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The Bruno Brief: Two years after COVID-19 began, students reflect

On March 13, 2020, Brown students were sent home as the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the country. Roughly two years later, on March 14, 2022, the University announced that masks and testing would become optional. This week, we spoke with Senior Staff Writer Ashley Guo about her reporting on how the lives of students have changed in the last two years.

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Finn Kirkpatrick

Welcome back to the Bruno Brief. I'm Finn Kirkpatrick. 

This week, almost exactly two years ago, Brown sent its students packing as the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the world. Now, on March 14 of this year, the University has officially lifted its mask wearing requirement for on campus activities. And reflecting on this somewhat poetically timed return to relative normalcy, Senior Staff Writer Ashley Guo thought it might be time to ask some Brown students: How have you changed in these past two years? In this episode, we hear from Ashley and the three students she talked to about how the pandemic has changed their worlds.

Hi, Ashley, thank you for being here today.

Ashley Guo

Hi, thanks for having me. 

Finn Kirkpatrick

So, what inspired you to want to report this story?

Ashley Guo

When Brown came out with the announcement that they were going to go mask optional on March 14, it kind of reminded me that two years ago, for me, actually, exactly on March 14, everything kind of shut down. And I just was reflecting on how much I've kind of changed in these past two years and was wondering if other students had the same experience.

Finn Kirkpatrick

Who did you talk to about their experiences and why?

Ashley Guo

I spoke to Minnie Zhang ’25. She is a freshman, and I thought it would be really interesting to see how her experience has been impacted, especially being in high school and applying to colleges during this time. And I spoke to Maddie Noh ’22. She is a senior, and she has been in Providence the entire time off campus since most of her family is international. And then also Emily Vesper ’24. I spoke with Emily Vesper about her experience being home and remote during her first year at Brown.

Finn Kirkpatrick

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And what was the most surprising thing you learned in doing these interviews?

Ashley Guo

I think for me, the most surprising part was the diversity of experiences. Because throughout the pandemic, everyone just kind of feels like it was the same mental health issues, or the fatigue, or the burnout and the difficulties. But in fact, everyone had a very different experience of these common topics. So although we're kind of unified and living through the pandemic together, I feel like every single person had a unique experience to share.

Finn Kirkpatrick

In doing these interviews, how did these students' lives and states of mind change throughout their experience with doing college during COVID?

Ashley Guo

Everyone kind of had their eyes opened to different parts of life that they probably wouldn't have experienced otherwise, especially during the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, there's this big movement where we were examining racism in our community, in our country. And that was a big topic where students became more critical of the world we live in. And perhaps the time in isolation gave people the time to reflect on that, while also figuring out how to make a new pattern of life in a different world kind of matured everyone pretty quickly.

Minnie Zhang

COVID really slowed down the world. And when you're just living, things go by so fast, you don't really get a chance to process things sometimes. I'm from Richmond, Virginia, and during June 2020, summer 2020, we were the site of the Confederate statue protests. I had always known that this aspect of racism had been there. It's just, it had been so normalized to me. It took the national news coverage for me to step back and see my hometown from a perspective other than my own.

Finn Kirkpatrick

That was Minnie Zhang. 

And did you get any sense of what they learned and what difficulties they went through during this time?

Ashley Guo

Overall, people have learned more about themselves. Because during isolation, people tend to have a lot of time to self-reflect and be introspective, but I do think they also got to think more about our communities and how we can contribute to it as well as just a general realization of, I don’t know, there's the significance of being together in a community.

Finn Kirkpatrick

And what about your own experience inspired you to do this story?

Ashley Guo

So I'm currently a sophomore, which means that when everything shut down, I was a senior in high school, and now I'm 20 and I'm on the East Coast instead of the West Coast. And I feel like it's really changed the way I kind of embrace stressful times or think about my mental health. In the past, I feel like I didn't really consider those things as much. But after kind of a difficult freshman year, I feel like I've learned a lot about how to handle stress and conflict and learn something from it.

Finn Kirkpatrick

So what major themes appeared throughout each individual experience that you heard?

Ashley Guo

Mental health and stress were major themes. I remember Maddy shared a lot about how, because everything was online, she kind of took on more than she could manage with virtual opportunities. Since it's easy to think that even though you aren't somewhere physically, it will somehow cost you less energy, as well as just general mental health struggles because isolation can be difficult.

Maddy Noh

Even though I found it very enlightening in a lot of ways to be able to have more access to stuff because it was virtual and remote, actually, I don't think it was that great for my mental health in general.

Finn Kirkpatrick

That was Maddy Noh.

What current impacts of the pandemic have you noticed in students, even as things are slowly getting closer to normal?

Ashley Guo

There's a general sense of exhaustion, or being burned out, especially among my class. Because I would say as sophomores, as we've been through this for about four semesters straight with no real break in between. And I feel like there's just a general exhaustion of everything we've had to deal with. But there's also some hope for the future as things look like they're going to get better and definitely we've all learned something from this time. So I think we've all come out a little bit, hopefully, stronger and better.

Emily Vesper

I hadn't had an experience of really struggling in school before, in that way. And I think kind of in that circumstance, which happened in the spring and again in the summer, it kind of led me to choose being mentally and physically okay and making choices that were positive for kind of a holistic look at my life, not just like trying to get the best grades possible.

Ashley Guo

That was Emily Vesper.

Finn Kirkpatrick

How do they think this experience will change their lives going forward in a somewhat post pandemic world?

Ashley Guo

Definitely, everyone has kind of expressed that they've learned lessons or that they examine the world in a different way. They examine themselves in a different way, what they can handle, what is good for them, what is not good for them. And I think that those new lessons will probably inform the way they act in the future.

Finn Kirkpatrick

Thank you so much for being here, Ashley.

Ashley Guo

Of course.

Finn Kirkpatrick

That's it for the Bruno Brief this week. Our show is produced by Katy Pickens, Livi Burdett, Jacob Smollen, Lella Wirth and me, Finn Kirkpatrick. If you like what you hear, subscribe to the Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening. We'll see you next week.



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