When asked about the last year and a half of her high school experience, Namita Nair gave a chuckle and a single word: “Nonexistent.”
Nair, who spent her last year and a half at Middleton High School in virtual classes, now sits in the courtyard of Adams residence hall, near her new home in Kronshage residence hall. It’s Labor Day weekend, and alongside some new friends, she is dutifully writing the times and locations of her first college classes in a fresh notebook. Together, they are preparing for something they’re both excited and “not even a little bit” ready for.
“When I think about it, the last time I was, like, in school in school was … the beginning of junior year,” she said. “You can’t really equate that to college.”
Nair and her friends are just some of the thousands of new students arriving at UW-Madison after their lives as high school upperclassmen were turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. After three semesters of lockdowns, online classes and stagnation, they came looking for a fresh start — new friends, places and opportunities — in a fall term they hope and believe that it can be normal.
A “nonexistent” senior year
Two days before the start of classes, Becca Poor sat outside Witte Residence Hall, already busy with pre-chem homework. She graduated in the spring from Woodbury High School in Minnesota, after what she called ‘a pretty easy year’.
“I think teachers knew it was hard for a lot of students so they dialed back the school work,” the soon-to-be Engineering student said. “Because [this year] it’s college-level stuff plus they’re not slacking at all, I think it’s going to be a lot harder than it was the last couple years.”
Isabella Umali-Grawe, a Neurobiology major and new resident of Sellery residence hall, feels the same.
“I don’t think any of us are ready for school, because we haven’t done actual school in so long,” she says. “Last year was awful. You couldn’t really see anyone.”
Even the college application process, the focus of junior and senior years for many, felt distant and glazed over, Nair said.
“I felt very lost in the entire process,” she said. “Usually you have your guidance counselors and your teachers there to tell you what to do. I was just given a PowerPoint.”
For many, like new Adams resident Maya Schimelfenyg, the hardships extended far beyond academics.
“It was definitely difficult to pull through some mental stuff and dark spots,” said Schimelfenyg, who hopes to study Spanish and International Studies. “That was kind of the first time I had to check myself academically and mentally and find a balance there.”
For students like Schimelfeng, shared hardship as a result of the pandemic informs their day-to-day interactions with new peers and friends.
“Pulling through that collectively, as a generation or a group of people, is sort of uplifting,” she says of her peers. “Among people my age that I know, I feel like there’s a camaraderie. I feel like I can relate to people on that level better.”
Vaccine rates, a cause for optimism
“As soon as [the vaccine] was offered,” Umali-Grawe said of her friend group, “we were like, ‘Let’s go let’s go let’s go! We want to hang out!’”
Every new student interviewed for this story said they were fully vaccinated, and most have yet to meet anyone on campus who isn’t. Last Thursday, the university announced that the campus community is now 90% vaccinated, with 88% of the student body fully vaccinated.
All unvaccinated students are required by the UW to undergo twice-weekly testing. Masks are also required on campus, including hallways and common spaces in the dorms.
These COVID-19 precautions bring a sigh of relief to freshmen like Poor.
Living in Witte, one of two dorms forced into quarantine by an early surge in cases last fall, Poor was concerned about potential lockdowns until learning more about campus COVID-19 guidelines.
“I’m not super worried. I think Madison has done a good job of being very COVID-cautious, and they just released that [they had a] really high vaccine rate, so that’s really nice,” said Poor.
But unvaccinated students — and positive tests — are still present on campus. As of Wednesday afternoon, a seven-day average of six students were testing positive each day, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.
“There are some people in my house who have chosen not to get vaccinated,” said Nair, the recent Middleton graduate living in Kronshage. “We recently had someone get COVID-19 and now they’re in quarantine.”
Ultimately, Nair finds comfort in her own vaccination and her ability to avoid people in the dorms who, in her view, aren’t acting responsibly.
“I’m more annoyed about it,” she says. “If it was a bigger population then I would definitely feel unsafe, but I think it’s just two or three people. I just think it’s annoying.”
Looking forward to the fall semester
Despite the isolation of the last year — or perhaps because of it — the youngest Badgers are buzzing, ready to explore their new lives as campus seems to return to its usual, busy self. Outside each dorm are new friend groups playing Spikeball, learning the 80’s route, stopping to read chalk advertisements for this or that student organization.
Nair has been “overwhelmingly” busy meeting new people and attending events in the UW’s Wisconsin Welcome Week program, something she says isn’t normally her style.
“I forced myself to do a 180,” she says. “I’m forcing myself to say hello to people because I know that I really desperately miss being around people.”
Poor is already packing her schedule and sees others doing the same. She says over 300 people signed up for a 60-person tour of the engineering school she attended — ”people just want to learn about the campus.”
On top of classes, Poor hopes to join the Engineering Student Council, rush a sorority, attend football games and frequent the Nick.
“I say I’m not trying to overwhelm myself and then list eight things I’m trying to do,” she laughs. “There’s just so much!”