Yale in the Time of COVID: A First-Year’s Perspective

First-years were scheduled to move into Yale over the course of three days. On August 26th, I left my hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey and arrived in New Haven at noon. It felt surreal to stand in front of the Pauli Murray gate, the “Welcome to Yale, Class of 2024” banner draped over the Sachem Street entrance. I couldn’t believe that I was really here. 

I went inside and immediately headed to the testing center within the college as professional movers brought my luggage up to my room, where I was required to spend the few days before my test result came back. The average wait time was forty-eight hours. When my first test result didn’t arrive for a couple of days, I became anxious; I was convinced I had the virus. I worried that, if I tested positive, I’d have to move to Old Campus and quarantine there. I’d miss two weeks of interacting with other first years, two weeks of navigating the castle that is Pauli Murray. Thankfully, my test result came back negative, but those forty-eight hours caused me more stress than all the other anxieties of move-in put together. 

Other first-years found the quarantine difficult for a different reason: homesickness.“When we were still quarantined in our suites, daily life was pretty sad,” said Aaron Weiser, MY ’24. “Everyone was still homesick, and not being able to meet lots of new people compounds that feeling.” 

Luckily, we could at least get to know our suitemates during quarantine. My suite, like a lot of others, spent our sequestered days eating microwaved meals and sitting in a circle in the common room discussing our families, high schools and hometowns. The long days spent quarantined together brought us closer; by the time our isolation ended, our suite dynamic was fully formed. 

“In the few free days before classes started, I spent a lot of days out in the courtyard getting to know my fellow Trumbullians,” said Resty Fufunan, TC ’24. “I even picked up Spikeball.” A lot of first-years spent hours outdoors, exploring our colleges and finding ways to connect. One of those ways turned out to be Spikeball. Like Fufunan, many of us picked up the sport once we were able to leave our suites. Every college has at least one set, and the game is simple enough that you can get to know people while playing. 

“I actually think [my suite] has gotten a lot closer after suite quarantine ended because we got to experience new things together,” said Weiser. I can’t help but agree. For me and my suitemates, outdoor dining has proven the most effective way to make friends. We’ve been ordering from local food places together and sitting outside for hours into the night getting to know other Murray first-years. At almost every meal, I notice a smattering of socially distant circles eating, conversing, and laughing together in the courtyard. “Dining outside has been such a highlight of my time here,” said Weiser. “You meet so many new people everyday, and the weather [is] always amazing.” 

Finding a community wasn’t seamless across the board; a handful of first-years arrived late to campus due to difficulties obtaining their Transit Visas or figuring out flight plans. Fernando Cuello Garcia, DC ’24, originally from the Dominican Republic, was among them. “My first two weeks on campus were tough. I’m an international student, so I got here late and it was sad for me to see everyone go out before me. I had a lot of FOMO,” he told me. Watching everyone get to know each other and begin friendships that might last a lifetime was an unnerving experience for those who missed those critical first few days. 

The pandemic experience at Yale changed dramatically when, in late August, our dorm rooms became classrooms. We “met” on Zoom calls, and built relationships in breakout sessions. Many of us spent hours at a time in our dorms, trying to stay focused as we listened to our professors through screens. It was difficult to acclimate, and many students shared the feeling of weariness that has collectively been dubbed “Zoom fatigue.” 

Taking Zoom classes comes with plenty of logistical problems. “Our suite has actually had some WiFi problems for a few weeks,” said Fufunan. “In the beginning of the semester, I was often dropped from Zoom calls.” Other students identified positive aspects of Zoom learning. Ann Zhang, MY ’24, who I met eating a meal in one of Murray’s courtyards, reflected on the experience: “Though this lifestyle makes me feel more sedentary, dorm Zooming gave me more flexibility with my schedule. If classes were in person, I probably wouldn’t be able to run to each building with the little time I have between each class. Now, It’s really easy to just open a tab and join the next class.” I didn’t realize how convenient this was until I found myself with only 10 minutes to run from Murray to my only in-person class in the Branford courtyard. 

Extracurricular activities, like our academic lives, have also been reshaped. I’m interested in journalism, which can easily be done online. However, students pursuing more social activities such as dance groups, intramural sports, and performance arts are being introduced to these Yale staples in unconventional, and perhaps less genuine, ways. 

