Looking Back — Episode 1: Thoughts on a pandemic year

and | Staff Reporter and Senior Scene Editor

Over the final weeks of the spring semester, Senior Scene Editor Olivia Poolos and Staff Reporter Jared Adelman spoke to Washington University students, administrators and doctors as they recalled what it was like to make friends six feet away, test positive for COVID, make school-wide decisions and muddle through new and unexpected obstacles. This first episode of Looking Back, a three-part audio series, features Wash. U. students reflecting on a difficult year. Music for Looking Back is by Kevin McLeod.

You can read Olivia and Jared’s letter about this project here.

The words "Looking Back" spread across three horizontal lines in green and purple colors. On the right side, smaller purple text reads "3-Part Student Life Audio Series." A purple trapezoid from the right side of the screen makes the two Os in the word "Look" appear like eyes."Graphic by Christine Watridge | Student Life

You can also listen to this episode of Looking Back on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

We have edited this transcript of the podcast for clarity:

(:01) Isaac Stone: Uninvolved, and different.

(:04) Ethan Kadet: Yeah, yeah, just like different. 

(:06) IS: Very lazy 

(:07) Taylor Dworkin: Workflow. 

(:08) Rose Abarbanel: I feel like last semester was really uncertain.

(:11) Wendy Alvarez: Kind of isolating.

(:21) Jared Adelman: Hi, I’m Jared Adelman, and you’re listening to Looking Back, a StudLife production. As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wind down, there’s been a strange sense of normalcy to all of this—masked faces, canceled events, a general lack of social contact. We’ve gotten used to it all—society as a whole—but Washington University in specific. And yes, the pre-pandemic normal is quickly coming back, but it doesn’t feel so seamless. The school we call home has had to and continues to make decisions that were not imaginable just a year ago. Students, too, have had to change their way of life, conceptions of college, what they know Wash. U. to be… 

For me, one of the biggest perhaps most abstract changes has been how time has passed. The first few months of the pandemic felt like an eternity, but fall semester went by in a flash. It’s hard to keep track of it all. So I thought why not recap all that’s changed at Wash. U. in the past year… what happened when it did, who made what decision, you know, the important stuff. Looking Back is a three-part series that walks through this past year, and what the next one will look like, or what we at least think it will. So, for this episode, myself and Senior Scene Editor Olivia Poolos thought it’d be important to see how people feel right now, a year into all of this and what thoughts people have? What’s going on in their life? What did they imagine this year to be? 

I, along with Senior News Editor Julia Robbins and Senior Forum Editor Reilly Brady spoke to some students around campus to get a feel of how they have coped with this year in the past few months. We realized soon that no two experiences were the same. And while everyone agreed that life on campus was far from ordinary, everyone had a unique way of looking at it. Here’s Olivia.

(1:55) Olivia Poolos: Imagine you’re describing this year to someone who’s been living under a rock, or like in a coma for the past 12 months, right? How would you describe it to them in a couple of sentences?

(2:09) RA: Okay, um, so essentially, big virus…You know pandemic think like bubonic plague, but like, now, and people are still going to college, even though it’s kind of weird that people are sending them away, but you know, the economy and education must persist. 

(2:29) Keya Nagula: I thought last semester was really uncertain, just because like no one knew what was gonna happen or indefinite like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be back in November, December,’ and then now it actually feels like because people are getting vaccinated that there’s like ‘okay there might be an end to this.’ And also just because things just got really bad last semester with BD closing and like indoor spaces closing. I feel like just this semester where things feel like they are opening up more. 

(2:59) JA: How would you describe this past year to them, all things considered, I suppose?

(3:05) WA: Oh no, a complete mess, not something you would ever imagine. Like even if you’re aware of things like epidemics or pandemics or anything it’s not something you really ever think about is going to happen in real life. So it just feels kind of like the first episode of Walking Dead, that’s what it feels like just someone coming back and being met with disaster reading the news, and then just like everyday it’s crazier and crazier.

