The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty that followed fundamentally changed the rhythms of day-to-day life on Brown’s campus and beyond. Almost two years after students were sent home to complete the spring 2020 semester remotely, the University announced that masking and testing — hallmarks of the college experience during the pandemic — would be made optional.
Students have shared in some challenges during the pandemic and differed drastically in others. But, for many, the realities of COVID-19 have become a lens through which they view their time at Brown. The Herald spoke with three students about their experiences throughout the pandemic and the ways in which it has shaped their studies, their relationships and how they see the world.
Taking up a critical lens, making up for lost time
“It was this random Friday in March. It was March 13, to be exact” when Minnie Zhang ’25 was sent home from her high school and told that classes would resume after spring break because of COVID-19. “We treated it as an extended spring break,” she said.
Zhang vividly recalled the shutdown of her high school and the beginning of the “baking bread phase of quarantine.” She said that many didn’t understand the severity of the pandemic at first.
“Being Chinese, my parents had heard from friends of a friend of someone who had a relative who was trapped in Wuhan, who had experienced COVID and was dying,” she said. “Given that we were separated by an ocean, I don't think we really took it as a reality.”
Soon, the severity of the situation hit. As a junior in high school, Zhang had to deal with constantly canceled and rescheduled ACT tests, college applications and the lost experiences of prom and graduation. Financial aid applications were an added source of stress as the impacts of the pandemic had not appeared on the previous year’s tax returns.
In addition to navigating these uncertainties, Zhang found that the pandemic “slowed down the world” as solitude and isolation became commonplace.
“When you're just living, things go by so fast. You don't really get a chance to process things,” Zhang said. “COVID made me kind of step back and look at my community in a more critical light.”
Zhang’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia, was the site of the Confederate statue protests in June 2020.
“I had always known that this aspect of racism had been there,” Zhang explained. “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.”
Zhang explained that on several Richmond townhouses, there were plaques commemorating “different Confederate generals on each doorbell.” She hadn’t realized this until a friend pointed it out.
“It's little things like that that embeds the legacy of the Confederacy into Richmond,” she said. National conversations forced community members to examine the way racism persisted on a local level, and “a lot of people weren’t ready to do that yet.”
During her time at Brown, Zhang also saw how mental health issues impacted her classmates and herself. Despite being previously diagnosed with ADHD, Zhang found it difficult to obtain accessibility accommodations since her diagnosis was five years old. In addition, the inaccessibility of psychiatric services to provide this diagnosis made her unable to receive the accommodations she needed.
“All the practitioners here were really booked and had really long wait lines, so it was difficult to just get anything,” she explained. “For now, I’ve just been dealing with it on my own.”
In addition to mental health struggles, Zhang and the rest of the class of 2025 had a fully online senior year of high school. Zhang said that she and her peers craved connection and interaction with their future classmates at Brown.
To address this, Zhang created the Brown 2025 Instagram page as a way for students to interact with and join together in an online space. “I really wanted to create a community, organic connection,” she said. She used Instagram polls to allow classmates to “connect without the awkward stiltedness of being over Instagram.”
Zhang has noticed that she and others had trouble reorienting themselves to in-person school at Brown.
“It was a challenge adjusting to being in a group again or being around big crowds at orientation,” Zhang said. “There’s this desire among people in my class to complete as many things as they can because COVID took away classic hallmarks of the high school experience … that made a lot of people feel like they were falling behind and needed to catch up.”
Since the mask requirement was lifted, Zhang felt that seeing faces has allowed for her to better connect with her classmates and professors.
“I’m glad that I can talk to professors and they can see my face. I know a lot of professors were struggling to remember which student was which,” Zhang said.
Beginning college virtually: a “rough start”
“When COVID did hit, I was thinking really hard about whether or not to take a gap year,” Emily Vesper ’24 said. Vesper graduated from high school about a month-and-a-half before workplaces and schools shut down in March 2020.
“I remember the last weekend before COVID happened, my friends and I had a Twilight-themed party,” Vesper said. “I remember that being the last thing we did before going into lockdown.”
