Nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic spread to UF and caused a campus shutdown, students are still grappling with the challenges of the last year and ongoing restrictions.
In the middle of the Spring 2020 semester, students and professors were uprooted from their regular routines and sent away from campus. Since then, they’ve had to adapt to online classes, semester reopening plans that professors continue to debate, new safety precautions and finally the rollout of vaccines.
But the changes haven’t been easy. Virtual graduations, reduced capacity at football games and the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases have made for a tough past year. Many students have had to navigate questionable quarantine procedures, the loss of 2021’s Spring Break and study abroad cancellations.
Sihini Atalugama said she’s met about 10 new people since starting college — an unheard-of low for her.
“I know for sure that if it were a normal semester I would’ve made so many more friends,” the 19-year-old UF microbiology freshman said. “I definitely would’ve met and connected with a lot more.”
Atalugama lived in Hume Hall in Fall 2020, but moved back home after Thanksgiving and is taking classes online during Spring because of health concerns. She’s at high risk for permanent lung damage if she gets COVID-19 because of a history of chronic bronchitis and asthma.
Although she misses seeing her friends, Atalugama said she appreciates the alone time self-isolation has granted her. Separated from her peers, she said she is able to focus on herself.
“When it's just me and my laptop, I definitely have a lot more time to think about what I prioritize, what’s best for my personal health, and work through anything that's stressing me out,” she said.
Her parents and brother are also working or attending school from home, she said, so she tries to play her part in helping her family maintain the separation of home life and work life.
“I saw this Tweet, ‘it’s not working from home, it's actually living at work,’ so it’s really important that we don't abandon the mindset that this is still our house,” she said.
She said she encourages her family to take breaks and open the windows when the weather is nice. She tries to make their situation feel like summer with an added responsibility instead of “living at work,” she said.
Atalugama said she doesn’t know what typical college life is, so she appreciates upperclassmen being sympathetic to the unique struggle of starting college during a pandemic.
Even after she enters private spaces, Riley Aceto forgets to take her mask off; it’s become a habit for the 19-year-old UF applied physiology and kinesiology freshman to keep her nose and mouth covered.
Although attending class over Zoom has made her into an auditory learner, Aceto said, she has struggled with her classes. She’s only been a college student during the pandemic, so she doesn’t know whether her academic struggles are due to the difficulties of college or online learning.
“I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything in a year,” she said. “I haven’t been in a single UF classroom — ever.”
Aceto started college in Fall 2020. When she moved to campus, she felt UF’s virus safety precautions, such as limiting dorm guests to one at a time, would make it harder to meet people.
Because of this, Aceto decided to join a sorority and became a sister in Alpha Omicron Pi in Fall 2020.
Mayra Acosta, on the other hand, said she enjoys online classes.
“I’m an introvert, so I enjoy just waking up and going into classes,” the 22-year-old UF animal sciences senior said. “When professors have recorded lectures, it’s even better, because I can just watch it on my own time.”
Though Acosta feels like her academic performance has improved in online classes, she said there have also been challenges.
“I would say the most challenging thing is motivating me to go outside and get some form of exercise, just because it can be difficult just being all day at home, sitting in front of a computer,” Acosta said.
As a transfer student, Acosta said she spent only one semester at UF before the pandemic hit. She still hasn’t been to a Gators football game nor the many activities or events on campus, she said.
“I wish I would have been here as a four-year student,” Acosta said. “That way, I could have experienced all of those typical things that Gators do, rather than transferring in.”
Isabella Tassistro, a 21-year-old UF psychology junior, hasn’t had an in-person class since last Spring. While it’s convenient not having to travel between home and class, she said, she’s had a mostly negative experience with online classes, as it’s hard to leave her apartment.
“It’s just hard to get out if you don’t already have an excuse to get out,” Tassistro said. “And it’s hard to focus in Zoom classes compared to being there in person.”
She misses traditional college experiences — hanging out and studying with friends, walking around campus and grabbing Krishna lunch at the Plaza of the Americas. Before the pandemic, it was easier to meet up with friends, she said. But now, foresight and planning are often involved to ensure everyone has been safe.
She’s had to distance herself from friends she has looser ties to because she felt the need to limit the number of people she regularly interacts with, she said.
“I have reduced my circle of friends that I actually see just because I can’t be seeing all these people for COVID spread reasons,” Tassistro said.
After the pandemic, Tassistro hopes UF keeps its procedures like hand-sanitizing stations and a mask requirement on campus.
Like Tassistro, Aubrey Mys also has to teach and motivate herself to stay on track with online classes.
“There are the professors available sometimes for office hours and such, but it isn’t the same,” the 20-year-old UF psychology and sociology junior said.
Certain classes are easier for her online and save her time, such as sociology- or elective-based classes that are more assignment-based and in which the material comes more easily. But she said for classes like human anatomy or math- and science-based classes, she has to motivate herself to read the material, teach herself the concepts and watch the lectures from the professors.
But no matter the class, she feels like more work is involved with online learning.
“I feel like, especially with being home and having other responsibilities, your workload never seems to end,” Mys said.
Despite the pandemic, Mys is doing health care disparity research for her major, which is something she’s always wanted to do. But with everything going virtual, she worries other students may struggle to get involved.
She said she worries she will lose some of the virtual opportunities she has gained during the pandemic as everything returns to normal. She explained her situation to the UF undergraduate research program and was able to be connected to the right opportunities through there. She wrote in a text that she’s now working closely with the UF Center for Undergraduate Research.
“I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’ve been able to navigate around it a little bit, and I’m still able to do research completely virtually and participate in a lot of activities virtually,” Mys said.
Given the circumstances, Mys advised students to try to make the best of their college experiences anyway.
“It might not be ideal or what you thought college will be but still try to create those opportunities for yourself,” Mys said. “It’s just trying to reach out, have those connections and continue to try to make a college experience for yourself, whatever that might look like.”
Contact J.P. Oprison and Sofia Echeverry at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Follow them on Twitter @JOprison and @sofecheverry.
Sofia is a news assistant on The Alligator's university desk. This is her second semester at paper, where she previously worked as a translator for El Caimán.
JP is a fourth-year journalism major with a minor in history. He is currently the health reporter for The Alligator, focusing on how the pandemic is affecting Alachua County and the thousands of students in Gainesville. In his free time, JP likes to exercise at the gym and relax on the beach.