March 2020 is imprinted clearly in my mind. I was on edge because I was the last of my friends from home who found out how my school was going to handle the COVID-19 situation after spring break. I remember thinking, “There’s no way the school is going to cancel in-person classes for the entire semester.” As cases began to rise and everyone collectively realized how serious this virus was, however, it became increasingly clear that school would not be able to resume normally after spring break.
The days leading up to spring break were extremely stressful for me – I had just bombed an economics test, and I was dealing with a lot of drama among my friend group. I was itching to go home and see my family, but had I known that March 13 would be my last day as a sophomore on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, I would’ve spent less time thinking about going home and more time making the most of my last few days on campus before August.
As August approached, I realized I had to make a decision about whether I’d spend my first semester as a junior at home in Chicago or on campus in Champaign. You would think this would be an easy decision for me to make since I hadn’t been on campus since March. Why would I want to spend another four months home when I could be back on campus and have as close to a regular semester as I could?
I thought of a lot of reasons for staying home or deciding to return to campus, some of which I’m sure many other students thought of then, and even now as a new semester kicks off. First, a decent number of my close friends had decided to stay home during the fall semester, many of them who were supposed to be living in the same building as me. Second, I thought my social life would be practically non-existent. I’d be living in a single dorm by myself and wouldn’t be able to go out with my friends or meet any new people. Third, the little things that make the college experience a college experience, such as simply walking to class and sitting in a classroom with other students studying the same thing as you, would no longer exist.
These were all valid worries I had when thinking about coming back to campus, but eventually my decision came down to one question: how can I get the most out of my college experience when nothing about this year is normal? I knew that staying home already took away a big piece of the college experience, which is simply living on campus with other college students who are experiencing something similar. Among students on campus this fall, there was a mutual understanding that we were all experiencing something really difficult and we really had no idea what we were doing. Wearing a mask when around other people was almost like a non-verbal language that said, “Thank you for doing your part. We’ll get through this together.”
You can’t really have these shared moments with other college students if you’re not on campus, and looking back now, I am so glad I decided to be on campus during the fall. Sure, I didn’t get to see a lot of my friends, but I made the most of the time I could spend with my friends who were on campus. With the frequent and efficient COVID-19 testing at U of I, I was able to have small, safe hangouts with my friends whether we were taking a walk outside or having a masked study date.
Though my college experience hasn’t necessarily been “normal” this year, being on campus helped restore some sense of normalcy into my life as a college student. I’ve still been able to see my friends, I’ve been able to walk around campus and still feel like a college student, and most importantly, I’ve been able to do all of this while staying COVID-19-free.
Carolina Garibay is a student writer in ACES' Office of Marketing Communications. She is a junior studying journalism with minors in public relations and Spanish.