Stories From the Class of 2020
Colleges and universities were left to fend for themselves during the coronavirus pandemic. The absence of government guidelines and nation-wide procedures meant that each institution had to individually decide whether they should implement hybrid learning, which safety measures to introduce, and how many students should be allowed on campus. This led to a wide disparity in students’ experiences this year, with some college towns becoming a major hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks and other colleges with more effective safety procedures remaining mostly untouched.
One of those colleges is Colby University in Maine, the new home of Tegh Khosla, who just graduated from EHS last year. “We have one of the most robust testing programs in the country,” Tegh says. “Colby spent $10 million to get this testing program down, so when we first got here, we were tested three times a week with a 24-hour turnaround time so we’d know our test results the next day. Because it was so fast, anyone who tested positive was quarantined and contact-traced immediately so we never had any outbreaks.” Colby’s rigorous testing allows Tegh to have a relatively normal freshman year: he continues to participate in chamber choir and has a lot of fun riding horses as a new member of Colby’s equestrian team.
Most of Tegh’s classes are fully in person, with the one exception, biology. He even takes part in some social events: “Every week, there are many events happening. We have talks going on, we have Zooms with professors from other universities, researchers, authors–and not just that, we also had ice cream trucks come… We have these big events, but everyone’s wearing a mask and we’re all mindful.”
Some colleges have had a little more trouble with the pandemic due to their location. Northwestern University, for example, has a campus in a city near Chicago, and the high density of population increases the risk of outbreaks. As a result, Northwestern has asked many students to stay home, including all its sophomores and freshmen like Olga Lew-Kiedrowska, an Applied Math major. Olga would much rather be on Northwestern’s campus: “Online learning takes a lot more effort than in-person learning and requires a lot more motivation that is hard to come by when you’re sitting at home all day,”she tells me. She participates in a few clubs, although her club tennis team can’t do much when they’re scattered all over the world. Her other clubs are Cookology, which offers cooking lessons through Zoom, and LEND, which provides loans and financial advice to small businesses around Northwestern’s campus. Northwestern plans to allow all students back into campus in January, and Olga is excited about that prospect since “the college experience is not exactly the same if I am stuck with you [the greatest sister of all time] at home and not able to meet people in my classes.” Some freshmen and sophomores managed to circumvent Northwestern’s stay-at-home policies by paying for rooms in hotels near the campus. The hotels even tried to provide these students with an atmosphere similar to dorm living by splitting the floors into boys and girls and giving them a meal plan. “They wanted to be closer to the community and to have the opportunity to meet people,” Olga says. She considered that option but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it.
Among our class of 2020 graduates who live on campus, a staggering number enrolled in Cornell University: 15 EHS students were admitted this year, including the future mechanical engineer Evelyn Chiu. “It’s like everywhere you go you bump into Edgemont students,” says Evelyn. Evelyn has three in-person classes this year, although most classes remain online due to safety concerns. Colleges in the U.S. report how well they’ve contained the virus in “zones.” Being in the “green zone” indicates that below 5% of COVID tests came back positive, a “yellow zone” indicates 5% to 7.9%, an “orange zone” is 8% to 10%, and any test rate above 10% is in the “red zone.” “We moved to the yellow zone today because we got six new cases but during most of the semester we’ve been in the green zone,” explains Evelyn. “Being in the yellow zone doesn’t really change anything. Even when we’re in the green zone, we have to get tested twice a week and report our symptoms every day. They’re also limiting lounge spaces so lounges can have only four people at a time. At dining halls, you can sit six feet apart or get take-out.” Nevertheless, Evelyn enjoys her classes and spending time with her dormmates. She’s also looking forward to the winter holidays. “I’m going back home on the 24th and I’m coming back [to Cornell] in February,” she says, “You’re not allowed to come back after Thanksgiving because Cornell doesn’t want to deal with people coming in from out of state.”
Many colleges are worried about students bringing the virus back with them after spending Thanksgiving or the holidays at home and are not allowing them to return to campus at all. One example is Carnegie Mellon, the new home of Jacob Kang. Jacob generally approves of Carnegie’s safety measures: “We have had a couple of blow-up incidents but it’s never spread to the whole campus. They do random asymptomatic COVID checks–I got called in two weeks ago–so overall everyone’s feeling pretty safe.” All but one of Jacob’s classes are online, but he sees the silver lining in Carnegie’s online classes. He says, “The hybrid format is actually working pretty well–I have a lot of time because I don’t have to commute to classes.” Jacob takes part in the Carnegie Mellon Racing Club, which engineers a formula-style racing car and takes it to competitions. Being part of the club allows him to be social and interact with more people on campus, although he does admit that there have been challenges associated with large-scale social events. “Some senior student in the past year built a platform where everyone has their own avatar and you just walk around and there are specific places where you can listen to a lecture and things like that–Carnegie said that this is how social events would work this year,” Jacob explains. Carnegie tried this method out with their virtual activity fair, but that was far from a success. “What actually happened was that there were so many people that the server lag time was measured in minutes and not in seconds, so everyone just logged off.”
Of course, college experiences also vary by country, and not all of Edgemont’s students stay in the United States. Lilah Willis and Matthew Herena are both studying abroad, with Lilah in McGill University in Montréal and Matthew in King’s College in London. Quebec is currently on full lockdown, and McGill’s classes are fully online. “I think it’s a lot harder than being in-person,” Lilah says, “It’s a lot harder to keep track of work because all the lectures are pre-recorded so you don’t get the in-class reminders when work is due. I find that to be organizationally much more difficult for me. But at the same time, it’s nice to slow lectures down and go back and take notes if you missed something.” Because of the quickly-rising number of cases in Quebec, McGill’s rules are very strict. “Everyone here has their own rooms and you’re not allowed any roommates, but you are allowed to have one person in your room at a time,” Lilah tells me, “and you’re not allowed to share common spaces with people or even be outside with people and they have security that patrols the floors to make sure that you are limited to two people in a room. But McGill has no mandatory testing–which is actually super concerning, I must say.”
London is also on full lockdown right now, so Matthew’s classes are fully online for the rest of the year. Fortunately, he can avoid most of King’s harsh restrictions because he lives in a flat off-campus. On campus, “the college monitors you, you’re not allowed to have people over at all, and they won’t let you leave if you’ve been exposed to something, so it’s a lot stricter,” Matthew says. He likes studying in the UK, where the college curriculum is much more specialized so that you only have to take the classes that pertain to your chosen major or your preferred field of study, but his first year has posed challenges. According to Matthew, “It was hard to adjust to a new country while also dealing with the pandemic–no one could visit me, no one could move me in without having to quarantine for two weeks, and my parents didn’t want to do that. So I had to start living completely on my own without anyone even helping me, but it was also good because I had to become more independent more quickly.”
Colleges and universities across the world have all responded to the coronavirus in different ways, giving the EHS class of 2020 a wide variety of experiences. The only thing I found constant when talking to Edgemont’s college freshmen was that they are all determined to work hard, make the best out of their current circumstances, and remain hopeful about the future.