Soter: I’m Starting at the U in the Middle of a Pandemic – and I’m Concerned

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Adam Fondren

The Block U on the University of Utah Campus, Salt Lake City, UT on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 (Photo by Adam Fondren | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Theadora Soter, Opinion Writer

 

I’m starting my freshman year at the University of Utah during COVID-19, and I think the stagnancy, frustration and confusion I am experiencing are relatable to many in my class.  We’ve registered for classes, made deposits and booked housing arrangements – and still, we’re not sure what school will look actually like this fall. The U did publish a plan for reopening, but it’s unclear whether things might change; many juniors and seniors in my circles are worried leadership will move the semester fully online at the last minute. Amid all this uncertainty, incoming first years are feeling extreme helplessness in the face of this critical new chapter of their lives. The U needs to do more to protect and communicate to its new students.

To be sure, starting college is full of uncertainty even without the added stress of a global health crisis. But this particular fall is fraught with unpredictability at every academic and logistical turn. The most accurate thing I can compare it to is the 2006 action thriller Snakes on a Plane. I suppose some of what I’m feeling might be due to my Type A personality (I’ve emailed my academic advisor so many times that “Block Thea” is probably the next item on his to-do list), but I know I’m not alone. Even seniors like Molly Jackson are feeling frustrated. She noted in an interview that “it’s hard for me to choose my classes when I don’t know enough about each course’s modality. Specifically, the split attendance schedule is frustrating because the logistics haven’t been pinned down.”

It’s like that panic dream so many people get before school starts. You know the one. The alarm doesn’t go off so you run to school in your pajamas only to realize you don’t know where your first class is and then, BAM, you wake up. What a relief it is to look at your phone and realize summer vacation hasn’t quite ended. But this is no dream, and not only do you not know where your class is, you don’t even know what it is. As first-year students, we have no real understanding of what college is supposed to look like, only what we’ve imagined it to be – and none of us ever imagined it like this.

Now August is well underway, and the start of school creeps closer each second – as does the dream creep toward reality. Instead of worrying about showing up to the wrong class in pajamas, though, I’m concerned about mistaking an in-person course for being online, and getting my money’s worth in educational experiences, not to mention social opportunities. Luke Bennett, an incoming freshman, said of the situation, “The most frustrating thing has been the fact that I’m going to miss out on a lot of important freshman year opportunities that we probably won’t be able to participate in, like the MUSS at football games and events, and it makes me sad.”

Part of the problem is that much of the U’s communication to students goes to our university email addresses – which first-year students may not realize, causing us to miss essential information. And while I’m sure university administrators are also feeling unsure and apprehensive, they have authority over us, and we need more from them. A strategy like sending physical mail to first-years and transfer students about how this semester will work could go a long way.

Further, and most importantly, do we even know it’s safe to come to campus? Like many others, I wonder if it’s okay to go get takeout, let alone attend classes. It’s hard not to feel like we’re the guinea pigs in an experiment that colleges nationwide know will fail. To remind you, the U did close down in early March, when there were far fewer cases in Utah than there are now. Maybe then we should follow our fellow PAC-12 schools, like UC Berkeley, in not starting the semester completely online. While no plan will fully satisfy all students and faculty, safety should come first, and holding class remotely is the only way to ensure it.

The U’s incoming class is already stressed enough. It would help to feel like school officials are actually looking out for us.

 

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@SoterTheadora