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Monday, September 27, 2021

UF students grapple with excitement and apprehension for a new semester

Students and experts discuss the idea of going back to in-person classes

<p>University of Florida students rush to and from class along Stadium Road prior to the pandemic, on September 17, 2019. The upcoming fall semester will see tens of thousands of students return to campus, although an increase in the number of delta variant COVID-19 infections raises concerns about viral spread among unvaccinated people.</p>

University of Florida students rush to and from class along Stadium Road prior to the pandemic, on September 17, 2019. The upcoming fall semester will see tens of thousands of students return to campus, although an increase in the number of delta variant COVID-19 infections raises concerns about viral spread among unvaccinated people.

Butterflies and back-to-school jitters are standard for any student starting a new semester. But this upcoming term is unlike any other. For many UF students, it is the first time they’ll return to in-person classes in over a year. 

While 43% of undergraduate students took in-person classes this past Spring, many haven’t been on campus since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic sent the university online. Now that UF has transitioned to “traditional operations” and capacities for the 2021-2022 academic year, the upcoming Fall semester will be the closest to “normal” students have experienced in months.

From walking to class in the morning to giving in-person presentations, what was once all students ever knew about college life has suddenly become an alien concept. Despite the eagerness to learn and socialize face-to-face, some students are envisioning a year of COVID-19 worries and isolation-induced social anxiety.

Before the switch to virtual classes, Mauricio Ceballos, a 20-year-old materials science and engineering major, said being on campus was like walking through a small bustling city with something new happening every day. But from being away for so long, Ceballos said he feels socially anxious returning to class.

“Sometimes I fear what people will think about me when they can better fit the square image from Zoom to the full person at UF,” he wrote in an email. “I think there will be less people walking around through Turlington or Marston as students will choose to return to their dorms and apartments to study to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID, so there will be a greater difficulty of meeting anyone new.”

As an incoming junior, Ceballos started several personal projects during the pandemic that he hopes to complete this Fall. He worries the transition to in-person will affect his time management. 

“There will likely not be any pre-recorded lectures for this semester like with Zoom, so trying to allocate or allot any time to things outside of class will be difficult,” he said. “However, going back to campus means having a more solid schedule that is less likely to change, so I will be looking forward to not having to keep track of many changes.”

Dr. JD Wright, a Gainesville therapist with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, has continuously helped people cope with their social anxieties and difficulties of the virus throughout the pandemic via teletherapy. Wright said that while a lot of people are ready to spend time off of Zoom, hardships will be inevitable.

“It will be a pretty mixed bag,” he said. “Having to redevelop routines and trying to figure out what this new normal kind of looks like, I think that there'll be a lot of pieces of it that will likely be more challenging.” 

The concept of a Zoom-free semester is enticing to students like Brian Marra, a 20-year-old English and history junior. Marra had one full semester at UF before his classes were switched online. 

As an out-of-state student from South Carolina, he said UF’s in-person social environment allowed him to meet new people and familiarize himself with Florida. 

“I lived in a dorm freshman year, and it gave me an opportunity to get to know people,” Marra said. “Football games, sporting events, club meetings, all that stuff, I really enjoyed being in-person.”

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In May, a survey indicated that of 2,000 U.S. college students, 81% said it was either “extremely difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to concentrate during remote lectures, according to Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse. 

Marra said his discussion-based classes made the dynamic of Zoom difficult for him to grasp. Although the pandemic propelled his teachers to be more charitable in terms of participation grades, he felt a year of online classes was a hindrance to his college experience.

“It wasn't super easy with Zoom because they were all synchronous meetings at a specific time, and you just had to talk to a computer,” Marra said. “I do think it took a weight off of the academic side of things because it did make things easier, but it was really frustrating.”

Last August, a national survey by Value Penguin reported that 78% of U.S. college students lacked trust in their school's on-campus health facility to provide quality care. 

Ceballos believes students who are not vaccinated should continue to wear masks on campus to avoid infection and make others comfortable.

“Being around students that are not vaccinated does make me uncomfortable as I feel like I have a bigger responsibility to not get them sick,” he said. “The university should continue to encourage students to get vaccinated to prevent further problems with COVID.”

As of May, it is estimated that 75% of UF students and 90% of faculty are vaccinated, but the university is refraining from requiring vaccinations or masks for those coming back to campus. 

Marra said that while a campus vaccine mandate would’ve made him feel more comfortable returning to class, he remains determined to push through the Fall semester as best he can. 

“Every person is going to have a different comfort level when they're going back into this, and it's just going to be a challenge, especially with the Delta variant,” Marra said. “My goal is to really just perform well this semester and also build back the social connections that I think we all lost over the past year and a half.”

Wright believes the virus adds an extra barrier to meeting people, which he said can affect student’s comfortability when it comes to socializing.

“There's still that hovering question of, ‘am I going to get sick from spending time with these people?’” he said. “It’s not just the traditional social anxiety of ‘are people going to judge me or think I'm weird?’ but also, ‘are people going to be safe?’ It's a whole other layer on top of that.”

For those anxious about returning to in-person classes, Wright advises students to take their time and not be too hard on themselves.

“It sounds simple, but just offer yourself grace. Even if there is a level of excitement about going back, it can also feel awkward and uncomfortable and anxious, and that's OK, too.”


Contact Brenna at bsheets@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @BrennaMarieShe1.

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