College in 2020

By Nicole Freeman, Akila Muthukumar, Kavya Parekh, Siona Prasad, Nidhi Talasani

The New York Times recently compared colleges in 2020 to “meatpacking plants” in an effort to illustrate the rapid spread of COVID-19, with a record 36,000 new cases across campuses (Hubler & Hartocollis, 2020). Although this crude comparison fails to capture both the vitalities and hardships of being on campus, parts of the analogy ring true. Firsthand stories from Harvard College, New York University (NYU), and the University of Virginia (UVA) illustrate the emotional and physical challenges of adapting to college life during a pandemic.

Millions of undergraduates returned to there college campuses for the fall semester. Although all classes are virtual, Harvard chose to allow all freshmen and others with unstable living conditions or senior thesis research to return (Radsken, 2020). NYU offers some in-person classes and allows petition based return to campus (Communications, 2020). UVA welcomed all students back to campus and offered a hybrid model with the option to take most classes remotely. All three schools offer on campus testing facilities (McCance, 2020). Yet, the extent to which these advantages are being realized, and the cost at which they have come, is questionable.

Life on campus is nothing like a normal year. Harvard freshmen share that without taking initiative or having prior connections, it is incredibly difficult to serendipitously meet new people. Worse, since upperclassmen already know one another, it can be a social nightmare for freshmen to reach out. “It’s weird to just go up to people and say hi, because I don’t know if they are freshmen or not. It’s been tough, just getting friends,” one freshman shares. Afiya Rahman, another Harvard freshman, expresses a sense of nostalgia for traditional college experiences, “Harvard’s an old school so there’s a lot of traditions that we’re kind of missing out on.” Another freshman echoes Rahman’s sentiment, “I feel like during a normal year, when people actually know each other, it must be really nice.”

Even during a normal semester, homesickness and loneliness exist, though different in intensity. “Generally living in New York City, it’s lonely. It was isolating pre-COVID and it’ll be isolating post-COVID, because that’s just NYC,” says Manasa Gudavalli, sophomore at NYU. “But I think during this time it’s a little bit harder.” Although the difference in social scenes is subtle at more metropolitan centers, even the ability to go outside has become a novelty with curfew restrictions and caps on maximum group sizes.

While some students accept the social-emotional toll of self-isolation in the grand scheme of safeguarding public health, others break protocol out of desperation for a normal college experience. “Apparently at night, a bunch of freshmen have been gathering at Washington Square Park,” says Gudavalli. While students have some power to hold their peers accountable, there are social stigmas associated with reporting your friends. Although peer pressure regularly forces college students into social activities outside their comfort zone, the ethical dilemma weighs heavy on their conscience now. Though the safest choice may seem obvious, a lonely college student can struggle to contextualize broader ramifications of their actions. Students do not deserve to be put in a situation where they risk public health as a result of loneliness or peer pressure.

Moving into college comes with its own set of challenges, but social spaces in dining halls and libraries build a sense of camaraderie between students. Mealtimes were a place for unexpected interactions for New Yorkers living on a disjointed campus and hot meals made harsh Boston winters feel a little warmer for a new Harvardian. Yet this year, dining halls are mere remnants of the socially vibrant spaces we remember. Rahman explains that packed lines and festive Annenberg decor have been traded in for individual meals delivered to maximize efficiency. “There’s a table and you can’t touch the food. You just point to whatever you want, and they just put it in a bag. It’s all to go and most of it has to be reheated.”

