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Over 3,000 undergraduate students moved into on-campus housing in early January, allowing first years to meet others in person for the first time and create study groups.

Credit: Nicholas Fernandez

After returning to campus for a spring semester markedly different than any other in Penn's history, first-year students appreciate the opportunity to socialize with others, but remain worried about how their peers are handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over 3,000 undergraduate students moved into on-campus housing in early January — including many first years who had not yet experienced campus life in Philadelphia. Although classes are still being held virtually in spring 2021, first years reported that the ability to meet others in person for the first time and create study groups has been crucial in easing the transition to college life from an isolating first semester at home. 

Not all students have had a smooth transition, however, as they learn to balance social distancing guidelines and forming new friendships. 

Nursing first year Deborah Olatunji, who has lived on campus in Rodin College House since the fall semester, said she worried that having first years on campus would create an expectation to be around many other people, which she saw reflected in the number of COVID-19 cases on campus.

Cases increased from 114 to 242 among undergraduates between Jan. 31 and Feb. 6, which brought the undergraduate positivity rate to 4.52% that week. After doubling for two straight weeks, however, the average positivity rate for all undergraduate students from Feb. 7 to Feb. 13 decreased from 4.52% to 1.84% — a trend that Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said should still serve as a reminder for students to be more vigilant rather than less.

“[First-year students] don’t have any real sense of what a college experience is supposed to look like to begin with. And when you throw COVID-19 into the mix, and an administration that doesn’t know how to communicate well, it’s just a recipe for disaster,” Olatunji said. 

Students in isolation have previously reported inadequate resources and unclear communication from the University regarding how to receive meals and what to do if they became symptomatic.

Engineering first year Vaishnavi Pachava felt a sense of isolation last semester while taking classes from her home country of India, where she stayed awake most nights until 3 a.m. to attend virtual classes. Since moving into the Quad this spring, she has appreciated not only being in the physical environment of Penn’s campus, but also being in the same time zone as other students.

Pachava said that having to quarantine twice in her Riepe College House room has drained her mental health, and noted how many people are now meeting others in person instead of connecting virtually, which makes it difficult for students in quarantine to feel included in campus social life. 

College first year Rylee Saunders Jackson, who was originally assigned to live in Riepe, switched into Rodin because she did not feel comfortable sharing a bathroom with other people. She said she enjoys the independence of living in a suite in Rodin, especially being able to cook as an alternative to going to the dining halls.  

First-year students living on campus are required to be on a dining plan, and the University has increased the number of dining options from three in the fall to nine this spring to accommodate the increased number of students living on campus.

Other first years report that their peers have been too relaxed with following Student Campus Compact guidelines.

College first year Michael Nolan, who lives in Fisher-Hassenfeld College House, said that he has seen other first years break COVID-19 safety guidelines by sneaking in other students, faking PennOpen Passes, and breaking social distancing guidelines. 

Because of this, Nolan said that he has tried to limit his social interaction, adding that it has been challenging finding people with whom he clicks, but who also share the same values regarding following COVID-19 safety precautions. He said that he does not want to hang out with the wrong people and end up in quarantine because of others’ recklessness.  

A “completely disproportionate” number of positive COVID-19 cases on campus has been linked to fraternities and sororities, and Dubé previously confirmed to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the University is aware of some students who have violated COVID-19 guidelines, both within college houses and off campus.

Similarly, College first year Joy Olatunde, who is living in Harrison College House, said that her social interaction has been limited to seeing people she met virtually last semester due to concerns about safety. She said that, although she has been stressed with online school, she likes being able to go on walks with friends, something that was impossible last semester due to students being at home.  

Several others said that, although they anticipated a different Penn experience when they applied, they have been able to make the most out of this semester.

College first year Marielle Kang said that she has had to be much more conscious of her time when figuring out how to balance classes, extracurriculars, and her social life. Though she said it can be easy to get stuck in one’s dorm, she appreciates being able to explore campus and getting to know other people.

“When we heard about the news that we weren’t going to go to school [in the fall], I was really disappointed. But I think that when I reflect back on it, it was good for me. And I feel like I came to campus a lot more prepared for what’s to come because of that period,” Kang said.

While Saunders Jackson has managed to make a tight-knit group of friends, she said there is little campus spirit due to the pandemic, noticing a major split between those who are staying cautious and those who are breaking the Student Campus Compact.  

“It’s a little disheartening to know that you can be doing all the work that you can to be safe, but that [doing so] doesn’t stop anyone else from doing anything else,” Saunders Jackson said.

She also said that she would like Penn to offer resources to aid virtual learning, such as extending the spring semester deadline of the pass/fail grading policy, which was implemented in response to the academic challenges presented by the pandemic, according to University leadership.

Although the academic year has been challenging for students, both at home and on campus, students agreed that they have gained a greater appreciation for what they have experienced so far.

“Even though it’s not the college experience that I expected,” Kang said. “I’d say that it’s an experience that’s worth having.”