College students share their biggest concerns about returning to campus

When Younis Alzubeiri sets foot on campus this fall, it will be the first time he’s ever seen his college in person.

“I never visited my campus once,” Alzubeiri told In The Know. “It’s gonna be a huge change.”

Alzubeiri, 19, was a high school senior in March of 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic changed everything about what college would look like for him. He finished high school online from his bedroom. The experience carried over into his freshman year — when he took all of his classes through a computer screen.

That situation may sound jarring, but of course, there’s nothing uncommon about it. College students, in general, have been uniquely affected by the last 18 months, both situationally and, to a shocking extent, psychologically.

For one, COVID-19 convinced many students to rethink college entirely. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshman enrollment dropped more than 13 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2020. During that same timespan, 8.2 percent of students either withdrew from school or took a leave of absence.

Meanwhile, a 2021 study from Boston University shows that depression and anxiety are steadily increasing among college students. In the wide-spanning survey, 83 percent of students said that mental health struggles had negatively impacted their work in the fall of 2020.

Now, college students are facing a new hurdle: returning to campus. After 18 months of inconsistency, instability and disrupted workflow, millions of students, like Alzubeiri, will finally attend in-person classes this fall.

It’s this return to “normal” that, for many, comes with a whole new universe of anxieties, fears and concerns.

To explore those issues, In The Know spoke with five college students from across the country. In one way or another, all of them have had their education disrupted during the pandemic, and they will be returning to class this fall.

Below, you’ll find some common themes from our conversations, which spanned everything from sleep schedules to cheating classmates to health and safety regulations.

‘A right-out-of-the-bed situation’

One thing Alzubeiri will miss about his freshman year: sleeping in. With online classes, he said he could wake up “legit one minute before class” if he wanted — and sometimes, he did.

Jeremy Cascamisi shared a similar perspective. The 23-year-old, who is studying film at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y., said he spent plenty of time attending class while wrapped in a blanket. It’s a tradition that will have to end now that he’s returning to school in person.

It’s not just about coziness, though. Almost every student In The Know spoke with expressed some version of the same concern: Going back to class means giving up comfort, flexibility and independence.

“Right now, I’m on a pretty, pretty easy schedule,” Cascamisi said. “I do my work when I have the time, before deadlines or whatnot.”

Jeremy Cascamisi is studying film at LaGuardia Community College.

For some students, that freedom had a noticeable impact. Becca Tang, an MBA student at New York’s Columbia University, said she noticed the shift in her interactions with classmates.

“Everyone’s, like, very casual,” Tang said. “It seems like a right-out-of-the-bed situation.”

Now that such freedoms are being restricted, some students are wondering how they’ll adjust. Cascamisi, for one, said he truly felt he worked more efficiently at home — when his own schedule was the only thing that mattered.

“I tend to slack off when I’m in person, and I have other people around me,” he said. “But when it’s just me, and I don’t have other students to communicate with, or the teacher only talks to me twice a week [it’s easier to focus]. I’ve been taking initiative more so now than in the past.”

‘Gaps in my education’

Patrick Sheehan isn’t going to miss anything about remote learning. The finance and accounting student, who currently attends Georgia State University, said there was a big “lack of information” during the pandemic — from administrators, professors and everyone else.

Now, Sheehan’s big concern is how that lack of information will affect his degree.

“Last year, I did mostly self-study,” he said. “So I’m concerned about the gaps in my education and the lack of information I had for each class.”

Patrick Sheehan studies finance and accounting at Georgia State University.

Like Sheehan, many students are worried about catching up. Among several students In The Know spoke with, there was a general feeling of uncertainty. Many of them didn’t know whether or not remote learning had prepared them for in-person classes.

That feeling is more than just anecdotal. In a recent survey, Gallup asked college students across the country about their attitudes toward COVID-era schooling. Fifty-one percent said they believed the pandemic had likely impacted their degree. Meanwhile, 60 percent said their fall 2020 semester — for most, their first full semester of remote or hybrid learning — had a lower quality of education than the previous year.

In Sheehan’s case, remote learning was sometimes inconsistent and often in flux. Some classes were fully virtual, while others eventually moved to a “hybrid” model — but even then, many students hardly ever showed up for class. Meanwhile, Sheehan said he noticed some classmates taking extra advantage of online learning by working together to trade answers and collaborate on tests that were supposed to be taken alone.

For him, it all just made it harder to learn.

“In the professors’ defense, I don’t think they were prepared for online classes. So it’s really just an adjustment for everybody,” he said.

As students return to campus, colleges will try to adjust. The growing pains won’t only be academic, though. Tang, who started her MBA program during the pandemic, worries about going back and starting to socialize with her classmates — some of whom had the advantage of knowing each other before things went remote.

“[Many of them] already know their classmates, or they’re quite familiar with each other,” Tang said of her fellow students. “It’s easier to maintain the already existing interpersonal connection if you’ve already met physically offline.”

‘A little bit uncomfortable’

Several of In The Know’s interviewees also brought up a more straightforward concern: safety. Many said they were worried about the ongoing changes in their school’s COVID protocols — both in terms of the rules themselves and the information about them.

Ivy Zhou, an MBA student at West Virginia University, said that health and safety were the issues she had the “most” anxiety over.

Zhou, originally from China, stayed at school in Morgantown, W. Va., throughout the pandemic. She’s glad she chose to stay in the U.S., but now that remote classes are ending, she’s become hyperaware of her surroundings.

“I just feel a little bit uncomfortable under that situation because there are still cases rising [here] at this time,” Zhou said.

Tang, also from China, noted how these changes could specifically impact international students like herself. Like Zhou, she has remained in the U.S. for the entire last year and a half. But some of her international classmates did not.

“[For some countries], booking a flight ticket is challenging, getting the vaccination proof cleared … it’s almost impossible at this point,” Zhou said. “So you have to quarantine a certain country and do a COVID test on a regular basis.”

‘Just having a place to be’

Each of In The Know’s interviewees shared plenty that they were worried about. So much of the future is still in flux, and it’ll likely take a long time for students to readjust.

Still, each student also said they had plenty to look forward to. Sheehan, for one, said he was excited to return to the sense of community he used to feel on campus.

“I’m excited about just having a place to be,” he said. “Just seeing people and interacting — even if they’re not my best friends — that’s something that we’re just not getting with online school. I miss the social aspect and the human interaction.”

Cascamisi said he was also ready to see everyone in person — not only for the social aspect but also for career reasons.

 “I’m most excited to network, meet with peers and teachers and have opportunities for live events that the school may offer,” he said.

Most of the students In The Know interviewed expressed some version of this sentiment. For them, it seemed like remote learning had taken away the random, unplanned interactions that make the college experience so special.

There’s also something simpler at play. Many students had chosen their current campuses expecting to be there in person. Most of them — if not all — had not planned on a year-plus of online classes. Now, they’re ready to get the experience they assumed they’d be having from the start.

That’s certainly true for Alzubeiri. The 19-year-old said that one of the reasons he chose his school, The City College of New York, was because of its campus.

Younis Alzubeiri hasn’t attended an in-person class since high school.

“The campus is beautiful,” he told In The Know. “It’s built like Hogwarts. It’s so cool.”

Finally, after a full extra year away from his campus, Alzubeiri will get a chance to see it. Alzubeiri told In The Know he was ready to have that experience — despite the challenges that will come with it.

“I’m really excited to just be on campus — to be back in a school schedule,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s going to take some getting used to.”

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