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Students prepare for in-person learning after over a year of online or hybrid learning.

Maria Carrasco/Inside Higher Ed

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Some are elated. Some are nervous. Others are frustrated by vaccine hesitancy among their peers. Students arriving on campus this fall are expressing a wide range of strong and sometimes conflicting feelings about the coming semester.

Dominique Nicolas, a senior biology student at Trinity Washington University, is delighted to be back on campus, since she didn’t like online learning. She said she “really missed” the classroom environment, including taking lab classes, having conversations with professors and working on assignments in the library.

“I’m happy because I’m finally not taking classes on Zoom,” Nicolas said. “I like being in the classroom engaged with the professor and the students.”

Mileidi Salinas-Bucio, a senior majoring in ecological communications at Trinity Washington, said the return to campus will greatly benefit students’ extracurricular experience. The former president of the Butterfly Network, a club for undocumented students to advocate for justice and immigration reform, said the club’s programming had to be entirely virtual for the past three semesters.

“They missed the in-person interactions because there’s only so many Zoom games you can play and there’s only so much you can do behind a computer screen,” Salinas-Bucio said.

However, clubs are still figuring out what kind of programming to develop, she added, since COVID restrictions limit the size of indoor gatherings on campus.

Trinity Washington started classes Monday. Karina Nolasco, a senior nursing student who returned to campus in spring 2021 as part of the university’s hybrid semester, said the return of all students creates a much cheerier atmosphere than the “desolate” one she experienced in the spring.

“I am very excited to see everything come back to normal,” Nolasco said. “And even though it’s not normal, per se, it is going to be sort of normal for me, because I definitely saw the emptiness the campus had.”

In April, the university announced it would require all students, faculty and staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 if they planned to be on campus this fall. Nicolas said she was worried about unvaccinated people potentially causing an outbreak on campus. Because she has older parents, she says she’s concerned for their health as well.

“I’m excited to see everyone,” Nicolas said. “I’m excited to see my professors again and some friends that I haven’t seen for 18 months. So it’s exciting, but also I’m a little nervous."

That's normal, given the "collective trauma" COVID has wrought "across the board, specifically on student mental health," said Erica Riba, director of higher education and student engagement at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect mental health and prevent suicide among teenagers and young adults. "COVID happened to be very isolating, and it really altered the routines of young adults and got in the way of students being able to flourish."

No wonder anticipation is running so high.

"Classes began this week, and everywhere I go, I see students and faculty going to class, stopping to catch up. It’s so wonderful to see," said Ann Pauley, vice president for institutional advancement at Trinity Washington, who has been at the university for 32 years. "Several faculty and students have told me how much they appreciate the measures Trinity has taken to ensure a safe and joyful opening -- vaccine mandate, masks required and clear and open communications."

At the University of Maryland at College Park, Patty Perillo, vice president of student affairs, said part of the reason students are excited to be back is because the institution has a vaccination rate of over 97 percent. The University System of Maryland announced in April that COVID-19 vaccinations would be required for all students, faculty and staff returning to campus this fall.

"The greatest majority of our students, and I know it because I spend a lot of time with students, are very, very, very excited," Perillo said. "And we have some students that are definitely concerned about COVID-19, and we’re trying to attend to them and care for that."

The university hosted a fall welcome from Aug. 26 to 29, which featured movies, trivia contests, scavenger hunts and picnics, and started classes Monday. Perillo said fall welcome programming drew large attendance from the student body.

"With all of these events, we’ve done as many as we can outside and if they were inside, people were fully masked," Perillo said. "And we got mass student attendance. It gives me a sense of the kind of excitement that students have for returning back in person."

Mary Kate Shields, a senior marketing student at Catholic University of America, said the return to her campus job was "overwhelming but in the best way."

"I walked into work my first day on Monday morning and I saw 15 people in the office after being in an office by myself for an entire summer," Shields said. "I just had the biggest smile on my face. It was like somebody pressed the play button after a year and a half of sitting on pause."

First-Year Fears

As Trinity Washington University wrapped up its orientation last week, a group of first-year students gathered at a table and shared with Inside Higher Ed their hopes and concerns for the coming year. While most expressed excitement about in-person learning and new opportunities, some also voiced worries about making friends and confronting antivaxxers.

“I’m excited about the independence I’m going to finally have from being at home and learning online,” said Olamide Abiodun, a first-year nursing student at Trinity Washington. “It’s going to be an exciting change for me.”

Florence Njoroge, also a first-year student in nursing, said there’s a learning curve when it comes to interacting with others again. After 18 months "of being locked up and not being able to see friends or go out, I was particularly excited to come on campus and make friends,” Njoroge said. “But when I came here, I figured out I had forgotten how to make friends.”

Her classmate Sandra Baca agreed and said that recognizing new friends is a challenge as well, since it’s hard to identify people under their mask.

Kerry Chavarria, a freshman biology student at Trinity Washington, said the return to campus could pose some difficulty for her since she has hearing loss and can’t read people’s lips when they’re wearing a mask.

“​​It’s really frustrating because you’re trying to understand what they’re trying to say and you can’t catch up with the conversation,” Chavarria said.

No subject elicited more of an impassioned response from the Trinity Washington students than vaccine hesitancy. Recently, two new polls found students overwhelmingly support vaccine and mask mandates at their institutions and are hesitant about returning to normal college life. Many students, including Njoroge, spoke out in support of vaccines.

“If everybody got vaccinated, then there’ll be a higher chance of things getting back to normal and people coming together,” Njoroge said.

Nolasco added that her nursing training is a big reason why she supports COVID-19 vaccinations, but she gets frustrated when speaking to those who feel otherwise.

“​​I’m a huge advocate for the vaccine,” Nolasco said. “It honestly bothers me when I have to face people who are skeptical … I try my best to convince them, but you can’t change their minds.”

Baca agreed, saying, “There’s only so much you can do with telling a person to get a vaccine.”

Some seniors expressed hope that the incoming first-years will have a better college experience than they did.

“I don’t think I have hope for us, because what can you do in a couple of months before we graduate, but I am hopeful for them,” Nolasco said. “They have four years. And the good thing about this school is in every classroom setting that you enter, you have such an open space to talk about whatever you want.”

However, Salinas-Bucio said things are looking up for her class, too. “I didn’t think that we’d get to do this, and we’re going to graduate and be around each other,” she said. “So that’s actually a really positive experience even if we wear masks and social distance. It feels good to just be back together.”

Shields has a semester left before she graduates in December and is calling her final term "my semester of yes."

"I’m going to make the most of the on-campus events and spending time with friends and getting involved," Shields said. "That’s going to be my way of trying to make up for lost time."

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