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behind-the-zoom
Photos from Sophia Bagg, Katherine Hancin, and Julia Lottman

Every day, Zoom classes are filled with little squares of students clocking in from all corners of the world. Some students have returned to Philadelphia this semester, living on or off-campus, only to embark on a dramatically different living situation and semester from years past.

As some students are deciding whether to return to campus for the hybrid spring semester, The Daily Pennsylvanian virtually sat down to talk with three students, each of whom offered a glimpse into their different fall semester experiences living on campus, off campus in University City, or at home with their family.

College sophomore Julia Lottman was one of many students who scrambled to find off-campus housing following Penn’s abrupt decision to conduct the semester remotely in August. She currently resides off campus in a three-story, nine-bedroom house on 41st and Locust streets with eight other students, ranging from sophomores to seniors. Lottman said the most daunting of obstacles was the dreaded coronavirus safety discussion that she and her housemates had upon moving in. 

“There's a lot of us, and if we're all hanging out with different people, that's a lot of people we’re coming in contact with," she said. "But everyone obviously is being really safe, and we talked about precautions and stuff when we moved in. We all sort of agreed that we do whatever the person who wants the most strict protocols wants, to make sure that everyone feels comfortable."

Like many other students who chose to return to campus this fall, Lottman came to Philadelphia vying for a more independent lifestyle where she would be surrounded by other students her age. Now, halfway into the semester, Lottman said she is more than satisfied with her decision.

“It feels more like college here. I'm seeing people who are going through the same thing as I am,” Lottman said, adding that in her free time, she likes to walk around Philadelphia with friends and hang out on High Rise Field. 

A testament to living independently, Lottman also enjoys cooking her own meals, her favorite being a chicken burrito bowl.

Credit: Georgia Ray

College senior and residential advisor Katherine Hancin, on the other hand, is glad to be living alone this semester in a one-bedroom apartment in Harnwell College House, citing concerns about coronavirus exposure from roommates. Students living on-campus this semester are each housed in their own apartment, some of which have extra empty bedrooms in their suites. 

Living on campus as opposed to an off-campus apartment or house during the pandemic has its perks, Hancin said, citing heightened coronavirus restrictions that bar guests from entering residents’ apartments and requiring students to get a COVID-19 test once a week.

But it can also get lonely. She estimates that 80 people live in Harnwell College House, which normally has a maximum occupancy of 776, and describes the community as far from tight-knit. 

“I feel like residents are a lot less engaged with programming. My attendance at programs has been low, even for the in-person programs. I feel like people are concerned about safety and haven't really been leaving their rooms that much.”

Five college houses are currently housing students who were approved to live on campus due to personal circumstances making learning at home difficult. College Houses continue to host online and in-person events for its residents, like weekly walks to the Saturday Farmers Market in Clark Park, drawing workshops at the bio pond, and yoga sessions over Zoom.

Credit: Georgia Ray

Unlike students living off campus, on-campus residents have access to campus facilities such as indoor dining at 1920 Commons and study spaces in Van Pelt Library, which are available on a reservation basis.

Without a kitchen in her apartment, Hancin said she is currently on a meal plan and takes out all her meals from 1920 Commons, the only dining hall open this semester. 

“I'm vegetarian, and the vegetarian options at Commons are not that great. They'll serve the same thing for like a week straight,” Hancin said.

Students with dietary restrictions have previously expressed concern this semester about the lack of variety and freshness of their food options. All first-year students will be required to be on a meal plan this spring, which will cost $2,885 for the semester, unless approved for a housing exemption.

Regardless of whether they live on or off campus, Lottman and Hancin represent a group of students that have been taking advantage of all Philadelphia has to offer this semester, often venturing into the city on long walks and exploring different outdoor dining options.

“I feel like there's just a lot to do here, whereas when I was at home in the suburbs [of Philadelphia], I barely left the house," she said. "There are so many places to go, and my friends are all here."

Credit: Georgia Ray

For students like College sophomore Sophia Bagg, the safety risk of contracting COVID-19 outweighed the potential benefits of returning to campus. Bagg logs onto her class Zoom sessions from her home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she is spending the semester. 

“I definitely would have had more stuff to do if I was on campus, but I think being at home was the right choice in terms of safety," she said.

To Bagg's point, Penn reported the highest weekly count of positive COVID-19 cases just last week. 

During such a stressful and uncertain time, Bagg enjoys being around her family and in a familiar home setting. Sitting at her desk in her bedroom, Bagg likes to look out her window into her backyard, filled with fall greenery and sometimes the occasional deer or fox passing through. Her cats are the highlight of her time at home, she said. Her two cats, Precious and Num Num, often like to sleep at the bottom of her closet, burrowed in her clothes, throughout the day. 

“I've always grown up with cats, so when I was at college, not having them around constantly was very jarring for me,” Bagg said. “Anytime I have a couple minutes or I’m bored, I go looking for them to say hi and pet them.”

With fewer social opportunities than students living in Philadelphia, Bagg has had to get creative with her social life. She keeps in touch with her friends that live far away via virtual platforms, and will sometimes meet up in-person with a friend at the King of Prussia Mall, located close to her home. She likened the remote semester to being in high school again, studying at home and occasionally going out to meet friends.

"Living in a place like Hill [College House] last year, which just had so many common spaces and tables and couches, I was constantly interacting with people," Bagg said. "Now the social interaction part of me has been taken away, but I think online, my friends have done a pretty good job of trying to keep in contact, so it's just like a different medium in which we interact now."

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