On August 30, five brave first-year Yalies assembled over Zoom to discuss the highlights and challenges of their first week at college during a pandemic.
Moderated by Ella Goldblum
Ella: Going off to college is presented to us as one of life’s most formative coming-of-age experiences. In the time of COVID-19, do you think the move-in day you got helped you grow up in a different way, or did it just feel inadequate?
Sean Pergola: There wasn’t really a proper send-off. There’s no defined boundary between that stage of my life and this stage of my life, which I guess doesn’t really happen anyway, but still it’s very strange.
Caroline Parker: Something that was really hard for me, and this is because I’m close to my family, was the experience of leaving my mom at the gate and having to move all my stuff in by myself. There’s not really an endpoint for us. All of a sudden we were here and tossed into it and there was no real goodbye. It felt like a very lonely experience, moving my stuff in alone.
Melissa Adams: For me, weirdly, it’s the opposite. Maybe it’s because I’m international. I’m Canadian and from Hong Kong. I flew into New York two weeks early with my mom so she could help me move in. Socialization doesn’t feel super weird because we have a big courtyard in Silliman, so we’re just sitting out there, talking to people, making friends. You guys have probably seen the HoC Santos email that went out in March, being like, “the community will die,” “you’ll be eating alone in your room” and yeah, while it’s not a normal college experience, it’s not as depressing as I thought it would be. Silver linings.
Alex Ori: I was told a lot in the summer by other older Yale students that freshman year is going to suck, it’s going to be the worst, it’s not going to be good for you — to the point where I applied for a gap year and I got it, and then I decided I couldn’t take one. But this is my college experience. I don’t have anything to compare it to, so I don’t really see the problem. People ask me, “How does it feel being completely turned upside down?” But I’ve never experienced normal Yale. So I’m actually having a great time.
Jamie Yi: It kind of feels like baby college, because when I left, I was so sad, but then I realized I’m going to see them in three months, and then I’ll be back. Goodbyes weren’t as hard. I feel like I’m at summer camp right now. I guess the one downside is that a lot of my friends go to state schools where they don’t have a lot of regulation. They still haven’t been tested for COVID at their college. I see on people’s stories that people are partying and raging. I understand that I can’t do that, and that’s better for the community, but it’s still a little depressing sometimes.
Sean: I have a sister currently in college. Three years ago, I helped her move in. So I got a tiny taste of what college is like, and I’ve been looking forward to that for the past three years. I’m very grateful that there’s something here, but it feels fundamentally different. The energy about it is very different from what I was hoping for.
Mel: I think a lot of people agree with the summer camp thing. It feels like we are high schoolers at summer camp. We have all these rules. Everyone has to sit in these socially distant circles. Socialization is weird, but also, it’s doable. I have friends who took gap years because they read HoC Santos’ email and they didn’t want to miss out on the quintessential freshman experience. But honestly, I didn’t care, because I’m not American, so I’m not as enfranchised with this idea of the ideal college year. U.K. college is not as fun anyway. Even seeing that email, I still wanted to go because I didn’t want to be at home for a year. It’s good that it got out so people could prepare for the worst and not be disappointed.
Jamie: It’s weird because there’s really strict COVID rules, so I can’t get into people’s suites. I can’t get too close to people, but then things unrelated to COVID, there’s the same lack of regulation. The fact that I can be out in the courtyard at 1 a.m., but I can’t stand too close to someone, feels so weird. I always feel like I’m breaking rules because some parts are much stricter than others.
Ella: Making friends at the beginning of college is already difficult even in non-quarantined times. What are the new challenges and possibilities?
Alex: This is a hot take, but I actually think that this is really helpful for making friends. First of all, we’re all in the same place for 14 days, and you don’t really have those distractions of parties, or the anxiety of making sure you’re going to a frat party your first week. You really have time to talk and hang out with people in your college, and I’ve really, really enjoyed that. I feel really close to a few girls, and I just don’t see myself being that close at this time if it was normal. We have to get creative and find ways to have fun.
Sean: I absolutely agree. The only thing you can do is be in the courtyard or be in the buttery. While doing that, you’re bound to meet people. Everybody is in this weird limbo where they feel similarly strange about the circumstances, so you have that to bond about. I’ve become really connected with my suitemates already, because we’re the only ones we can be around on a physical level. We’ve definitely formed this support network. I don’t know if that would happen without these rules.
Caroline: With suitemates, you’re forced into an automatic connection, because they’re the closest you’ve been to anyone other than your family for months. Which is a good addition to the friendship-making process.
Mel: When you’re wearing a mask, you have to make it really obvious when you’re talking to someone. You have to wave at them. Normally, I’m like, “Oh my god, what if that person wasn’t talking to me?” But now everyone just waves, so it’s really easy to make friends. Everyone’s super friendly because we’re just stuck together. We can’t leave Silliman. It’s really easy to find people. If you made a friend yesterday, you will see them again tomorrow and the next day.
