As fall semester approaches, students look back on previous year with mixed emotions

Courtesy of Mahlia Neely '23

It’s been one year. One year of sitting in socially-distanced circles on the Residential Quad. One year of scheduling COVID-19 tests in the Aula every other week. One year of professors awkwardly interrupting me to say, “I’m sorry, can you speak up a bit? I can’t hear you,” while gesturing towards their masked faces. As we count down the days to our second pandemic school year, I can’t help but reflect on the last year, while trying to remain hopeful for what’s to come.

After an extended spring break turned into a full-on shutdown, Vassar finally reopened its gates to the majority of students in Aug. 2020. Move-in dates were set as early as two weeks before the start of classes in order to account for a campus-wide quarantine. Armed with a backpack in one hand and Clorox wipes in the other, I trudged onto campus during the international student arrival window. Although I was nervous about COVID-19 numbers on campus, the first few weeks of the semester went surprisingly well: the sun shone, birds sang and friend groups sat and laughed in Noyes Circle, which, after months of isolation and lockdown, was so refreshing to see. I was extremely grateful to be on campus, especially when so many of my friends from other U.S. colleges were stuck back in my home country, The Bahamas, “listening” to their lectures on Zoom. But as the temperatures got lower, so did my mood. Opportunities to meet with friends became few and far between, and I found myself spending more and more time alone in my dorm room—and I wasn’t the only one.

Adjusting to the diminished social scene on campus wasn’t easy for Acadia Case ’24 either, who was navigating her first semester at Vassar. “It was pretty difficult to make friends even in in-person classes, which [made] it really hard to feel fulfilled socially,” she wrote via email. “It was really hard to be away from home during those times—sometimes you just need your mom (or in my case, moms!). I was definitely ready to go home by the time November rolled around.”

I felt the same way—especially when my friends back home were posting videos of themselves sunbathing on the beach after Zoom class, while I was heaving on a winter coat just to walk to the Deece. After three months of the fall semester, I could not wait to get home.

However, the long winter break recharged my social battery, and I actually began looking forward to the start of the spring semester. After wrestling my way through the fall, I felt better equipped to face whatever the new semester would bring. I started the first few weeks of the spring semester online, and I experienced what it was like to try to participate in a class via Zoom while most of my other classmates attended in-person. It was not fun. During one particularly confusing class, I could barely hear what the professor was saying. I privately messaged a fellow Zoomer asking, “What page of the book are we on?” He promptly responded, “I have no idea what’s going on.”

Eventually I worked out the technological kinks, but, by then, I was already preparing to head to Vassar. I did feel bad abandoning the other Zoomers—we had forged quite the bond over not being able to hear what was happening in class—but after two plane rides, five negative COVID tests, and a week’s stay at the Poughkeepsie Hampton Inn and Suites, I was back on campus.

With pods and indoor dining being introduced early on—and more restrictions being relaxed later—the new semester felt more like the Vassar campus I knew pre-pandemic. Like me, Case also found that the spring semester went a lot more smoothly than the fall. “Spring semester felt a lot more like how I had pictured college,” she recalled. “It was a lot easier to know what I was getting myself into and take initiative in my social and academic life.” She continued, “I made a lot more friends and focused on taking classes and doing activities that would simultaneously challenge me but also would be fun and interesting to take.”

For other students, their college experience improved as the temperature increased. Annabel Azaro ’23 found herself enjoying campus life all the more as the weather warmed.She stated, “Spring semester started to feel better once the weather started to change and we were able to eat outside and take long walks around campus and the farm.” 

I have to agree. Although my clip-on fan broke mid-semester and I often woke up covered in sweat, the warmer weather offered much more opportunities for social interaction. I found myself grabbing weekly dinners with friends, hiking the trails of the farm and even running up Commencement Hill on Easter Sunday, balancing an egg on a plastic spoon. 

Though life on campus definitely improved as time went on, the COVID-19 situation still rendered the school year extremely challenging. For most of it, students could not leave campus nor have visitors, which took a toll on Azaro. “The hardest part of last year was definitely not having normal breaks and not being able to see my family for long periods of time,” she said. As an extrovert, Case said the toughest thing for her was working hard to feel socially fulfilled while remembering to check in with herself. Thankfully, she found ways to cope—including caring for her pet bunny: “My amazing bunny Hank was always there for me,” she enthused. “I found a lot of relief through taking care of and hanging out with him!”

Despite all of last year’s drawbacks, I learned many lessons. One of the main things it taught me was to cherish small moments with others. Azaro agreed. “This past year has taught me to be grateful for simple things,” she said. “Like going to the movies, eating in the Deece [and] hanging out in the MPR.” 

I also learned a ton about myself, about how I manage fear and anxiety and about what coping mechanisms work best for me. For Case, the past year has also inspired a lot of self-reflection and self-work. “Working on yourself is seriously underrated,” she said, “It really does enhance your relationships with others and helps you build connections.”

Although I am ecstatic about starting a fully in-person semester for Fall 2021, I think returning to more “normal” campus life will require some adjusting. Since I had only one in-person class last semester, it’s kind of hard for me to imagine going back to having three in-person classes in one day, which can involve speed walking from Blodgett Hall to Sanders Classroom to Chicago Hall in snow or blazing heat. Case also shared some concerns about the upcoming semester: “I definitely will have to get used to in-person midterms and finals, which is mildly terrifying.” 

For me, it’s hard to sum up what the past year has been like. So I asked Azaro and Case what they think. When asked to describe the past year in one word, Azaro said “overwhelming” and Case suggested “transformative.”

I think they’re both right. And that’s one of the biggest things that made this past year so difficult for me—the constant contradictions. There were times when I felt terrified and there were times when I felt strangely calm. There were times when everything seemed apocalyptic and there were times when it felt like things would turn out okay after all. There were times I felt overwhelmed and there were times I felt transformed. So, with the extreme highs and drastic lows of the past year, I’m left asking for one thing for this upcoming year: consistency.

 

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