(3:29) JA: One of the major themes that kept resurfacing in all of our interviews, especially from freshmen, was the different ways that students found to interact with their community. For freshman Taylor Dworkin the tight restrictions kept him from feeling truly connected socially, from finding that community. 

(3:44) TD: I had a lot of classes and a lot of credit so I was just, you know, working and doing what I had to, just without the amount of social interaction that I would have. So it’s basically just work and personal time. 

(3:57) OP: Okay. It sounds like you’re pretty underwhelmed or feeling a little bit pessimistic about the time you spent on campus. Is that true?

(4:05) TD: I would say, I’ve enjoyed the classes and I think they’re, they’re nice, but I am…I’m about as enthusiastic as I can be without the social interactions because I haven’t had too much of those.

(4:20) JA: Taylor is not alone. In fact, in some of the interviews that we had, we didn’t even have to ask the question. People were quick to point out that finding community, socializing, meeting people and feeling part of a college was not normal. It was quite difficult. Next, you’re going to hear an interview that’s more like a conversation between Molly Busis and Emily Lin. The two friends we’re having lunch outside the DUC when we caught up with them. Here’s Molly.

(4:47) Molly Busis: Emily, how is it for you like making friends?

(4:49) Emily Lin: Oh for sure friends was, that was probably the most difficult part I would say about being remote because I definitely felt like it was out of body experience where like, I didn’t feel like I was going to Wash. U., but I was going to Wash. U. at the same time, but it was very much like Wash. U. existed on my computer screen. In one room and that was kind of it and it was like, you know, some weird portal in my computer takes me to school but other than that the rest of the whole school aspect of it didn’t really exist. 

(5:19) MB: Yeah, yeah, I mean for me even though I was on campus it was still somewhat hard to make friends I feel like because, like I would meet people, during the first week especially, there was a lot of meeting people and then just never talking to them again. And I think that during a normal year that probably still would have happened, but because everything was restricted because of COVID there wasn’t as much, like, oh, we can just go hang out now we’ll go to someone’s dorm like we weren’t allowed to go into other people’s dorm buildings I mean we’re still not… And yeah, so I feel like I didn’t really get like a concrete group of friends until second semester, like one of my classes last semester I sort of formed a little friend group and then we got closer like near the end of the semester until like, yeah, so this semester I feel like I finally have sort of like a friend group I guess and then I’m starting to make other friends like you. Absolutely lovely. 

(6:15) EL: Thank you so much.

(6:18) MB: And yeah, I also made a few friends on my floor. 

(6:21) EL: That’s good, is your floor tight?

(6:25) MB: My floor, there are definitely some people on my floor who are pretty good friends. I’m only really good friends with the people who live right next door to me. But I do think that my floor has a pretty good community compared to I know some people still don’t know a lot of people on their floor whereas everybody on my floor I at the very least, can say hello to, I know them. And then a few of them I’m pretty close with. 

(6:45) EL: Gotcha.

(6:46) JA: Describe this year in one or two words, what would those words be? From March to March. 

(6:50) EL: Yeah, if I had to pick one word I would say unconventional, I know some people say that like oh ‘it was terrible’ and stuff like that, like, we definitely missed the second half of our high school experiences. But, you know, part of me is sad that we missed, you know some of the big ones–– like prom–– and graduation was really compromised, but the other half of me thinks back on the year and I did get to spend a lot more time with my family than I would have anticipated especially right before going off to college so that I really treasure. So it’s maybe a little bit of a blessing in disguise. 

(7:17) MB: I also think that, you know, out of any situation that we could have like during the pandemic I think being at Wash. U. is kind of an ideal situation. I mean, I feel like it doesn’t get that much better than almost everyone being masked and safe, getting tested multiple times per month, you know, and knowing that we’re generally safe and then also being able to hang out with people outdoors. You know, I think in general, and having some in person classes, that out of any possible situation that we could have at this time in the world, we’re really in a pretty good place. 

(7:52) EL: Yes, I agree.

