Back to ‘normal’: Students navigate campus life after more than a year online
In Newsstands: This story first appeared in our December 2021 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Students entered campus early in the morning of August 30 for the first day of in-person classes at American University since spring 2020.
For some, the walk through campus was familiar, but for others it was an entirely new experience. After moving in, studying abroad, and playing, students are still adjusting to what life at UA is like.
For Lilliana Silver, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences, the experience of arriving on campus this fall to take in-person classes was strange. Although she had completed her freshman year at UA, she had not been in a classroom since her senior year of high school.
“March came and [my high school’s administration] was like, ‘We’re gonna go online for two weeks’…and then we didn’t come back, and now I’m a sophomore in college,” she said.
While most members of the Class of 2024 were last in a classroom just under two years ago, some non-traditional students like Kai Yuen Suherwan, a sophomore at the School of International Services, haven’t been in a classroom for three years. After graduating from high school in 2018 and then enlisting in the Singapore army for two years, another year’s delay in university experience was not expected.
“I was thinking about the typical American college experience, I was thinking about the parties, actually the lecture halls and stuff, and I was watching the School of International Service and I was like I was looking forward to it. .” said Suherwan. “But then compare that to me sitting in the basement staring at a screen.”
Now that classes are back in person again, he said he can finally take part in some of the college experiences he’s been hoping for. His excitement about being back in person is one that has been echoed by many.
“For the first time, I was able to look to my left and I had a student there,” said Jehane Djedjro, a second-year student at SIS. “I could tell them about the school and the subject we are learning. Mentally, it just got me to a better place.
What normalcy looks like was a question all students faced when they returned to campus this year. The remaining two classes – the class of 2022 and 2023 – are the only ones to have experienced the university pre-pandemic.
Victoria Guillen, an SIS junior, said the return to in-person learning came with a different on-campus experience than she remembered from her freshman year.
“Coming back to campus, a lot has changed socially for me,” Guillen said. “A lot of my freshman friends either graduated, took a year off, transferred or dropped out. So everyone is in a completely different position than we were before. And that was a lot to digest too.
Borders begin to reopen and students look abroad
Guillen and many others were planning to study abroad in the spring of 2022, and while some programs are being offered in limited capacity, many plans have been put on hold. For many, the opportunity to study abroad is what drew them to the AU. According to US News & World Report, AU is a top university for those wishing to study abroad. At some point during their time at the University, 54% of students will study abroad, says the University’s website. One such program is the Sakura Scholars Program, where SIS students can spend two years abroad at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan.
This year, Mizuki Brent, a second-year Sakura Scholar student, was the only member of his cohort allowed to enter Japan through his Japanese citizenship to complete the typical program progression.
“I haven’t met any of my cohorts yet just because my whole freshman year was online, but I’ve been in touch with a few of them over the phone,” Brent said. “It’s not that I really feel like I’ve missed any friendships because I haven’t been able to meet them yet, but I’ve been able to meet some of the other kids. [here in Japan].”
Brent said UA isn’t the only university where students have felt disconnected during the pandemic. Ritsumeikan University has just started allowing students to attend in-person classes due to low COVID-19 numbers.
“Classrooms are much emptier than normal, classes are mostly hybrid, and there are a lot of kids in South Korea and China who can’t cope,” Brent said.
The performing arts return to the stage
While classrooms around the world have started to look more normal as campuses navigate COVID-19 protocols, auditoriums for the performing arts are just beginning to pick up live audiences.
CAS senior Nicole Klokiw said the University’s performing arts department looked very different under post-pandemic restrictions than before. Audience capacity is capped at 50%, crew and orchestra members are masked, and staging is socially distanced.
But after performing in two shows last year on Zoom, Klokiw said that while the in-person performances seem different than they were before, she’s happy to be back on stage for this fall’s production. from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.
“This is the first in-person show I’ve been on in three years,” Klokiw said of the late October show. “Being able to look into the audience… it’s really nice. It’s rather encouraging to see and hear people react. It makes me happy.”
Not all shows have been in person. Kelsey Walker, a CAS junior, said this fall’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” is currently filming. Although the decision was made so that it could accommodate the possibility of the University closing in-person shows, Walker said the transition to campus was still difficult.
“I’ve lost a lot of confidence in the thing I love doing the most, which is really hard to deal with,” Walker said. “It’s hard to trust the theater itself or an institution like AU when things are changing so constantly. And I know you just have to deal with it, but it’s hard when you’re like ‘ok, this isn’t like this before, or this isn’t how I want it to be anymore’… Like that’s all I want to do, and I don’t really feel like we’re back yet.
The uncertainty of what the future holds is a feeling that all students share. As the pandemic continues to unfold, students have learned to be flexible and cope with the challenges of living in unprecedented times. While what “normal” looks like will continue to change over time, UA students have shown resilience.