First Years’ First Weeks Amid Pandemic

With a global pandemic, turbulent politics, social injustice, and a new academic year, life has not been easy for anyone. First Years who have just joined the UVA community have been navigating the new world of college while also dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 on their social and academic lives. For this reason, I thought it would be interesting to collect a few stories from some of the University’s First Years who are coming out of their first month of college while in a pandemic. I spoke with four different First Years over Zoom,each of them experiencing their year differently under the circumstances which COVID-19 has forced upon everyone. 


The first person I spoke with was Alexandra Espinoza who was staying at the Hampton Inn in Charlottesville, otherwise known as the “Quarantine Hotel” after her dorm, Kellogg was shut down. Then there was Cavin Ma who is staying in China and balancing the inconvenient time differences with the University while also taking classes as a transfer student with a smaller Chinese University. Finally, I met with Libby Terrel with her roommate Sydney Bradley Black, both of whom were staying in Balz Dobie,another dorm that had been shut down because of COVID-19 cases. 


Alex: The first week was really… weird. You’re kind of isolated when you go to college anyways because you’re in a new school with new people. Having it be so isolating because of, you know, restrictions I think, pushed the isolation pretty far.


Cavin: The first few weeks have been really busy. I’m a student at UVA and an exchange student at a local university. So I’m taking courses from both.


Libby: [The first few weeks] have definitely been different than I had imagined as a kid. I think all of us have gone through some scary moments. Our dorm was locked down for a few days because the waste water testing came up positive for coronavirus… and then they ended up finding a bunch of people who had it through mandatory testing. So that was a scary moment when you think you might have to pack up at midnight and take a cab over to a weird hotel.


Sydney: The classes and the course load has been very manageable. I think that my professors are doing a very good job of not overburdening us with additional writing to compensate for the lack of in person classes. But I do miss the in person connection of sitting next to someone and… asking for a pencil cause that’s how friendships are started. It’s a little harder to direct message someone over zoom.


The isolation any person feels when they first go to college is relatable. However, the pandemic, with its necessary restrictions on social interaction only make transitioning into this space harder. 

As someone who is currently off Grounds, I wanted to know how COVID-19 was being handled by the University. UVA strives to house, educate, employ, feed, and protect all faculty and staff, so how are they stepping up to the task in the eyes of newcomers? How are people in this community handling the pandemic personally? More specifically, how are the newest members to the UVA community coping?


Alex: I like to say that the coronavirus is really showing people’s true colors… The two girls in my dorm who went to the bar and that’s where they contracted COVID, [they] didn’t have to go there. [They] put so many people at risk. UVA has the niche of being really preppy and a little elitist and I think that contributes to how people are behaving on Grounds… I feel like the way [UVA] is managing this too also reflects that… Bringing us to campus was very selfish.


Cavin: Where I am, I’d say the coronavirus… is of lower risk compared to… the situation on Grounds. Here (China), everyone is still cautious. We’re not required to wear masks everywhere… but everyone doesn’t want to take risks. Everywhere you go you can still see many people wearing masks and keeping distance… Compared to when this all started here… half a year ago… I’d say that people have gotten used to the lifestyle or living with coronavirus. If you have a fever you will get sent to a hospital quite quickly… no matter where you are.


Libby: UVA is doing a good job of putting in …restrictions on students and I think they are doing a good job of staying on top of cases they find in dorms. I think it’s up for debate if it was the most responsible thing to do to have students back… On the one hand there are people who rely on jobs from UVA, but those are the same people who…[at higher risk of infection]. I’m from Charlottesville so I secretly didn’t want UVA to come back in some ways …my grandparents live here, everyone who I know is here. This is my community and knowing that people may not have the same values as the rest of the community and putting people at risk was a hard thing to swallow. 


Sydney: I think UVA is doing a pretty good job. I do think there is room for improvement. This has been taken case by case because it is so new.  [In respect to Balz Dobie] It was actually the five [infected] people who came forward first and said they had tested positive for COVID and then UVA did the wastewater treatment test, which was really helpful that they came forward and caught it early on. Sometimes it’s a bit of a fear monger, especially when [UVA] announced that they found nine new additional cases and that they would be notifying us. Everyone was very on edge and it was really hard to focus. I don’t think anyone did any homework during the time that we were quarantined.


With such information, it seems that the people I interviewed believe that the University is doing the best they can in a completely new situation. The students… well they vary person to person. To conclude the interview, Alex, Cavin, Libby, and Sydney all gave recommendations as to how the pandemic could be better handled and a little message to UVA students.


Alex: I do think [UVA] is very quick with… the turnaround with. Starting [September 24th] at nine [am] the new regulations were out. That’s only three or four days after the quarantining of two dorms, so it’s a pretty quick turnaround time. They also made [regulations] pretty strict, it’s five people [in a group] instead of 15. I would restrict where [students] can go. For example, Corner at night. That’s such a social place and it’s such… everyone’s drinking at the Corner. For First Years, that’s not where you need to be, go later, just not right now. To UVA students, your time will come. I know we want to have fun… but… there’s bigger things  going on right now..


Cavin: I have heard people complaining [about COVID-19] precautions, but honestly, I would say that I am kind of impressed with them. There is a place to quarantine, to take down the risk of other people getting the virus. UVA has been doing a great job with that. During enrollment,  I did research [on UVA] and I noticed that some of the floors in one of our hospitals have been transformed to treat COVID-19 patients. To UVA students: wear a mask. I have seen a lot of pictures of people from UVA and from other colleges. A lot of people don’t wear masks. Personal experience, masks work. We live somewhat near a hospital and we get first hand experiences seeing the effects of wearing masks and not.


Libby: If I were UVA, I think I would try and crack down on the gatherings outside of the dorms at least.  UVA should actively be in the places where [these groups gather] and monitor them [for any precautions being ignored]. It only takes one person to spread a tidal wave of covid. To the students at UVA, many people my age say that if you go to college you are signing up for the risk of getting covid. You are not allowed to make that choice for people who work at UVA.  You’re signing up for this, but you can do that in a way that doesn’t affect everyone else. For some students, [UVA] is the best/safest place for them to be. Covid also disproportionately affects People of Color and their communities and for people who think their actions don’t have consequences outside of themselves is incredibly ignorant.


Sydney: [The University]should have ambassadors centered around the Lawn and making sure people have masks. There should be an app or an extension of “Hoos Health” where you can report something anonymously and have an ambassador come and break it up. To the students at UVA, I really think the people who haven’t had experiences with the demographics that are not their own, specifically the really privileged and wealthy people need to consider who else is being affected by their actions… You really shouldn’t just be worried about the people you might be affecting but you should also be worried about yourself. If nothing more you should be wearing masks and taking precautions to protect yourself from the virus.


I think it is safe to say that COVID-19 has taken its toll on every single person on and off Grounds. These impacts have been dealt with in many ways and people are still trying to figure out the best way to handle this global pandemic. What, perhaps, should be agreed on, is the responsibility every single person has to keep their peers safe, the University’s faculty and staff, the families of all connected to the University, and everyone we come in contact with along the way.


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