The American University campus is abuzz with its most activity in roughly 18 months as students flow into their residence halls ahead of the first day of classes on August 30.
Some students are returning to campus after more than a year away as the pandemic necessitated remote and virtual learning since March 2020. Many others will move in for the first time, with first-year and second-year students finding themselves on equal footing in inexperience finding their way around campus.
Three AU students, a residential advisor prior to and after the pandemic, a second-year student who got a taste of campus life through emergency housing, and a first-year student discuss their thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming semester, and the return to campus. The following comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Aarushi Sahejpal, an SIS student who is scheduled to graduate this December, was a residential advisor in Centennial Hall when the pandemic hit. She returns this year as an RA after spending most of the pandemic in California’s Bay Area.
Sahejpal: We were all reading the news, and it was spring break in 2020, so I was home in California. I thought I'm just going to just have a longer spring break. And then I had to come back and move quickly out of the halls. I had residents messaging me all the time asking about the plans. It was a lot of quelling tensions, and obviously we were also stressed. I went from having to move out all of a sudden and move back into my childhood bedroom in like a matter of three weeks. I had a feeling that we were going to be home for a while. Did I know that we remain home for this long? No.
I don't think there was ever a question of peace of mind because we were one of the most responsive universities in the country. We were really quick to shut down, and we were quick to trust the data. President Burwell had experience in health, and our leaders were listening to government and health officials and being responsive. That was security in and of itself. I worked with the COVID tracking project with The Atlantic for the past year and a half. It was very good for me to hear that the university was taking data and numbers into consideration.
A lot of us come to American because of the physical proximity that AU is to a lot of things. There’s small class sizes and the benefits of that in-person learning experience. I think a lot of students will say it's the people and the community feel at American that’s one of the main reasons why they love the environment here.
After we went home following the pandemic, we weren't required to do much as RAs other than reach out to residents and see if they were okay. If they wanted to reach out to us and ask any questions, we were there for them. We’re so used to interpersonal communication. The virtual part is tricky.
The RAs have been going through health and safety training, and there's a lot of external factors with the Delta variant being so unpredictable. I have a lot of security in the extensive trainings that we've been getting. I also have full faith that if the university needs to take extreme precautions, that it will. I’ve been nervous, but I feel a lot better after all the training that we've been getting.
I think that students will be able to mingle with each other and build connections and have experiences. I think there will be a semblance of normalcy with some caveats like masking and capacity limits.
I think students do have a shared responsibility. You're going from being by yourself or with your family to now being physically proximate to thousands of people, and if you're in a residential community, you are now responsible for the other people that you live with. So, the students set those standards early on and say this is a living community where we're all responsible for each other, and I think that AU has emphasized how we're going to get through this together.
“Ready to Go”
Second-year student Collin Coil, who is majoring in mathematics and economics at CAS, didn’t have much time to adjust to post-high school life. His high school closed for the school year in March 2020 because of the pandemic. Coil worked jobs until he entered AU in fall 2020 but struggles with broadband connectivity at home pushed him into emergency housing at AU for the spring semester.
Coil: The past year was difficult because I'm from rural Tennessee. I'm from Franklin, and right when the pandemic hit, all the schools closed down, and the county decided that we could no longer have mandatory classes on Zoom or in person or any method. So, starting March 7, 2020, I had finished high school. I had no more classes. I was not supposed to attend classes, and I was not supposed to do homework.
For my fall semester classes, I was able to get internet through my phone. I made a little stand for my phone. I projected my phone screen onto my computer and did all my classes through my phone. I wrote essays on my phone. I did everything on my phone, writing an essay on a phone. It was miserable.
In the spring, I was able to come to campus for emergency housing, and that really evaporated most of my problems.
It was slightly difficult to be in college but distanced from people. But I think that I handled it better than a lot of my friends that I spoke with. Judging from a lot of their experiences they had difficulty because they couldn't socially interact. I didn't find it to be that horribly difficult. I couldn't engage with campus traditions or campus clubs, so I felt kind of stuck at home with not much to do, but then I was able to get into my classes and get into the groove of things. My parents and I negotiated a hands-off contract (in my first semester at AU) where we would try to distance ourselves as much as possible to try to give me more of a campus experience, as much as you can, in your old bedroom.
By the time the Mid-Semester Residential Experience came around, COVID had calmed down a little bit, and it was warming up, and so we got to meet outside. I got to see a lot of my friends who I had classes with both during the fall semester and during the spring semester. We were able to meet up and we actually worked on some projects in person with people, which was the first time I had done that in over a year.
It's already a lot busier this year. During last year's classes, pretty much all I did was classes. Whenever I was free, I would go to work. But this fall, I've got friends here that take up time. I've got my classes, I've got my work, and I've got clubs as well. I feel like I'm going through that stereotypical first-year college experience as a sophomore, where I just want to join everything.
I would say that students are not dampened by COVID. We're still excited, and we're still ready to run. We're all vaccinated. We're all going to be wearing masks, and so it's going to be a much safer environment than last year was. Because of that, many of the students share the belief that we're much safer now. We've got all this pent-up energy from last year where we couldn't do anything. We’re all so ready to go.
Teammates Help Ease the Transition
Jordyn Meunier can’t contain her excitement for arriving on campus. She’s even tried to talk her parents into helping her move even earlier than they scheduled. The incoming first-year student from Massachusetts received a taste of campus life when she came for summer workouts with the basketball team earlier this summer.
Meunier: The beginning of my senior year during the pandemic was quite tough. Everything was very secluded. My family and I decided that was an unhealthy culture, so we went to a prep school. We were able to have in-person classes, and I was able to have eight basketball games. We still had to wear masks and had safety procedures, but it was a much better environment for me. I think, overall, COVID In high school was obviously not preferred, but it wasn't terrible for me.
I'm lucky enough to have a basketball hoop outside (to get ready for AU). I have a basement, and thankfully, it's not carpet, so it was hard enough that I could dribble down there if it's raining or bad weather. You just have to stay in shape. I tried to go on runs as much as I could.
I can tell the major difference between high school and college is that colleges are just much more welcoming. They're honestly much nicer; the whole team is super nice. I think it's nice to have a friend or someone that gets life as a student-athlete. You have to balance a lot, and time management is important. It's nice to have teammates who are going through the same thing with you and understand you. My teammates are uplifting and positive because, honestly, you need to be in the circumstances we're in right now.
I feel just very lucky and blessed. I would talk to my friends a lot over the past year, and they say how hard it was. Basketball seasons got canceled. And there’s the socialization aspect, obviously; people need to hang out with other people—that’s how we are as humans. I'm just very lucky, very blessed to have this opportunity, and it's as normal as it could be.
Oh my gosh, my excitement level is unmatched. I'm just super excited to get started and get acclimated and for the school aspect to start. I'm also really into academics. I'm excited to get to know everyone and meet new people.