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Simon ’25: A start to college more tentative than usual

The last night before I left home felt biblical. In the days leading up to my departure for my freshman year of college, my hometown was hit by the remnants of Hurricane Ida blowing up the East Coast. I remember winds and claps of thunder so loud they chased away sleep but felt dreamlike all the same. Lying in my childhood bed, lightning flashing strange shapes onto my ceiling, I didn’t feel any of the anxiety or excitement of the previous weeks. Instead, I felt alone and entirely out of my skin. It was fitting, in a way. That storm and that out-of-body sensation marked the beginning of my time at Brown. It was then that I realized how strange the year in front of me was — but strange in a way it was never supposed to be.

For students at colleges and universities across the world, the coronavirus’ arrival onto the scene not only presented a public health crisis, but also disrupted one of the defining experiences of a young person’s life. But, for the class of 2025, COVID-19 has permanently altered what that experience will be. And it’s more than likely that, as methods to contain the virus become routine, classes of freshmen far into the future will inherit a version of college that is distinctly different from anything known before.

This new reality isn’t helped by the fact that American culture in particular has a singular vision of what the college experience should look like. It’s intellectually rigorous, somewhat debauched and deeply formative. But, above all, it’s communal. Academic and extracurricular pursuits are defined not just by problem sets and publications, but rather by the relationships between friends, peers and professors. Even looking beyond just the undergraduate experience, networking is one of the most important skills in the professional world. Despite the classic image of a solitary college student sequestered away in the library, the nature of modern academia is overwhelmingly one of physical presence and human connection. The consequences of severing those connections have been felt deeply over the past eighteen months in terms of both academic and personal well-being. A survey from Inside Higher Ed found that 52% of students felt they learned less in 2020 compared to pre-COVID years. Another recent study from the National Institute of Health found that 71% of undergraduate students surveyed were experiencing “increased levels of stress, anxiety and depressive thoughts” as they tried to maintain their grades and relationships through laptop screens.

Upperclassmen are well aware of what the coronavirus has taken from their college years, but for the classes of ’24 and ’25, there’s a different sort of struggle, a question that remains open: What, really, will it mean to be a college student in the wake of a global pandemic? I spent a solitary and anxious year asking myself that same question, trying through student group chats and countless video tours to figure out first what kind of school I wanted to attend, and then what kind of community I would be entering when I stepped onto Brown’s campus in the fall. The summer was long and languid, consisting of hours spent in my room, farewells to high school friends and strolls around my neighborhood. It was also punctuated by sporadic emails from Brown. There was information on how to shop for courses, logistics around housing and deadlines for meal plan registration. But there were also updates on COVID guidelines. First, the announcement on reaching the vaccination threshold — a return to so-called normalcy. Then, as the Delta variant arrived and more and more breakthrough infections began to be reported, updates on masking requirements, weekly testing and air purifiers arrived in my inbox. Like so many times over the past 18 months, I felt the attitude shift from hopeful to cautious to fearful and back again so subtly I hardly realized I was holding my breath.

 Finally arriving on campus for orientation, I’ve still yet to fully exhale. There are feelings and experiences that are the same as they once were, at least I think so. But everything is covered in an additional layer of COVID-related uncertainty. The past couple days have been a blur of hundreds of faces, only discernible from the nose up and giving muffled names through their masks. It feels tentative. We’re all craving the friendships, the nights out, the kind of togetherness that the movies have promised us. But, signing up for my weekly COVID test, I’m reminded of how fragile the whole endeavor is. The concept of regularly attending classes in person again, let alone sitting in a lecture hall with hundreds of other students feels as strange to me, if not stranger, as living 400 miles from home. The initial period of uncertainty is beginning to settle into an uncertainty that feels more routine. The pandemic isn’t leaving any time soon and I have to wonder: What comes next? Will we be afraid to study abroad? To expand our social circles or explore the community outside of campus? Will we be able to feel the absence of the things that are supposed to shape our adult lives, or will we be able to make something new and different in their place that will allow us to connect with each other?

I’m holding these anxieties in a different bed now, waiting for the sound of rain to come. I’m six days into my time at Brown; I’ve received a negative result for my first of many COVID tests to come. Anything beyond that feels impossible to know.

Alissa Simon ’25 can be reached at alissa_simon@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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