Reopening, Part 1: Starting college in a pandemic

| Multimedia Editor

Student Life Multimedia Editor Jaden Satenstein explores the experiences of Washington University community members as the school prepares to open for a fall semester like no other. This three-part series focuses on first-years, international students and faculty members as we lead up to the start of classes.

In this segment, we ask incoming first-year students: What’s it like to start college in the midst of a global pandemic?

Graphic by HN Hoffmann and Christine Watridge

The transcript of the episode can be found below. It has been lightly edited for clarity:

BORNA DIANATI (0:09-0:32): I had a relatively high fever and I lost my sense of smell and my sense of taste. I had a sore throat and I experienced some lung distress, but it didn’t warrant me going on any outside medication or like having to go to the hospital or use supplemental oxygen. But that wasn’t true for other members of my family.

JADEN SATENSTEIN (0:33-1:15): Incoming first-year Borna Dianati dealt with many of the same disappointments as his fellow high school seniors just a few months ago. The sudden transition to virtual learning, loss of a senior spring and uncertainty about the fall. On top of that, soon after his school shut down, Dianati and his family realized they had COVID-19.

I’m Multimedia Editor Jaden Satenstein and you’re listening to Reopening, a Student Life audio series exploring the experiences of Washington University community members as the school prepares to open for an unprecedented fall semester.

Today, we focus on the first-years.

BD (1:16-1:22): You know, I had loved ones who almost lost their lives because of it. So, it’s a pretty big deal.

JS (1:23-1:36): Dianati said he and his family are doing much better. They live just five minutes from the Washington University campus. While he’s always been interested in the University, it was his family’s experience with COVID-19 that solidified Dianati’s college choice.

BD (1:37-1:52): In that moment of crisis, I realized that I would really enjoy having the opportunity to be close to home, rather than being halfway across the country or halfway across the world worrying about whether or not my family is going to survive this illness.

JS (1:54-2:07): While Dianati will be living at home this fall to save money on room and board, he plans to travel to campus for his one in-person class. In-person learning is a popular choice among the class of 2024.

Still, Dianati doesn’t see that lasting.

BD: (2:08-2:34) It’s an emotional stabilizer to spend time with other people going through the same thing. And because of that, I don’t think the University is going to be as successful as they hope in preventing students from gathering in larger groups and thus preventing them from contracting the coronavirus. I think there’s a pretty high chance that students will be sent home within, you know, the first two months.

NEWSCASTER MONTAGE (2:36-2:56): Continuing to follow some breaking news tonight, two weeks after students returned to campus, Notre Dame is suspending in-person classes due to a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases… Tonight at UNC-Chapel Hill, the party is over… Concerns at Mizzou, positive COVID-19 cases are booming in Boone County, where the University is located.

JS (2:57-3:18): After hearing about outbreaks at schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, many first-years told Student Life that campus shutting down is one of their biggest concerns. Still, Residential Life’s Assistant Director of Operations Raven Robinson said that more than 90% of the class plans to live on campus. That includes Julia Blanchard from Kansas City, Missouri.

JULIA BLANCHARD (3:19-3:31): I decided that, even if I’m sitting in my dorm the entire time, the different environment, like a study environment, a place where I know, “Okay, this is where I take my classes,” rather than being at home would be much better for me.

JS (3:32-3:37): Blanchard said she’s excited to be on campus, but starting college without normal social activities is pretty daunting.

JB (3:38-3:51): I guess I’m just a little worried how you make friends with someone six feet apart. You know, like, it’s doable obviously, and I’m going to do the best that I can. But just not having that like sitting next to someone in class and striking a conversation versus yelling at them from a couple of seats away.

JS (3:52-4:02): Like Blanchard, first-years can expect to spend a lot of time in their now single rooms. According to First Year Center Director Katherine Pei, this started right when students arrived.

KATHERINE PEI (4:03-4:07): Basically everything at Wash. U. this fall will be virtual, including Fall Welcome.

JS (4:08-4:27): That includes traditional orientation activities, like Convocation, floor meetings and Washington University Student Associate groups, or WUSA groups, which are no longer residentially based. Pei said that the First Year Center and Campus Life offices have arranged virtual social activities so that students can get to know each other.