Jamie: Especially after the initial quarantine in their suite, everyone was desperate for new human interaction, so they would have talked to anyone. Nobody was cliquey, nobody was rude. My suitemates and I just went to our basement recreational area, found a group of 10 people, sat down in the hallway and got to know each other. I haven’t seen them since, but it was a great conversation. At mealtimes, because we’re all sitting in these socially distant groups, you can sit in any group you want and no one cares that much.
Ella: Is there an atmosphere of fear around COVID? Are people following the rules?
Mel: People are compliant. We’ve gotten a couple emails reminding us to stay socially distant and telling people who are running to wear masks because they could spray droplets. Everyone is really good with the masking.
Sean: I don’t think a lot of people are afraid of COVID as much as they are afraid of being sent home. There’s this sensation of safety on campus because everyone’s being tested so much. Among the people I’ve talked to, there’s a general consensus that we’re safer here at Yale than we’d be in our hometowns. That has also led to some reckless behavior — like I’ve observed some people not following the rules to a T.
Alex: In my suite there’s a lot of varying levels of comfort on coronavirus, and we had to set our boundaries. Sometimes they don’t really align with mine, which is fine — I respect it — but that’s another thing first years have to deal with.
Jamie: The biggest thing I’ve seen so far is someone standing too close and someone else reminding them to be six feet apart. It’s pretty standard that people are generally following the rules.
Caroline: We had to fill out a survey about personal boundaries with COVID before we got suitemates, so that helped pair us with people who had similar ideas about interaction.
Mel: I’m wondering, do you all think that has to do with personal and family health circumstances? Like if someone has asthma or has a family member over 60?
Sean: Yeah, I think that has a lot to do with it. Definitely people from areas who have been hit significantly harder by the pandemic have been more cautious. Most people don’t seem concerned for their safety, but those people generally are.
Ella: What’s it been like trying to exist as a Yale student within the city of New Haven during this time? Do you feel a strong city-campus divide, especially as Yale students are being given such robust access to testing and other resources?
Mel: We literally have not gone into New Haven. I was here for maybe an hour at the bookstore, then I moved in.
Caroline: We will be very separated from New Haven this semester. We aren’t really allowed to interact with the community, and we won’t be here very long. Our class will likely have more of a division between us and New Haven as a city.
Alex: I’m not from New Haven, but I wonder how the residents view us, because we came in huge flocks, and I’m not sure if they were very excited to have 1400 students from all over the country come into their community, when they are doing well with COVID. If I was scared of COVID, I would not be too happy with the influx of different people. I hope it doesn’t create tension between locals and students. I hope we work to look out for the community and we don’t do stupid things. I’d hate to be the reason why New Haven suffers, or for the locals to secretly hate us.
Sean: When I did FOCUS, I got really excited to get involved with the New Haven community. But the pandemic definitely complicates things. If I put myself out there, am I endangering the population of the university and of New Haven as a whole? For me, the pandemic is making that outreach — which is already so difficult — that much harder.
Ella: Even beyond community engagement in New Haven, are you struggling to have a sense of place here?
Jamie: I literally don’t know what’s beyond the walls of the courtyard, like absolutely no idea. I came in an Uber and my driver drove right up to the gate. Sometimes I point at random walls and ask people what’s beyond them, and most people don’t know, but some people happen to. I know in that general direction there’s an Indian restaurant, and that way there’s a church, but I don’t know.
Mel: That’s super dystopian.
Jamie: All the walls are so high, and you can’t see beyond them, and it almost feels intentional, but then you see the little gaps of businesses through the gates. I’m happy, but it almost feels creepy.
Mel: I think it’s really exciting that I can see the street from my window. Which is maybe a depressing comment.
Sean: A lot of other Yalies and upperclassmen talk about these places, like High Street, Cross Campus, and I’m like, what’s that? I have no idea where these places actually are. I feel very disoriented.
Caroline: In a weird way, I feel like this is the only world that exists. I feel like I’ve been here forever even though it’s only been six days. Time feels like it’s moving strangely, slowly and quickly at the same time.
Ella: Do you all miss home? Or did you feel ready for a change of pace after so many months in quarantine?
Alex: I was definitely ready to go to college. As my mom was dropping me off, she was like, “Usually I would cry now, but I’m just so happy that you’re leaving and you get something to do and that you’re able to go to college.” Half my friends are home doing online classes. It’s such a luxury to be going to college now. I do feel bad when I’m Snapchatting my friends from Trumbull courtyard and they’re in their room taking classes.
Sean: Quarantine has changed how I feel about my hometown, just from being stuck there for so long. I would miss it a lot more if I wasn’t forced to be there for months before I could go somewhere.
Mel: A large part of the reason why I didn’t take a gap year is because I’m an only child, and I’ve been at home for six months already. I just think I would be regressing into my childhood state, going backwards instead of forwards.
Jamie: During quarantine, home didn’t feel like home because we weren’t doing so great in Texas, and everyone’s parents were scared to go out. I did get closer to my family, which made it hard to leave. I got a new puppy, and I literally could not leave him. Here it’s like forced proximity. I’m almost never alone; I spend all my time with my suitemates or with my FroCo group.
