What did you imagine when the University of Chicago announced its aim to reopen campus fully in the fall? For those of you who experienced the campus before the pandemic, thoughts of returning to the classroom and reviving old traditions probably came to mind. If you had little to no experience of a “normal” UChicago, you might have imagined finally exploring buildings on the quad, sitting down at libraries without a reservation, attending in-person classes or meetings, and generally seeing the campus come to life in a way that simply was not possible during this past year. But what will reopening look like for us?
A friend pointed out to me that rising fourth-years will be the only group on campus this fall to have lived through a complete year of pre-pandemic UChicago—rising third-years had their first year cut short by the start of the coronavirus pandemic, second-years entered their first year during the pandemic, and first-years will be coming to campus for the first time. My friend and I envisioned next year’s freshmen approaching us, showing a room number on their schedule and asking, “How do I get here?” only to realize that we are equally unfamiliar with the campus. Though amusing, this scene is actually emblematic of the challenges that readjustment might bring this fall. A successful return to normal depends on the University allowing us space to adjust, finding more effective ways to learn, and giving upperclassmen a chance to pass down their knowledge of campus life.
Beginning a full reopening of campus this autumn depends largely on the state of the pandemic, but the University’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement seems to be our best shot. The approved vaccines offer high levels of protection against infection and drastically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death should you become infected. Required vaccination may seem like a robust plan from a health standpoint, yet the transition from online learning to in-person activity might not be so smooth. Many may find returning to the routines of normalcy somewhat scary despite the protection that vaccines offer. More than a year of wearing masks, being tested, and socially distancing can contribute to an overwhelming fear of contracting COVID-19 in many individuals. When our campus’s pandemic adaptations begin to go away, lingering concerns about the virus will undoubtedly take their place.
In addition to health concerns, hesitancy in our transition may also stem from social anxieties created or worsened by the pandemic. Since early 2020, we have predominantly conducted our academic, social, and professional lives digitally without much physical interaction. The security provided by being behind a screen will quickly fade away if we are thrust directly into a world of in-person interactions. In many ways, asking a question in the Zoom chat, speaking in a group without your camera on, posting a question on Piazza, or attending office hours from your desk can be much less socially taxing than their in-person equivalents. It is no wonder that so many people feel anxious about returning to face-to-face interaction.
Going forward, this is something we will have to manage individually and collectively. I worry that with this “full speed ahead” idea ingrained in almost every aspect of life at UChicago, the busyness of a quarter could ultimately drown out the need to address these issues. With careful consideration on the part of administration, faculty, and students, we can ease into the upcoming quarters less abruptly. Remember that finding ways to complete work in the face of “return anxiety” does not coincide with laziness. In other words, I am not suggesting that we reduce our efforts, but rather find methods that allow us to perform at our best while reducing stress as much as possible. It is not necessarily about finding an easier way, but rather a more efficient way. The University should find ways to conduct their classes more effectively in the upcoming fall quarter.
How can the University find more effective approaches? They can start by understanding what worked best for us during the past year. While this pandemic may have exposed where remote work falls short, it has also shown us where it can be preferable. For example, some students find aspects of the remote experience more accessible or enriching than in-person activity and are advocating for continued Zoom classes even after the pandemic. For those who prefer in-person activity, there are still advantages to continuing some virtual aspects of campus life. Certain classes may function more efficiently by adopting a hybrid model, where some portions are held remotely and others in person. Partially or fully remote office hours could allow TAs to reach more students in a fixed amount of time. With a stronger and more organized virtual infrastructure, maybe that student who insists on coming to class even while ill will finally have the option to participate from their dorm. The University needs to consider implementing changes such as these instead of blindly resuming an in-person quarter this fall.
These changes do not even need to be temporary. By understanding the ways in which remote work optimized our lives, we can implement these changes permanently to operate more effectively in the future. We are at a time when some of the learning experience can be restructured to suit the variation of needs on campus better. The potential changes I just described would shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach and give students more options for how they decide to attend and participate in their classes. They can better help us achieve our goal of truly learning at the University of Chicago.
There are clearly ways that we could benefit from change, but there are also things that should remain the same. A lot of us can probably go back to our “Why UChicago?” essays and find mention of clubs, traditions, and ideas that we hoped to participate in or encounter at some point during our time here. Unfortunately, some of these were paused or minimized as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. Half of our campus knows little about many of the things that define traditional life for a UChicago student. In fact, had it not been for some research last summer about UChicago traditions, I easily might have stepped on the Reynolds Club seal without thinking twice!
This year’s fourth-years (and perhaps some of the third-years who paid attention during their two pandemic-less quarters at UChicago) can help us retain some aspects of campus life that were forgotten during the past year. They can revive the spirit behind fun events and traditions (like Scav or Kuvia), but more importantly, they can help us restore the bonds that we lost as a community. Coming into my first year of college during a deadly pandemic was intimidating and, at times, lonely. Many of the people I met physically or remotely were also first-years who had little knowledge of the resources or procedures at the University of Chicago. I often had to figure things out on my own without the benefit of having older, more experienced friends who could advise me on academics or extracurriculars. My hope is that the upcoming autumn quarter will give us an opportunity to sew together this fragmented group of undergraduates and allow us to move towards a more interconnected community.
I am excited for the prospect of a more “normal” year in college. Through the power of vaccination, we have the privilege of potentially returning to some of our pre-pandemic activities in the coming months. That being said, we do not have to choose the same pre-pandemic methods. We need space to reconsider how we approach our education and time to come together as a campus community. This period in the history of UChicago is one in which we can both preserve our past and shape our future.
Luke Contreras is a rising second-year in the College