KP (4:28-4:39): “It’s going to be a really, really different year. And I think that we’re all going to have to kind of settle into that this is our new normal for the foreseeable future.”

JS (4:41-5:03): It’ll definitely be a different year. So, why come? Why didn’t first-years take a gap year and wait until they could hopefully have a more normal college experience? Coming from Bergen County, New Jersey, Rida Qureshi said she needed a change. She became very involved in anti-racism activism after the murder of George Floyd and said she needs to get out of her overwhelmingly white, suburban town.

RIDA QURESHI (5:04-5:17): “You know, especially with all the work I’ve been doing recently writing policies and stuff, there’s really nothing that can replace having people around you that you can stand in solidarity with. And I don’t have that here, and I’m really excited to have that at Wash. U.”

JS (5:18-5:20): But that excitement doesn’t come without major worries.

RQ (5:21-5:52): “I know that it’s, it’s been so stressful not getting the information that we want at the times that we need it. I mean especially as a low-income kid, I need to be making these plans well in advance, and not having specific dates and specific plans and not knowing, like, what’s my work-study going to look like, what’s off-campus work going to look like, knowing that I have to provide for myself there, it’s getting a bit stressful, ‘cause like this whole adulthood thing is kinda new for a lot of us, and we want to be as prepared as possible without putting a burden on our parents.”

JS (5:53-6:08): Lack of information and having to wait months to hear the University’s plan has been stressful for first-years. Preston Endom from Mobile, Alabama said he would’ve liked more transparent communication from the University about its fall plan.

Still, he’s optimistic.

PRESTON ENDOM (6:09-6:16) “I feel like if anyone can do it, Wash. U. can, and so I do have a lot of faith in Wash. U. compared to other institutions, I guess.”

JS (6:17-6:24): But it’s that faith in Washington University that Qureshi fears will lead to outbreaks. She hopes administrators put health and safety first this fall.

RQ (6:25-6:36): “As much as we love the school we got into and as obsessed as we are with it, you know, we’re not blind. You know, we can see when our enthusiasm is being taken advantage of.”

JS (6:37-6:49): Qureshi is working with members of her class to create an Instagram page called Wash. U. Stay Safe to encourage students to follow COVID-19 guidelines. But she said it’s on the school to enforce rules and control the situation.

RQ (6:50-7:29): I think they rely pretty heavily on students prioritizing the Wash. U. campus experience, and, yeah, I mean, that is a huge part of Wash. U.’s appeal, but I don’t think they realize that part of the demographic they attract is people that can afford to break social distancing. Yeah, you develop more of a nuanced perspective in college, but I don’t think optimism is the route to take in a public health crisis, you know? I think they need to be as cynical as possible.

JS (7:30-7:50): Not all first years will get that campus experience this fall. Elizabeth Jeon felt relieved when she learned she could take online classes from her home in South Korea. She’s seen the cases rise exponentially in Missouri and feels safer in a country where the pandemic is far more under control.

But that relief hasn’t stopped her from feeling like she’s missing out.

ELIZABETH JEON (7:51-8:06): Your first year is supposed to be so exciting and you’re supposed to meet new friends and…This is like the stage where you’re meeting new people, but because I’m not going on campus I somewhat feel left out in a way.

JS (8:07-8:16): Even with the challenges they’re facing, many first-years we spoke with can’t wait to get started. For Blanchard, that just means keeping her priorities straight.

JB (8:17-8:42): You don’t want to be the person that messes it up for anyone. You want to make sure that you are keeping the whole perspective in the right framing, you know, your college experience versus keeping a society and a bunch of people healthy. You know, you gotta… It’s a balance. You need to make sure you’re prioritizing what’s important. But it’s also super exciting to get to go to college. It’s something we’ve been looking forward to, you know, for a long time.

JS (8:43-8:53): Coming up on Reopening, Student Life speaks with international students about the challenges they’ve faced and their concerns about the fall. We’ll hear from students like junior Helen Webley-Brown from London.

HELEN WEBLEY-BROWN (8:55-9:03): I think my first initial thought right when we got the very first email saying, “Don’t come back to campus,” was thinking, like, ‘How am I going to afford my flight back?’

JS (9:04-9:06): For Student Life Media, I’m Jaden Satenstein.

“Reopening, Part 1: Starting college in a pandemic” can also be found on Apple Podcasts and Soundcloud.

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