Your morning alarm rings as you roll over, ready for another day as a college student during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea of hopping between video calls and virtual class all day is daunting, and the only thing you look forward to is the Zoom happy hour scheduled for this evening. Weekends are dull, there is no spring break and you cannot even study at the local coffee shop or diner because there is no indoor seating.
College in a “normal” year is hard for most students, but attending college during a global pandemic can amplify these challenges. Despite pandemic-enhanced challenges, UW-Madison students have shown their resilience and strength as a campus community.
Looking back at the 2020-2021 school year at UW-Madison, students faced a hybrid — if not fully online — class schedule, and virtually no in person gatherings. Many students telecommuted from home for class or sometimes from locked-down dorms. Not to mention, there was the looming danger of contracting COVID-19 from any gathering or densely populated student housing situation.
For first-year students living on campus, their transition occurred in the midst of a two-week lockdown in two of the on-campus dorms and a pause to in-person instruction during Sept. 2020 after a surge in positive COVID-19 cases emerged just days after the first day of class.
“Initially, meeting people the first week of college over the pandemic was difficult!” said rising second-year Eleyna Escobedo. “There’s always that fear of strangers testing positive that you maybe just met in passing.”
Despite the switch to a mostly remote campus community, UW-Madison saw their second largest incoming class of freshman to date, with 7,306 freshmen that enrolled at the University in September 2020.
“I think one of the most difficult things about starting college online was going into the entire experience not knowing what to expect. I had never had a professor before or been in a class with more than 20 students,” said rising second-year student Tati Vidakovich. “Although I had taken AP courses during high school, I was really nervous starting everything online because I didn’t know what the workload would be like or how to navigate through all of the different online platforms each professor had.”
To combat “Zoom fatigue” and to get a feel for the campus community, Vidakovich found ways to stay connected during her freshman year.
“I found it really helpful to go outside or explore campus and find new study spaces to help change the scenery from staring at the computer all day,” Vidakovich said. “While it was also difficult meeting new people (and) making friends, I also think making group chats with other classmates and talking to them outside of class helped remind me we were all going through similar struggles.”
Vidakovich appreciated efforts made by her classmates, teaching assistants and professors to foster a community among students despite the circumstances.
“Seeing students' passion and commitment to the different organizations they are a part of has been super inspiring,” Vidakovich said. “I thought it was really cool to see students come together and support one another in fundraising for different causes by creating unique, engaging virtual events for everyone to interact with.”
Beyond first year students, student activists came together to advocate for more support for their peers on campus. The Associated Students of Madison, UW-Madison’s student governance body, pushed for their COVID-19 Student Relief Fund, a $2 million relief aid effort aimed to help students who did not qualify for federal COVID-19 relief funds.
While ASM pushed for their relief fund for months throughout the Spring 2021 semester and pursued multiple outlets to try to distribute these funds to their peers, pushback from UW-Madison blocked these efforts.
According to ASM Chair and co-sponsor of the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund, Adrian Lampron, the momentum behind the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund efforts led UW-Madison to provide aid to students through a different medium, the UW-Odyssey Project, which is a program through UW-Madison which offers humanities classes to adult students who face obstacles that make it difficult to attend college.
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund was repeatedly blocked by UW administrators and was never implemented,” said Lampron. “But as a result of our advocacy around the fund, we were able to pressure decision makers into providing relief dollars to special students, like those in the Odyssey program, for the first time.”
Moving into Fall 2021
One and a half years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, UW-Madison students are continuing to return to Madison again for the new semester. With the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and 63,856 students and employees who have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of August 16, students are optimistic about what Fall 2021 will look like on campus.
“I’m looking forward to meeting more people!” Escobedo said. “Especially in my extracurriculars that I’ve only seen on a Zoom screen, football games and other events on campus! Hopefully, we, as a UW community, can all come together to create a safe space so we can have a ‘normal’ school year!”
While a face covering mandate has been enacted in indoor campus settings as of Aug. 5, the campus community is still planning for an in-person fall semester.
“I am so excited to be in person for classes, meeting new people and hopefully being able to engage in other in person activities/clubs!” Vidakovich said. “Since some students stayed home last year, I think it will be so nice to have everyone back and see the campus come back to life.”