A year ago, I was walking to Convocation with my new hallmates. I clearly remember the moment during the ceremony when Jim Ryan began reading aloud the first sentence of the Sevens Society’s letter, which called upon the seventh student in the seventh row to finish reading that letter in front of the entire class. I also remember attending the University’s concert for first-years that featured A$AP Ferg. Lastly, I remember walking into my first class that fall and seeing all the unfamiliar yet welcoming faces.
Now, I find myself in front of my laptop, reflecting on the stark contrast between my life now and my life last year as my Spanish professor gives her introduction over Zoom. Instead of moving into my new apartment the week before classes start, I FaceTimed friends from home and did yard work. And instead of hanging out on the Lawn, I spent the last weekend before the start of classes by watching movies with my dog.
Starting my 8 a.m. class over Zoom this week was dispiriting. To be honest, the fact that most of my classes are asynchronous this semester prompted me to consider dropping some of them or even not enrolling in any classes this semester. Like many other students, I miss the University’s buzzing and vibrant social life. I miss in-person classes and Miss Kathy — and I never thought I’d say this, but I miss lunches at Newcomb Hall.
The differences between this year and last year are enormous and disappointing, but I’m beginning to look forward to this semester. Let me be clear, I am not eager to attend classes remotely or excited to watch asynchronous lectures. Rather, I’m grinning from ear to ear thinking about the time I will get to spend with my close friends when I move back to Charlottesville in a week. I feel optimistic about our ability to creatively find ways to safely enjoy this semester. Just because life will be different this fall does not mean we can’t enjoy it.
In order to make the most of this fall, I think it’s important that we first consider what student life is at the University and how it will change. As students, we spend a significant amount of our time either studying or worrying about our academics. However, in so many more ways, student life at the University revolves around interacting with our peers. Pre-pandemic, we walked to class together, attended events together and stood in line at the food trucks together — but we won’t be able to do any of that this fall.
So, this semester will undoubtedly offer a different social experience but — and most importantly — not a total lack thereof. I’m looking forward to spending more time eating picnic-style meals on the Lawn and throwing a frisbee on Mad Bowl. The time I've spent away from the University and my friends over the past six months has made me realize the value of physically being on Grounds. I expect that those of us living in Charlottesville can still carefully enjoy each other’s company in socially distant, small group settings.
With that being said, I know some students are choosing to or are unable to return to Grounds this fall semester. I sympathize with them, and I strongly encourage all students to frequently reach out to each other over the semester, even as the pace of academic life quickens and inevitably becomes nearly unbearable. Without the entire student body returning to Grounds, many of us will be missing a close friend or more. It’s important that we make conscious efforts to remain in touch. For first years, it’s even more critical that you endeavor to get to know and interact with your peers in class. Again, student life at the University centers around interacting with other students, so take any chance you get to start a conversation over Zoom.
I believe that the quality of each of our fall semesters will be a reflection of the attitude each of us decides to take towards these extraordinary circumstances. When I am able to reflect on how this semester panned out, I want to remember trying to make the best out of it. I want to remember rolling around in laughter with a handful of my closest friends. I want to remember enjoying this strange semester rather than suffering through it. So let’s make smart, responsible and safe decisions, while doing our best to make this semester worthwhile.