week, but today is online. From her desk in her room, she attends ecology class on Zoom. By now, Brown says, she’s used to remote learning. It’s no different having an Italian class of 20 classmates vs. a microeconomics class of 80 — everyone is just little boxes.
Over the past few days, meeting people, even if briefly at the bus stops or waiting in line to pick up food, has made Brown more excited about this year. She doesn’t think she’ll have a real college experience until sophomore year, but she does believe that “[UGA is] trying to stay on top of things so people can still have the college experience,” she says. “College is the threshold to the real world.”
Aronno is terrified of the world of the freeway. People are too aggressive, especially in L.A. Today, she drives around her neighborhood with her mom, practicing for her driver’s test next week. Her mom is more nervous than she is.
Aronno wants to be as productive as she can be, so that she’s prepared for when “normal” life resumes. “I’m not angry anymore,” she says of how much her future has changed. “Every now and then I get sad.” Now that special dates have passed — her high school’s final dance show, graduation — Aronno has largely accepted reality. She checks in on a friend who is quarantining in her new dorm in New York City. She exercises every day. And for the rest of the year, Aronno hopes to use her driver’s license to make the minutes-long trip to her boyfriend’s and another close friend’s house.
Someday, Aronno knows, she’ll drive the 45 minutes south on Interstate 405 to UC Irvine. There, she might study biology or business administration, in addition to dance. She’d like to live in a dorm or off-campus apartment, but most likely only for a year. “Then I’ll be like, okay I miss home,” Aronno says.
Halsey cares for her grandparents and 2-year-old nephew today. (Her older sister’s family podded with hers.) Halsey’s grandfather has been trying to teach the toddler Taiwanese. Good morning — gao zap. Eat — jia. Bathroom — ben so.
Halsey has been taking Taiwanese classes online — she wants to make sure she can communicate with her grandfather, who has dementia, in his native language as his English fades.
Halsey knows how special it is to have so many generations together. Now she’s there to hear when her grandfather plays Japanese opera on YouTube, lodged in his memory from growing up in Taiwan under Japanese occupation. Over the years, Halsey has learned about her grandfather’s past, first hearing funny stories about his sharing a bathroom with 10 brothers and sisters, then later learning about why he left — political strife, Japanese imperialism, the sound of B-29s. He’s forgotten it now, but Halsey remembers.
A few months ago, in a moment of lucidity, Halsey’s grandfather wrote a poem about her and her sister growing up called, “Issa and Nattie, where did you go?” Halsey’s mom read it at the Zoom graduation party for the twins. It’s a reminder of “my family and [everything] I owe to them,” Halsey says. Someday, she’ll hang it in her Harvard dorm room.