The bonds between first-years seem stronger than I imagine they could have been without the two-week college quarantine.

“Normally, during in-person auditions, seeing people helps me get into the right headspace and mentality for my performance. But auditioning for Sabrosura online felt like I was just dancing by myself,” said Sebastian Duque, BR ’24. “I’m not even sure how the extracurricular will function if I get in.” Many extracurricular groups, however, recognize this dilemma—and are rising to the challenge of creating engaging virtual programming. The Asian American Cultural Center, according to Fufunan, is “planning to hold game nights, discussions, and panels for students on and off campus.”

Older students are reacting quite differently to COVID-era Yale. Upperclassmen returned to  campus entirely transformed from the one they remembered; some are here without many of their friends. And sophomores, who were only invited back to campus under extenuating circumstances, are a notable absence. “There have been moments of isolation and loneliness,” Vivian Vasquez, SM ’23 said. “Since only around 100 sophomores are living on campus, I’ve tried to use this time as an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and form new friendships.”

For sophomores like Vasquez, dining holds little of the appeal that it does for first-years. Vasquez says that “eating alone almost every day in an empty, silent dining hall and remembering how jubilant the experience of unwinding with a group of close friends in that dining hall used to be is emotionally draining.” Because there aren’t many sophomores on campus and all work has been moved online, Vasquez has also struggled to find ways to engage with friends. “Online classes demand so much more unstructured study time than in person classes, which has made it much more challenging to find the time to interact with friends virtually or on Old Campus,” Vasquez said. “I got into a habit of staying cooped up in my room in L Dub on Old Campus for days at a time.” Vasquez isn’t the only one: students both starting and continuing their studies at Yale  have experienced mental health issues. Keeping up with readings, papers, and problem sets becomes especially burdensome when coupled with mental health concerns exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Although speaking to a sophomore complicated my understanding of how students are experiencing Yale this fall, there are still missing pieces. Yale invited all juniors and seniors back to campus, but I haven’t been able to meet any. Mentorship opportunities, such as the residential college’s Big Sib Fams, pair first-years with a few juniors and seniors for counseling and advice through their residential colleges—but I have yet to meet my Big Sibs due to limitations on group gatherings. Because of my limited encounters with upperclassmen, I don’t have a full picture of how student responses to our changed campus differ along the lines of class year.

Even though we’re separated by masks and laptop screens, it’s hard not to appreciate our peers’ uncontainable drive to connect amidst the chaos.

Despite these challenges and unknowns, many students currently on campus shared that they’ve found the experience rewarding. The advantages of campus life—compared with learning from home—are clear. Whether it be making new friends, getting to know New Haven, or taking advantage of campus resources, being at Yale has already been an invaluable experience for many of us. “It means everything to be on campus,” said Weiser. “[I’m] just extremely lucky and happy to be around so many wonderful people. It’s made online learning bearable, and it’s nice to get out of the house after 6 months.” Zhang shared a similar sentiment. “Being on campus means that I can actually get to know new people,” she says. “A number of my high school friends are attending their first year of college exclusively online, and I’m grateful to be here.”

Campus life has helped Duque regain a sense of motivation. “I was struggling a lot with my mental health at home. It felt like I wasn’t in control of my life. Every passing moment felt the same. Being on campus has given me a newfound purpose and given me back control of my life, even if it’s limited,” he said. 

For Garcia, Returning to campus has meant the start of a new chapter. “For a lot of us international students, leaving our countries is a complete change of environment,” he said. “It’s akin to the idealization of the American Dream. I truly don’t believe I could have done this semester back home.”

And for Vasquez, returning to campus means returning home. “Being on campus feels surreal,” Vazquez said. “Upon returning to campus I literally cried because I missed New Haven so much…I am now living in an environment that is more conducive to my learning than at home, which is something that I am grateful for.”

Both starting at and getting reacquainted with Yale’s campus this year have come with plenty of challenges. Some students had difficulties adapting to online learning, while others struggled to make friends and persevere through quarantine isolation. But even though we’re separated by masks and laptop screens, it’s hard not to appreciate our peers’ uncontainable drive to connect amidst the chaos. 

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