As a senior at the University of Maryland, the best way for me to describe starting my last year of college is intimidating. With three years under my belt, I never thought I would be going back for my last year of undergrad feeling unsure of what’s awaiting me.
At the University of Maryland, the plan to return to campus includes daily temperature self-recordings of all on-campus students and personnel, contact tracing, and following social-distancing guidelines like staying six feet apart from others and wearing a face mask. Priority for in-person classes is being given to labs, performance courses, senior capstone classes, clinical instruction and internships. The University says it’s likely classes with more than 50 students will be at least partially online. Faculty members are preparing contingency plans to move entirely to online instruction after Thanksgiving break should there be a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
It feels dramatic to be complaining about these changes amidst everything going on in our world today, but for many college students, our campuses were always a safe space: one with routine, stability, and a community of peers who can relate to the events and feelings we’re experiencing.
There are very few places like the bubble that is a college campus. It’s the space where we all experience some of the most formative years of our lives during our undergraduate time. So, in addition to the academic opportunities and resources we’re given, the traditional college experience that many of us have grown to know and love allows us to feel seen and heard by other people going through the same achievements and trials.
As the class of 2020 can attest, having the predictability that comes with life on a college campus taken away at a moment’s notice can be traumatic in a way. Now, we have no choice but to come to terms with the fact that many of us will not see a “normal” graduation ceremony. We may not be able to cheer on our football teams at one last home game. And some on-campus residents have even been displaced from their residence halls in order to make space for students who may have to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19.
At the University of Maryland, one of the best parts about the freshmen experience was access to the “unlimited dining” meal plan. Through this, students were able to visit any of the campus’ dining halls as many times as they’d like, for however long they’d like, and stuff themselves to their heart’s content. Now, to accommodate new health and safety guidelines, the dining plans include only three “dining experiences” a day, with reservations required for lunch and dinner. One of the three dining halls on campus will be reserved for carry-out options only.
That freshmen experience of sharing a shoe-box sized dorm room with someone who starts as a total stranger, but can turn into a lifelong friend, will also be changing for the upcoming academic year. Most students at the University of Maryland will live in single-occupancy rooms in order to support physical distancing. There’s hope that previously requested roommate pairs will at least be placed in the same hallway or building, but there’s really nothing that compares to bonding with your roommate over movie nights and shared closets. With some lounges and common areas being converted into student rooms, Residence Assistants (RAs) will have to get creative with virtual events to help connect students.
Masks will be required both indoors and outdoors when others are nearby. Another guideline many already saw coming is the restrictions on social gatherings. While the Big Ten has announced plans to hold a football season, the university has effectively canceled all tailgate events. Both the University of Maryland Police Department (UMPD) and the Prince George’s County Police will be strictly enforcing the minimization of social gatherings, as students can face fines and other disciplinary measures.
While I’m grateful for my health and safety, and for the amazing times I’ve had on campus prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I can’t help but long for that normalcy that we’re so far away from returning to. Above all, what I’ll miss most this year as we adapt to this new way of learning is the general closeness and community that’s so hard to recreate anywhere else. It’s waiting in a line wrapped around the building just for an order of fries from Marathon Deli — always with extra Marathon Sauce — after a night out, piling into a living room as the crowd around the television erupts into cheers when our basketball team scores during an away game, or being surrounded by other students in the McKeldin Library as we collectively support one another through another round of final exams.
So, to my fellow college students: While the fall 2020 semester will be unlike any other and regardless of where our studies take place, the one thing we cannot lose is that sense of community. No one can really understand how this feels except for us, so we must use that connection to further our relationships and experiences regardless of distance and adaptations.
If this pandemic has proven anything about college students, it’s that we’re resilient. We’re faced with a struggling economy, an unnerving lack of job opportunities, and more changing information than most can absorb, but through it all, college students are proving our innovation and commitment to our education. No amount of global disruption can take away from all the accomplishments we’ve made and will continue to make in the years to come.
Jennifer Mandato is an editorial intern at New Jersey Family and a senior at the University of Maryland.