In early October, when Trinity College suspended in-person classes after a COVID-19 spike, Jeffrey Sagun found himself restrained to his dorm for a week. He was determined not to let it get to him.
“I wouldn’t want to wish this on anyone, but the pandemic is happening and we have to accept it,” Sagun said.
Sagun didn’t want to spend his senior year throttled by the uncertainty of a pandemic. The coronavirus had already taken too much from him: an opportunity to finish clinical cancer research at Connecticut Children’s; a trip to Canada to present his findings at an international conference; a research assistantship in molecular biology at the University of Arizona, where he was looking forward to hiking and taking photos posing with saguaro cactus.
But COVID-19 has forced colleges into a new normal. Campuses, usually bustling and lively, feel deserted. Classmates see each other infrequently or muted over Zoom, or not at all. Gone are the days of parties — at least, unless a student wants to risk expulsion for breaking safety guidelines.
Sagun is glad to be on campus at all. Nothing, he said, will replace in-person classes, but he’s happy he’s able to connect with his roommates and still “feel like a Trinity student.”
And though his social life has gone online, Sagun has taken advantage of that, creating Trinity’s all-virtual Intercollegiate Neuroscience Research Journal Club; it has more than 1,400 participants, and one of his TikToks went semi-viral with 77,000 views.
“I never imagined my senior year in college to be during a pandemic,” he said. “But I definitely had a great support system to help me get through these uncertain times, and Trinity is doing its best to please its students.”
But for others, this college experience — or whatever’s left of it — can still get lonely and overwhelming. Briana Gilbert, a freshman at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, feels fortunate that she’s been able to make friends when she knows others who have been struggling.
“I think I got lucky because I’ve been having safe fun with my new friends and WCSU overall has a really chill environment,” Gilbert said, who’s a self-described extrovert.
Danbury was hit hard by coronavirus cases at the start of the semester. WCSU pushed move-in day, and consequently Gilbert’s freshman year, by two weeks as a result. Still, she managed to befriend floormates and students at events or who recognize her off of Zoom.
Online learning, however, has been trickier for Gilbert to handle. She said she’s having trouble grasping any of the content in her asynchronous class without her professor’s help, and juggling motivation and self-accountability is hard.
“Only having one in-person class really doesn’t allow for me to fully get to know any of my peers or professors, which makes my connection to learning a little difficult, as I’m more of a hands-on student,” Gilbert said. “It is very stressful, but I’m trying. [As] a freshman, this is all new.”
Not only freshmen are finding the new college experience cumbersome, though. Central Connecticut State University junior Brianna Wambolt flat-out thinks it “sucks.”
“Online classes don’t really teach you anything, and the two classes I have in-person have like four people in them, so they don’t feel normal, and campus is dead all the time, which is super weird,” Wambolt said. “I actually canceled my dorming for this semester because of it.”
Wambolt said she and her classmates feel like they aren’t in class to learn, but to meet deadlines. And between a tentative on-campus job in a slow dining hall and seeing friends less than before, she sometimes questions if it’s all worth it.
“If we’re talking money-wise, I definitely think the school is charging way too much for what the students are getting,” Wambolt said, adding, however, that she’d still encourage freshmen to live on-campus to get whatever they can out of college.
At the University of Connecticut, senior Mike Toscano isn’t anywhere near campus. He has little clue, in fact, what’s happening there. All of his classes are virtual, and UConn denied him on-campus housing because of priorities toward international and out-of-state students.
Like Gilbert and Wambolt, online learning has been a test of Toscano’s responsibility. He’s participated in some virtual career fairs, too, but he misses seeing peers at the Accounting Society Club, playing flag football with friends and going to sporting events. He’s hoping to be back on campus in the spring.
“It’s difficult keeping myself accountable, listening to videos and getting to every class. It’s obviously nice to be at home, but it’s difficult that I can’t go to the board and ask the teacher a question or to go to office hours easily,” he said.
Toscano is also confused why he’s paying for some on-campus services when he’s not there, like the Student Recreation Center Fee.
“I don’t have any issues with UConn over this. But I feel like a lot of schools are trying to get the most they can out of their students because everyone’s going to be hurting for cash in the next year or so,” Toscano said.
COVID-19 has also impacted some students’ decision on whether even trying to go back to school makes sense. The stress on UConn graduate Brenda Nangle’s mental health led her to choose a gap year before going for her master’s.
“I knew I could not be successful in my graduate program if I didn’t take care of myself first,” Nangle said.
Nangle’s last semester had been a balancing act. She had 21 credits, the fear of contracting the virus and her campus job — which she later lost when all students were sent home in March — all on her plate. As a first-generation student, she was also upset that she’d never get to walk graduation.
Now Nangle’s using the gap year to save up money for her graduate degree through babysitting. She said the pandemic won’t derail her goal of becoming an English teacher; she’s heading back to school next June.
“Although COVID-19 was taken into consideration when I decided to take a gap year, it will not stop me from pursuing my Master of Education degree,” she said.
Connecticut colleges continue to report new coronavirus cases daily. As the weather gets colder, it’s uncertain how much harder campuses will be hit.
At most of the state’s universities, as frigid temperatures descend, students won’t be coming back for the rest of the fall semester after leaving for Thanksgiving break. Gilbert’s “bummed” she’ll be home until 2021, but she knows it’s for her and everyone else’s safety.
“All of us are struggling right now in some way, shape, or form,” Gilbert said. “I’m definitely grateful and fortunate for my individual experience right now because I believe I’m making the best out of it as I can.”
Back at Trinity, Sagun is of the same sentiment. It’s a campus community effort, he said, to keep cases down and everyone healthy.
“We want to get into class, we want to participate in in-person classes, so that’s why we have that community aspect of trying to do this together,” he said.
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