Class of 2020 alumni move to college campuses to find something like a normal freshman experience in a pandemic

October 13, 2020 — by Andy Chen

Alumni Lucy Liang and Megan Chen take a picture while shopping in New York City.

After the Class of 2020’s disappointing second-semester-senior experience last year — with the pandemic canceling highlights such as prom, senior sunset, senior trips, a normal graduation and Grad Night — many alumni have chosen to move on campus to avoid a similarly disappointing college freshman experience.

Alumnus Jeffrey Xu, who moved to Cambridge, Mass., in late August to study computer science at Harvard University, said he chose to live on campus because he felt so isolated while sheltering in place at home. 

“Quarantining helped me realize how much I missed regular social interaction, so it was an easy choice to go on campus,” he said. “Living on campus has allowed me to make a ton of new friends, experience the city and live a different life.”

Xu described his life as a “cycle of work, play and eating.” His daily schedule consists of attending online classes and studying with small, socially distant groups on weekdays and visiting famous landmarks or viewpoints throughout the Boston area on weekends.

“There’s this thrill of starting the day off not knowing what’s going to happen,” Xu said. “The spontaneity of being able to meet with people instantly because of how many like-minded people I’m surrounded by is just amazing.”  

For alumna Lucy Liang, who is studying interactive media arts at New York University, her decision to live on campus stemmed from her desire to have a normal college experience, as well as to attend in-person or hybrid classes. Liang wakes up at around 9:30 a.m., goes to online or in-person classes, studies with a rotating group of friends, “hangs out for a bit” and then goes to bed.

While Liang said she prefers living on campus because she’s able to establish deeper connections with her peers and professors, she recognizes that there are some downsides. COVID-19 restrictions prevent her from eating in dining halls, accepting visitors into her dorm room and going to university facilities like the gym.

“Because of all the rules and restrictions, it's definitely harder to do much this year, especially to go outside and make new friends,” Liang said. “The rules are definitely a good thing and necessary for our best interest, but it isn't as easy as living at home.”

Liang added that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is “definitely higher” when living on campus compared to living at home, since students are more exposed to the outside world. However, since NYU administers weekly testing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within its student body, Liang believes that as long as students are careful and adhere to social distancing norms, COVID-19 can be contained.

Others, like alumnus Kyle Petkovic, chose to stay home and attend classes online. “I didn’t feel comfortable about going to in-person classes or traveling via airplane,” said Petkovic, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Even if I was on campus, most classes would be online anyways, so I didn’t think it was worth the risk.”

Those who decided to live on campus face the challenges of trying to follow all the social distances rules and still try to be social.

Liang said these rules haven’t helped in making more friends, but Xu has seen a bright side to them.

He said many of his peers are using Instagram and other messaging apps to randomly invite people to small social gatherings. These in turn have led to friendships.

On the other hand, alumnus Jeffrey Ma, who studies Chinese Literature at Amherst University, said he was almost solely incentivized to come on campus for educational purposes. As a result of living on campus, he’s able to make in-person appointments with his professors and continuously keep himself motivated.

“The biggest benefit by far is that there's a physical reminder that school is going on,” Ma said. “Initially, my decision to come on campus also had a social component, but now that I’m on campus I see that socially, it really isn't that different from being remote.”

According to alumnus Ashwin Ramakrishna, who studies and dorms at the University of California, Davis, professors have been supportive and lenient throughout his online college experience; many have shifted tests, assigned less homework and even canceled finals to make virtual learning easier for students. 

Whether through social or academic means, Xu said he is hopeful that students living on campus will be able to benefit from their relatively normal college freshman experience.

“I miss living at home, but living on campus definitely has more pluses than minuses,” Xu said. “I can’t wait to see what the next few months have in store.”

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