Burnt out but hesitant to go back: UC Berkeley students reflect on year of Zoom university

Photo of masked walkers on UC Berkeley campus
William Webster/Staff

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Disordered sleep schedules, baths while in class, the ability to just “hop on” — as a full year of virtual learning comes to a close, UC Berkeley students are looking toward the future with eyes wide open, excitement in their voices and a hint of apprehension as they reflect on the ways the year has changed them, good or bad.

Most were not thrilled with remote learning. UC Berkeley students applied for an experience entirely opposite to the pandemic-ridden year that brought the stress and anxiety of public health. If campus sophomore Ze-Ning Ong could describe her experience in one word, it would be “yuck.” Students are ready to go back.

With that said, 2020 was not entirely the “wasted” year it’s been joked to be. For campus psychology student Dan Savo, it was learning to be OK with isolation. For campus freshman Veronica Fegley, it was learning to sew. For campus transfer student Elizabeth Roboz, it was learning about her Arabic culture. For many, it was growing up. 2020 brought an incredible amount of suffering, but also a sobering reality check for people learning how to take care of themselves. Looking after oneself possibly became paramount to maintaining your sanity after spending hours on the computer all day. 

Junior transfer student Olivia Kehoe found their solace in the Berkeley co-ops this year. Kehoe noted that overall, remote learning has been hard on everyone in their co-op, but the mutual support helped them get through the year together. However, Kehoe does appreciate certain aspects of remote learning that will become obsolete as we return to classrooms. 

“If you miss a lecture, most professors have them recorded,” Kehoe said. “And then — I guess this is weird — but I really like the chat function on zoom because you can have multiple conversations at the same time, and that’s kind of fun.”

Over the last year, Kehoe has put themself first. They try to walk three miles a day and have taken the time out to practice self-care.

“Just with online and the chaos of news and the heartbreaking stuff going on in the world, I think I’ve learned a lot about the necessity of taking care of myself, making meals for myself, getting at least five hours of sleep,” Kehoe said.

In a pandemic-free world, some people never learn to take proper care of their minds and bodies. Young adults notoriously have trouble taking care of themselves, balancing financial, social and professional obligations often for the first time in their lives. With all these constant responsibilities, people can lose sight of themselves.

After hitting a low fall semester, political science student Greg Ritzinger has also devoted more time to taking care of himself. Amid the chaos, Ritzginer moved to Berkeley, made connections and took on a busy schedule.

“I’ve definitely grown. Just through the conversations, through the material that I’m exposed to, and even the external validation of getting into UC Berkeley has all played into how I feel I can do and accomplish.” Ritzinger said.

When things become in-person again, Ritzginer is nervous about fitting his virtual schedule into a real one, as well as being able to make time for his partner. With that said, he’s not going to miss the anxiety that comes with making sure your camera and microphone are off.

For some students, muting their mics doesn’t come to mind because they’re able to skip their synchronous lecture and watch it at a more convenient time.

Ong’s biggest concern is actually making it to an in-person class since she “sleeps some time between 4 and 6 am.”

“I’m excited to go back. I really want in-person discussions because I feel I’ll be motivated to go,” Ong said. “But at the same time, when I look back at in-person I’m like, wow, that was a lot of walking. I woke up at like 9 a.m. I’m shocked I made it through that.”

Socializing has been a big fear on students’ minds as many feel they’ve lost their social skills. Freshmen are especially apprehensive about arriving on campus for the first time as a sophomore, possibly without the social connections most second years have already acquired.

Ong is scared about testing in a room full of people again, not fully remembering that experience. But at the same time, she’s realized how people-dependent she is, and that Zoom parties and Discord channels don’t really cut it.

South Central Los Angeles resident and campus freshman Kristen Menendez has also been feeling this anxiety.

“I looked at videos (of campus) and I’m like oh my god, that’s so many people walking. I envision myself looking small and having to look up at people, but I think that’s obviously a fear that’s unreasonable,” Menendez said.

Menendez struggled this past year with her grades, as fall 2020 was not kind to her family. As the academic year has gone by and her family has begun to recover, she’s been able to ground herself a little bit more by drinking more water and reading to cope with logging into Zoom calls from her kitchen every day. 

Fegley has taken Zoom as an opportunity to get ahead in her studies, taking on a heavy course load this semester while also taking on more responsibilities at home and working in the meat department at Vons supermarket.