Vesper decided to take her freshman year remotely, first setting foot on campus as a sophomore in fall 2020.
“I didn’t feel super comfortable about going to school at that point just for safety,” Vesper said. “I was also apprehensive about the experience, just socially and emotionally.”
The struggles of isolation and lack of social connection allowed Vesper to appreciate and prioritize aspects of life that she felt she previously took for granted.
“You’re so used to always having the ability to go to concerts and go to parties and meet new people without concern,” Vesper said. “It feels so weird to be completely absent from human interaction in the way we’ve always been used to.”
For her first year of college online, she moved out into a house with friends in her hometown, but felt that this gave her a “rough start” to college.
“It felt really weird to do remote school. I honestly regretted it, but I also don’t try to dwell on that because I cannot change it. I do wish I took a gap year,” Vesper said. “I really academically struggled last year, and it impacted my ability to work … and I would’ve had more money if I hadn’t done it.”
During the pandemic, Vesper learned that she had ADHD, which dramatically impacted her academic performance as college was a “step up” from her experience in high school.
“I had a really difficult experience. I failed a class, I got some incompletes (and) I ended up on academic warning. I had not had that experience of struggling in school before in that way,” Vesper said.
Navigating a part-time job during the pandemic only further complicated Vesper’s experience. “It was impossible. I was working so much at the start of the pandemic and there was no way for me to fit school work in,” she added.
Vesper has not been able to obtain accessibility accommodations for her ADHD.
Vesper added that she had difficulty accessing school resources while studying remotely. “I do think it is tough to get ADHD accommodations … you have to get evaluated by a professional, and that can be hard to find … it can have two- or three-month-long waitlists, and it can be incredibly expensive.”
Since arriving on campus, Vesper feels that in-person school has been a much better experience than her freshman year, despite it feeling “surreal” that she is no longer in her hometown.
Vesper said that it seemed like the most intense COVID restrictions are now past. “People are just gathering, and now with the mask mandate lifting too … it’s been so much better than my first year, which I’m really grateful for.”
Finding a home away from home
“I’ve simply never left (Providence). I only left once in the last two years,” Maddy Noh ’22 MPH ’23 said. “Throughout the last two years is when I’ve really felt much more grounded here.”
With most of her family in South Korea, Noh had to find independence away from home, living in Providence as a sophomore two years ago.
“That was obviously a very hectic time for a lot of people,” Noh said. “There seemed to be uncertainty regarding how long (the pandemic) would last or to what extent … the fact that most of my family lived abroad and that I am also a US citizen, it made a lot of sense to just stay here.”
Her first priority was finding a place to stay during the pandemic. Noh identified other international students who were in a similar situation and worked on finding off-campus housing.
“It was very nice to be doing that with other people and not completely alone. That was absolutely essential to have that social support,” Noh said. “I just feel very fortunate to have options — despite the fact that we didn’t have much friendly connection or support at the time — to have the means to find a place.”
Noh found that with remote school and remote responsibilities, many new opportunities opened up to her, but she soon realized that she took on more than she could handle.
“I took on a lot more roles and much more opportunities including internships which were located in other cities which I thought would be much more accessible,” Noh said. “That really helped in terms of growing professional opportunities, but on the contrary, it gave me a false idea that I can do a lot more just because things are virtual.”
Noh emphasized that, despite her initial expectations, attending work or school virtually required “the same amount of mental energy” as it did in person.
The stress of balancing her multiple responsibilities with the uncertainties of navigating a social life during the pandemic pre-vaccination impacted Noh’s mental health. “Going into my current senior year, I dropped a bunch of activities even if they were going to be virtual because I needed to clear my plate off,” Noh said.
Noh recalled when, in summer 2020, her Brown in Washington experience was made remote. “I was a little like, ‘What would that have been like?’ Obviously that's a minor issue in the greater scheme of my life,” Noh said.
But, as the pandemic has eased, Noh has felt a return to normalcy. She sees the last two years as an opportunity that she has learned and grown from rather than a source of regret or loss.
“I feel like I've still had a very rich and good college experience in many ways,” Noh said. “I feel very lucky.”