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Mid-semester check-in: Students adjust to an unusual first year

A month after move-in, first-years share their thoughts and experiences halfway through the semester

<p>As of Wednesday, there have been 232 COVID-19 cases in first-year dorms.</p>

As of Wednesday, there have been 232 COVID-19 cases in first-year dorms.

This semester, first years have been hit with an unprecedented number of obstacles — undergoing dorm-wide testing, being placed in quarantine and isolation rooms and spending their first few months of college with limited social contact while taking classes in front of a computer screen. There have been 232 positive COVID-19 cases in first-year dorms. Currently, University COVID-19 guidelines restrict gatherings to no greater than 10 individuals, mandate mask-wearing and prohibit travel to and from Charlottesville.

Previously, Balz-Dobie, Echols, Kellogg, Lefevre and Hancock residential halls all underwent mandatory testing after positive indicators of COVID-19 were found in the dorms’ wastewater. The University announced Oct. 13 that all on-Grounds residents will be tested for COVID-19 every nine days. 

Normally all first-years are required to live in on-Grounds residences, but this semester 74 percent of the first-year class chose to live on Grounds, with others choosing to stay at home or take a gap year given the unusual circumstances. 150 students elected to take a gap year — twice the normal average — according to the Office of Admission.

First-year College student Nishita Ghanate is living on Grounds this semester. When she first moved in, she thought that it would be difficult to meet people but what she didn’t expect was that everyone in her dorm was still friendly despite the limited availability of social activities. A month later, she has found that while she’s making friends under difficult circumstances, it wasn’t as hard as she thought. She found that watching movies and playing cards in the lounge or simply walking outside of her room were great ways to meet new people. 

When Balz-Dobie underwent mandatory wastewater testing, Ghanate was sent to quarantine housing after testing negative. Students who have been in close contact with another individual known to have COVID-19 are sent to quarantine for 14 days at local hotels while those who test positive are housed for 10 days in isolation rooms, leaving only after obtaining a negative test result. Those subjected to quarantine or isolation are also given the opportunity to return home, if the University deems it safe to do so. 

Ghanate’s hotel room included a bed, lounge space and private bathroom. While Ghanate thought the initial few days in quarantine housing were fine, she eventually started feeling lonely. 

“By the middle and end it was pretty lonely just being there all alone … and it was kind of an anxious experience,” Ghanate said. “Because you're just alone and you don't know what's going on at your dorm and it's … just hard to focus when you're stuck in a room.”

In quarantine housing, Ghanate said that students received three meals on week days and two meals on weekends. The food was similar to dining hall food, but if students wanted something different, they could order takeout with their own money. According to Ghanate, however, there were two or three times when someone she knew in quarantine didn’t get meals delivered. 

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the semester, Ghanate was happy with her decision to live in the dorms instead of at home. 

“I don’t think we would have been as happy if we were at home,” Ghanate said. “I know that a lot of people are just happy that they’re here, even though they have to quarantine for two weeks. It’s been a lot of fun meeting new people here and getting to experience what college life is like.” 

After being on-Grounds for around six weeks thus far, first-year Engineering student Brandol Galicia doesn’t believe he has gotten a “true” first year experience.

In residential halls, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, community kitchens are closed, every resident is assigned a specific shower, sink and bathroom stall, and only residents and select staff are allowed to enter. All students are required to wear masks at all times except when in their rooms, eating or exercising outdoors, and travel in and out of Charlottesville is highly discouraged. In an update released Tuesday, all gatherings have been limited to 10 students, an increase from the previous five. 

An email from Dean of Students Allen Groves mentioned hearing from students about the strain the previous gathering size limit had on them, and he hoped that the new regulations would make the rest of the semester less challenging. 

“I mean it’s definitely not your standard first-year experience, you know, because of all the COVID regulations, but I’m still trying my best to have it within the regulations and the protocols,” Galicia said. “But it’s definitely not a first-year experience that would be considered ‘normal.’”

Galicia, however, also does not regret his decision to stay on Grounds because he feels that if he does go home, he might unknowingly spread the virus to his family. 

Unlike Galicia and Ghanate, first-year College student Yumi Kim chose to stay home in order to not risk her or her family’s health. She and her parents wanted to see how COVID would play out at the University. 

“With so many unknowns, it was not worth it to go, especially because almost all of my classes are online,” Kim said. “I still think it was the right decision, but I do occasionally feel like I’m missing out on a real college experience that many of my peers on Grounds are able to have.”

For Kim, learning online has been challenging ever since the transition to online learning during the last few months of the spring. While the Zoom lectures are draining and she prefers traditional lectures and paper, she does believe that she’s getting more used to the format day by day. 

Kim’s original roommate also opted to stay at home, so they have been studying together over video calls. She has also joined organizations such as University Singers, Asian Student Union and Grace Christian Fellowship to become more involved in the University community, even if remotely.

“Although being at home has made it very hard to make new friends, I’m trying to make the best of it,” Kim said. 

The University announced a new grading policy Oct. 9 to address the high levels of stress reported by students. Undergraduate students will have the option to change from a standard grade in a class to CR/NC/GC by the deadline of Nov. 6, a change from the previous policy of mandatory standard grading. While a similar policy was implemented in the spring, the move is new for first years and intends to reduce the stress they are already facing.