Junior Jolt: What makes a college experience?
As the on-campus semester nears an end, I’ve been reflecting on what we’ve been missing.
November 14, 2020
As I write, we’re entering our penultimate week on campus for the fall semester. Unlike previous years, students will not be returning to campus for a few last all-nighters, clutching cups of Peet’s coffee as they drag themselves wrapped with cozy blankets to a study room. In a few weeks, scattered to the winds, we’ll all begin the process of cramming for finals—alone.
Thinking back on this semester, I’ve been struggling to figure out what exactly made it feel so different, and frankly, lacking. We’ve been lucky to have the full student body on campus, with other colleges only welcoming first-year and senior students back. Even with most students on campus, however, this semester still felt strangely quiet. While our beautiful tree-filled home is never exactly bursting with noise (excluding the construction by Towers), the atmosphere felt emptier and almost sluggish.
Many students enjoyed the fresh outdoor air more, completing homework on any available tables that haven’t been confiscated. Wilson Lawn also seemed more popular this semester, with many students sitting in the white spray painted circles that ensured six feet of distance, enjoying meals with friends. I also saw people playing frisbee and dancing on the lawn, all with masks on, of course.
But, even with students enjoying campus outdoors, I missed the usual electrifying energy of thousands of busy academics rushing to and fro. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the 10-minute time crunch sprinting from Peabody to Main several times a week last year, I do miss the feeling that I wasn’t the only one doing so. When I almost collided with students going 30 miles an hour on a scooter, riding boosted boards and the occasional athlete on a moped, it was strangely energizing and encouraging. Frantically rushing from one activity or class to another with other peers doing the same gave me a “we’re all in this together” connection that I don’t feel this year. With most of us still Zooming to class, the academic camaraderie I once enjoyed with friends and strangers alike is gone.
Of course, there are more obvious campus interactions students have missed this semester. Whether it’s parties, being able to celebrate your friend’s 21st birthday in style or traveling to other universities to compete at an academic tournament, the effortless group mingling we all enjoyed pre-COVID has all but disappeared. While orgs have been trying their best to offer ways for members to connect online, it’s just not the same. When I saw some of my VUceptees in person for the first time recently, handing off an end of semester care package, I said, “It’s great to finally meet you.” That may sound strange, given how I’ve gotten to know these students over the course of the semester. But, seeing someone on video is not the same as meeting them in the flesh. You don’t know how tall someone is or how fast they walk. Getting to know people’s habits and auras is also something I’ve missed.
Okay, what else? Besides missing the energizing chaos of shared academic and personal life with peers, I’ve missed the intellectual bubble college is supposed to provide us. Even the most computer addicted are starting to get tired of conducting our entire lives online. I personally find conducting all of my energy through a 13-inch screen more draining than meeting hundreds of people in person. Although adults may expect our infamously technology-addicted generation to embrace the nine plus hours we stare at our devices a day for schoolwork alone, I think most of us are nearing our limits.
While I’ve enjoyed the efficiency and productivity of saving transportation time to and from class and org meetings, I miss the intellectual energy 20 to 200 of the nation’s brightest minds (not to mention our accomplished professors) sitting in a classroom effortlessly generates. Sitting in my room on Zoom or in an empty hybrid classroom with five other students just doesn’t feel the same. To me, part of the fun of an on-campus college experience is being able to bounce off each other’s ideas and revel in the intellectual prowess of those around you. I also miss being able to interact with professors in person; on screen they feel more like far-away, inaccessible geniuses than real people who want to talk to you.
While some of my more introverted peers may still be enjoying this campus experience that’s a sliver of what it used to be, I’m ready and hopeful that we’ll safely return to normal soon. While physical health and safety is priority number one, I think mental health should be a close second. To me, looking after students’ mental health includes acknowledging the ways today’s COVID-19 campus experience is lacking and striving to find ways to inch things back to normal so that students can enjoy their undergraduate experience to the fullest.
In a way, we’ve all just been dealt a poor hand in the timing of our college attendance. But, reflecting on and recognizing ways we hope our COVID-19 experience can be improved is the first step towards positive change.