3,000 Penn undergraduates moved to campus this past week, evidenced by pictures of the Quad on Instagram and questions in GroupMe chats about connecting Alexa to the WiFi. Understandably, it was an exciting time for many after a semester unlike any other, but for the Penn students who have decided to stay home this spring, like me, the past few weeks have been a different story.
I live at home with my brother, mom, and diabetic dad. Given the state of my father’s health and his increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection, I thought it was best to stay home this spring. I feared the risk of exposure and transmission traveling to and from Philly could bring, and it just didn’t seem worth it; it certainly wasn’t worth risking my dad’s health for online classes. And making that decision sucked.
Similar to other Penn first years who spent the fall at home, I don’t quite feel like a college student yet, let alone a Penn student. Prolonging these sentiments for yet another semester, equaling a quarter of my total time here at Penn is not easy. But the decision was necessary for myself and my family. I know I am not alone in facing such a dilemma, with other students requesting exemptions due to family members or they themselves being immunocompromised, and I also know that I am not alone in feeling anxious over what the decision to stay home will entail this spring.
In the fall, as far as social interaction goes, most of us were in the same boat. We attended the occasional virtual mixer or movie night and saw friends from high school whose universities had, like Penn, proceeded with an online semester. This won’t necessarily be the case this spring, and as a first-year student staying at home, it’s difficult to imagine what my social life will look like when two-thirds of my graduating class will be on campus. There also remains the concern of what the social life of those who are on campus will look like and how safe it will be. As someone who stayed back for the safety of my family, reports of parties and the passing of Penn cards are frustrating to hear. With Philadelphia’s high risk of transmission, an disproportionately affected minority population surrounding Penn, and slow vaccine distribution nationwide, students' breaking of the Student Campus Compact blatantly disregards the wellbeing of others and seems to diminish the chances of an eventual safe return to campus for us all.
Moreover, the past semester taught us just how hard online classes can really be. As a social and verbal learner, I was grateful for my professors who encouraged and fostered collaboration in their virtual classrooms with group activities and breakout rooms. With a significant number of students returning to campus, however, it seems as though those at home might be at a potential disadvantage, being unable to work with classmates in-person outside of lecture like others might. Continued efforts by professors to provide opportunities for students to work together regardless of where they are learning from will be an essential part of maintaining an equitable academic experience for Penn students this spring.
The fear of missing out (aka FOMO) is real for many, both academically and socially, this semester. So to those of you who are fortunate enough to be on campus, enjoy yourselves, but please do so safely. And importantly, don’t forget to check in on your friends at home once in a while, too! We really wish we could be on campus with you, but for the time being, would appreciate the occasional FaceTime chem review session or Among Us night invitation.
And to professors, please remember that students will continue to be in varied learning environments this semester and would appreciate your continued accommodations. Group assignments can be a great way for incoming students to meet and work with one another in a safe manner, regardless of whether they are on campus or at home.
In short, we appreciate the Penn community recognizing that those of us at home may feel a little more disconnected from you all this spring due to circumstances outside of our control. Signed, at home-ers who look forward to being together on campus safely sometime soon.
ALEX EAPEN is a first-year in the College from Elkridge, MD. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.