(7:57) JA: Freshman Ashna Agarwal was studying statistics in BD when we caught up with her. And after getting to know her, we found out she was also remote last semester––in fact was halfway across the world, in Mumbai. And a lot of the challenges she described, one could just not have been foreseen a year ago but two, seem consistent with some things that people, even on campus were feeling, you know, being stuck in a room, stuck on Zoom all day, not really feeling like you’re a part of anything. I think the way she described it says a lot about how we’ve changed in this past year. Reilly Brady has this one.

(8:32) Reilly Brady: First of all, just tell me a little bit of how this spring semester is going for you so far. Were you on campus last semester as well—just how has it been? 

(8:42) Ashna Agarwal: No, I was remote last semester, so this is very different for me, actually I was confined, the way I describe it is that I was confined to a room last semester. And so everything seems open to me now. But no, it’s been a fun experience, definitely. I like being on campus way more than I expected it.

(9:01) RB: What was it like to come, like in the middle of the school year was it kind of intimidating? How was that for you? 

(9:07) AA: I thought it would be more intimidating than it is. Honestly, I feel like a lot of people are still, I mean, it’s freshman year college, there are so many people. You meet people in your classes, you meet people in your dorm and everything is relatively closed, but then it’s still you can always find avenues to reach out and thank God it hasn’t been intimidating. I think it’d be worse, coming in next year I guess. 

(9:33) RB: That’s true. So how would you describe your fall semester, the online one, in one word versus this semester so far in one word? 

(9:41) AA: Oh, okay, so fall semester, death. And I mean it because, also I’m from Mumbai, India. So I was international, which means there’s a 12-hour time difference. 

(9:53) RB: Oh my goodness.

(9:58) AA: I was taking calculus at like 5am in the morning. So death, yes death and a whole bunch of no sleeping. 

(10:03) RB: That sounds terrible. 

(10:05) AA: See, that’s my point. When you’re interviewing me this semester is way better for me, just in general because I don’t have to do philosophy at 3 a.m. 

(10:14) RB: Did you have some asynchronous? Were you going to have some of those or were they all like wake up at…

(10:20) AA: No, a lot of my classes were synchronous for some reason. So, I was up at all, but it also, it made me do a lot more work. This semester I’m doing significantly less work, because nobody was up back home. Everybody slept at 2 a.m. and then no distractions whatsoever. So that’s been fun. 

(10:42) RB: Have you been disappointed or let down by this year? I mean it seems like you’re pretty positive about things. 

(10:50) AA: I mean when you start at negative, you can only go up. That’s my philosophy. No, I have really liked campus this semester. I mean, I have really enjoyed it because I know I’m studying but you can like, even if you’re not hanging out with people as much, you can walk around campus. It’s pretty, you can go do activities that I wouldn’t normally be able to do at home.

(11:15) RB: And then lastly, just like how will you remember this year? 

(11:19) AA: I don’t know if I will. Because I could not summarize this year for you. I don’t know what has happened. But then a lot has actually happened. But I guess the way I would choose to remember at least is, we’re part of something historic, right? And that’s the only way I’ve gotten through this year, we’ve been part of something historic this pandemic has been huge.

(11:41) RB: True, so we will probably be talking about a long time. 

(11:45) AA: If this is not in some history book in like 20 years I’m going to be big mad. Yeah, no I sat through that.

(11:53) JA: So, there you go, an anecdotal non-scientific survey of how students have been feeling a year into COVID. And it’s hard to imagine what we will remember in the future, far from now. Is it going to be the social struggle, the lack of community? Maybe it’s time in isolation or quarantine housing, or I don’t know, that GrubHub became a mainstay of dining at Wash. U., but regardless, stay with us for the next two episodes of looking back, as we take a deep dive into exactly what happened on Wash. U.’s campus talking to school administrators, students who are in the middle of it, and everything in between. Stay tuned.

(12:32) JA: A quick note about the program: This episode was inspired by This American Life, a radio program, and specifically their episode titled ’24 Hours at the Golden Apple.’ Thank you to Julia Robbins, Via Poolos and Reilly Brady for all their field reporting and stay with us for the next episode of Looking Back.

You can listen to the second episode of Looking Back here.

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