I'm a junior, and I’ve experienced only one 'normal' semester of college
For some students, a majority of our undergraduate experience has been virtual. Will our degrees be from Zoom University?
“How do you like Princeton?”
I’ve heard this question so often that I should have an eloquent response prepared. Yet, my answer is underwhelming: “I don’t know.”
I am among the millions of students who attended Zoom University. As a junior, I’ve experienced only one “normal” semester. I even hesitate to categorize freshman fall as normal; incoming students are bombarded with mandatory orientation events and introductory club meetings, only to be lonely among the confused undergraduates who use Google Maps to locate their own dormitories.
I remember the last normal day of college. It was a Wednesday. I was studying for my Italian midterm that was scheduled for Friday. My computer pinged. It was an email from a dean. We were transitioning to a fully virtual semester. Everyone was required to return home – and stay there.
I stopped studying for the Italian exam. I started packing. I cried.
Suddenly, college was over
My peers (illegally) set off fireworks in Poe Field. I watched the colorful explosions from my dormitory window. Were we celebrating? Mourning? Protesting? Consequences were irrelevant because suspension from campus isn’t a threat when we’re all being sent far away.
Within a week, my classrooms, dormitory, and library were consolidated into my childhood bedroom. The beautiful campus in New Jersey depicted online was reduced to my home in North Carolina.
My entire sophomore year was virtual. I declared a Politics concentration without ever stepping inside the Politics department building. I completed group assignments with peers living in different countries. I received letters of recommendation from professors I’d never spoken to face to face. I joined an Eating Club – our equivalent of Greek life – whose building I had entered only twice. I didn’t meet my future husband over Zoom (or, at least, I don’t think I did).
Students across the nation are deprived of the benefits that colleges promise during recruitment trips, info sessions and campus tours. The prestigious laboratories are unimportant when you’re Zooming in from a different country. The library books are inaccessible when the building is locked. The clubs are irrelevant when there are no meetings.
My academic career changed. I had wanted to learn German, and I was considering the Comparative Literature major. But I struggled even with English on Zoom. There was pronounced awkwardness. Students would interject at the same moment, then exchange in a redundant round of “I’m sorry, you go first” and “no, no, you.” How could I attempt another language when conversations in my native tongue felt so unnatural?
Zoom class was physically challenging. My eyes stung, and I wanted to look away from the screen, but I also didn’t want to appear distracted. I had constant headaches, and not because the reading was hard.
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Once, I privately messaged a classmate during lecture. “I like your headband!” She said “Thanks!” Was this a newfound friendship? It felt significant, but I don’t remember her name, or the color of her headband, or even what lecture we attended.
I was exhausted in high school; I struggled to balance advanced classes and athletic commitments. It was only bearable because I was promised that college would be a reward. Yet, I sat in my bedroom and stared at my computer, wondering, “is this it?"
The typical college checklist is daring: party with peers, study abroad, and attend a formal. Now, my aspirations are more humble, but less achievable: study in the library beside friends, attend a party with more than eight people, and meet a professor. I’ve abandoned the hope of studying abroad. I want the opportunity to study in my own university’s classrooms.
I have language for after. After the pandemic began, after we were sent home, after this is all over. I never thought “after” would last more than two weeks. I’m beginning to forget the before.
We want a return to normal. But what is my normal?
What was college, in the few months I experienced it? There were teenage women laughing loudly in short skirts. There were iced coffees in the library at midnight. There were drunken debates about natural law. There were imposing portraits of dead alumni in the hallways.
Oh, and there were classes. There were classes in a classroom and I could talk to peers sitting beside me. There was a professor who physically stood before us and (slowly) learned our names. There were tiny desks. There was chalk.
We didn’t need to unmute. Raising our hand was not pressing a button that said “raise hand.” We were students, not names on a Zoom attendee list.
Thus far, most of my undergraduate experience has been virtual. I hope we’ll be normal students again, but I fear we won’t be. Universities and schools are slowly reverting to the online format given the delta variant. Will my diploma say Zoom University? That would be accurate.
Abigail Anthony (@abigailandwords) is a rising junior at Princeton University, studying politics and linguistics. She is an intern at USA TODAY Opinion.