When asked about the dining situation at NYU, Gudavalli said that the dining staff “just weren’t prepared for us, though it has gotten better.” She recounts how meat was delivered to vegetarian students and a student with a peanut allergy was served peanut butter, both just one of many similar incidents. Undergraduates with severe food allergies potentially put their life at risk to eat at dining halls. Although kitchen staff worked around the clock to fix the situation and the school later compensated the students, the situation harmed vulnerable students who didn’t deserve to be treated as guinea pigs in the experiment of returning to campus during a pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, the quality of student health centers in colleges were even more infamous than the quality of student dining. Now, the responsibility of containing the spread of COVID-19 in campuses has fallen to these centers, who lack the proper PPE and personnel to adequately detect and mitigate the spread of the virus. A University of Virginia student who tested positive in early September, Vibha Vijay, had less than the ideal experience with UVA Student Health. “I didn’t even get tested at the Student Health Center, instead I got tested at UVA Riverside Clinic because I’ve heard that Student Health makes you self-administer the test. If I hadn’t had access to a car, Riverside Clinic wouldn’t even have been an option.” After, Vijay took extra precautions to not come into contact with anyone until she got her test results – which took days. “Actually, I got a call from a county contact tracer, before I even got my result back. The person on the phone told me I was positive rather than UVA itself. I told the tracer I hadn’t gotten my official results back yet, and they were surprised that I had even self-isolated. Two whole days later, UVA finally called me to tell me I was positive, which I had already presumed from the tracing call.”

UVA, among other universities, continues to boast about the extent of their testing protocol, which now includes waste water testing and asymptomatic testing of UVA employees, contracted workers, and randomly selected students. UVA has made great efforts to institute random student testing, yet they cannot even provide for the students who have been exposed. “I feel betrayed and neglected by the University,” said an UVA student who wishes to remain anonymous. “I returned to Grounds believing that the University was prepared and that they valued my health and safety, but it is clear to me that they weren’t ready for the magnitude of cases that they should have expected based on the prior experiences of other schools, and that is very inconsiderate of them.”

It seems that often, university policies put too much faith on college students’ ability to sharply shift into social distancing policies after returning to campus, a place that they have inherently connected with being social. At UVA, there is a limit of 15 people per social gatherings (SEC-045, 2020). However, no rule guarantees that students will meet the same 15 people Friday night, and then again the same 15 people Saturday night. “I have witnessed many of my peers hanging out with multiple different friends groups, just on different nights,” said the anonymous UVA student. “Personally, the 15 person rule seems like a careless attempt by the University to put on a facade of strict limitations that claim to mitigate the virus’s spread when they know that they just cannot control the social interactions of college students.”

Similarly, students at NYU have recognized shortcomings in their university’s testing guidelines and procedures. Although NYU has required mandatory nose swab tests and a 14-day quarantine period once students arrive on campus, their follow-up testing has taken the form of surveys. Gudavalli says, “You can easily lie in those. If you have a small sneeze or a small cough, you’re not going to say it. If you have a class, you have a class. It’s not effective. It’s not something students are going to do.”

The safety of students at NYU and UVA, among countless other schools, is clearly not being prioritized. Worse yet, campus health has ripple effects on surrounding communities. On a local scale, thousands of faculty members and staff commute to and from campus every day. Students interact with the community directly through transportation, groceries, off-campus living arrangements and activities.

Interestingly, both Gudavalli and Rahman say if they had to choose all over again, they would return to campus. Gudavalli is able to focus better away from home and Rahman finds joys even within her limited freedom. Colleges should do more to protect and support students who clearly appreciate and seek the exceptional level of education that they were promised. Moving into the winter, we’ll learn if these increasingly corportized colleges are merely serving their financial interest or genuinely concerned with students’ well being.

Hubler, S., & Hartocollis, A. (2020, September 11). How Colleges Became the New Covid Hot Spots. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/11/us/college-campus-outbreak-covid.html

Radsken, J. (2020, July 06). Harvard to bring up to 40% of undergrads to campus this fall. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/07/harvard-to-bring-up-to-40-of-undergrads-to-campus-this-fall/

Communications, N. (n.d.). Status of Operations. Retrieved from https://www.nyu.edu/life/safety-health-wellness/coronavirus-information/status-of-operations.html

McCance, M. (2020, June 17). UVA Outlines ‘Return to Grounds’ Plan for Fall Academic Semester. Retrieved from https://news.virginia.edu/content/uva-outlines-return-grounds-plan-fall-academic-semester

SEC-045: COVID-19 Health & Safety Requirement – Face Masks, Physical Distancing, Events and Gatherings, and Visitors. (2020, June 01). Retrieved from https://uvapolicy.virginia.edu/policy/SEC-045

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