Caroline: I feel really lucky that I’m here, but I’m going to disagree a bit with what’s been said. During quarantine I got closer to my family, which has made the withdrawal more than what it would usually be. I also do have a weird amount of free time so I am calling my parents maybe more than I should be doing. I don’t think that’s helping me acclimate.
Mel: I also think it varies by college. Silliman has done a really good job of keeping us occupied so that we don’t really feel too alone. I would definitely feel alone if I wasn’t so busy. And they gave us a Silliswag bag.
Jamie: My FroCos have been so cute. I love them so much. When we got here there was a T-shirt and they got us masks and a little flag. The other day, they banged on our door and gave us moose cookies. Today, we got outdoor blankets and a random sausage box. I’m not saying all the gifts make sense, but they’ve put in a lot of effort and they’re really cute.
Ella: Have you all picked up new quarantine hobbies, and are you able to do them at Yale now?
Mel: I’m making a sourdough starter later today.
Jamie: I’ve picked up a lot of different hobbies, because that’s just the vibe here, and there’s not a lot you can do distanced. I started playing Spikeball and frisbee a lot, because that’s what we do in the courtyard. Someone offered to help me play the piano, and I’ve just been playing new card games.
Sean: There’s a lot of positive pressure around getting those hobbies. Everyone here is constantly doing something, which can be a little stressful, but overall it’s great. It pushes you to join in.
Alex: I’ve been bedazzling a cowboy hat, you know, just the vibes. This is the cowboy hat, right there, and my jewels, and my fabric. Honestly, it’s really fun, because people really like bedazzling stuff, so they always use my jewels and glue. I’ve been trying to find little things I can do with my hands while talking to people in the courtyard.
Mel: My hobbies are antisocial compared to the ones you all mentioned. I’ve picked up baking. I can make a really good loaf of banana bread and the Bon Appétit Best Chocolate Chip Cookies. I also picked up Chloe Ting fitness workouts. If you know, you know.
Ella: Do you all feel pressure to enforce the COVID rules if someone else is not following them?
Sean: People have gravitated towards friends with similar levels of concern about COVID. The problem with that is that people who are more cavalier about the situation don’t associate with the people who are more cautious.
Jamie: I agree. The polarization happened within a day, and I haven’t seen that kind of mixing since.
Sean: And it does feel really awkward, joining this new social atmosphere, to be the guy who goes around saying, “Hey, make sure you have your mask on and make sure you’re six feet apart.” I can do that with people I know well, but I’m not comfortable just walking up to someone and doing that.
Mel: If I was concerned, I would go to a PL or a FroCo, because my PL’s and FroCo have all said that if you feel uncomfortable, just come to us because we will snitch on them, and we want you to stay on campus.
Sean: The anonymous sources Yale has provided to intervene are definitely valuable.
Jamie: There are good rules, and Yale is regulating us well, but some people take those rules very differently than other people. People are trying to find the balance.
Ella: What feels scariest or most dystopian right now?
Mel: Not being able to leave your college.
Caroline: In some ways, it’s like the Hunger Games. We’re all in this small area and it’s like, MAKE FRIENDS. It’s a little bit stressful.
Mel: We’re almost waiting for food to be airlifted in. I would not be surprised if it just dropped from the sky.
Sean: I think the knowledge that at any time you can be quarantined and forced to isolate. There’s obviously a need for that, but it’s a little concerning.
Jamie: The residential college culture is a little culty, and the fact that all of the res college spirit they try to build up is coinciding with the fact that we physically cannot leave our colleges feels a little trippy.
Alex: The email about the first case of COVID on campus was creepy. But other than that, I really enjoy it.
Jamie: I lied. I actually think the most dystopian thing is how we test. When we test, we have to kick open a door, walk into a tiny, trapped booth, and a guy just yells at us through a clear screen while we put things in our nose. That’s scary. I know they’ve probably tested a million times and this is the most safe and efficient way, but it does not feel good.
Ella: What gives you the most hope right now?
Jamie: Wherever I go, I feel like I have people I click with. I don’t know how they managed to do that, but I’m thoroughly impressed. I really love my suitemates and I really get along with my FroCo group. There’s probably more people I’ll get along with and be happy to meet once the gates finally open.
Alex: The connections and relationships I’ve made that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. Without the quarantine, I’d be talking to the same sort of people I’d be friends with in high school, who are very similar to me. But because we’re stuck here, you want to talk to as many people as you can.
Mel: There’s genuinely no one I’ve met and been like, “Wow, I really can’t stand you.” Maybe that’s a low bar, but it makes me hopeful for social life when all of this ends, hopefully fairly soon.
Caroline: What’s giving me hope more broadly is that places like Yale are trying to continue life as normally as possible, while also doing it in a really safe way.
Sean: Seeing people who are actually very concerned for the general safety of Yale is great, especially coming from a town where people weren’t really distancing. It’s really nice to see the vast majority of Yale students taking these precautions seriously, and doing everything they can to get us back to normal.
Alex: What gives me hope is the amount of restrictions Yale has. At first I thought it was extreme, but then my other friends who didn’t have those restrictions at their colleges got sent home. The fact that they’re doing all of this to keep us on campus gives me hope that I chose the right college. I feel like a really important part of the community. They really want us to be here.