“I’m in two places at once,” Fegley said. “This semester I took 20 units, and I’m not going to be able to hold that in the fall.”

Similar to Menendez’s worries, Fegley is also nervous about her decision to move into the co-ops and the new concept of coexisting with people who don’t have the same mannerisms and habits as she and her family do.

“I’m excited but at the same time, my house is chaotic and there’s only six of us. I can’t imagine 56 of us,” she said.

Freshmen aren’t the only ones feeling the nervousness of stepping onto the campus. Many rising seniors who transferred in 2020 are arriving in the Bay Area for the very first time.

“I’ve never really been to Berkeley let alone the Bay Area, and it was just driving through. I’m nervous about commuting through the area and getting lost. I’m bad at directions,” campus transfer student Christine Tunnell said. 

Tunnell’s Zoom experience was emotionally taxing, but she didn’t mind saving money on rent for the year by staying with her family in Orange County. There, she was able to swim at her local center as COVID-19 regulations were less strict than the ones in Berkeley.

While Savo used to depend upon social outings three to four times a week, he has turned to meditation and has become at peace with solitude.

“I meditated a lot — that mindfulness I didn’t really have before. For me, the biggest thing has been being happy being alone. Naturally, I’ve gotten a little more used to situations where if I’m alone, it’s okay,” Savo said.

With that said, Savo has also found the collective team spirit of Zoom to be comforting and still feels the Berkeley community in his bedroom.

“There’s a camaraderie among us all because we all know this is a sh*tty situation. We are all a little more sensitive to each other,” Savo said. “Everyone’s kind of like ‘no worries, this is a tough time.’ ”

Being able to stay at home has also allowed many to appreciate and spend more time with their loved ones, as this year has forced families to get to know each other better.

Roboz was happy she got to spend time with her family, particularly getting to know her father more, who retired at the beginning of 2020.

“We’re very family-oriented. In Arabic culture, for a woman to go off to college, it’s kind of scary. So I think the fact I can come home wherever or do school from home did add an extra layer of comfort for my parents, which is important for me,” Roboz said.

Roboz was also able to learn more about her Arabic culture through her father.

“The first month (of quarantine) was really fixated on me spending time with dad in a way I hadn’t before. It sounds kind of bad, like how did I not know him before?” Roboz said. “With the circumstances switching quite a bit, it gave us an opportunity that wasn’t there before, which then kind of led me to reading more about the culture.”

Roboz feels as though joining clubs has saved her from losing her social skills, and felt that having a bit more of a social spring semester has made her feel prepared for the fall. 

Students are scared, excited, nervous and above all, ready to jump back into the world. Undoubtedly, the first month of in-person school will be trial and error, and many are also fascinated by how that process will unfold.

“It’ll be interesting to see how people handle COVID still. We will (mostly) be vaccinated, but that’s not to say that it’ll completely go away,” Roboz said. “Especially the first few weeks, I am a bit nervous to see how that’s gonna play out. As much as I’d like to hope it’d be under control, a little part of me is thinking it might not be.”

Kehoe has their own doubts about the reopening process. 

“I’m nervous people will put too much stock in this reopening and be like life is normal, but life will never be normal. We’ve lost too many lives for it to be normal,” Kehoe said, “We’re gonna have to wear masks with each other. There is the possibility that if we don’t quarantine safely, we’re gonna have to do another quarantine. That thought is terrifying to me, and especially knowing there’s gonna be a lot of push back.”

Tunnell, on the other hand, is confident in the students here at UC Berkeley.

“I feel like there’s gonna be a lot of people looking to interact. We’re all gonna be hungry for some social interaction and I’m looking forward to that. We’re gonna be very considerate with everyone’s preferences,” Tunnell said.

Ritzinger is concerned with the more mundane details of school, but can’t help bursting from the seams with eagerness.

“I’m so, so, so excited. When things are new for me, novelty is huge. I like new situations. I think it’ll be a flurry of apprehension and anxiety because I know I’ll be late for a class,” Ritzinger said. “I’m so excited to see the campus filled with people; to sit next to somebody and chuckle; pass a message that’s not in the chat or electronically solidified for eternity.”

Students are excited to move forward, but after months of restrictions, they aren’t convinced everything will be perfect. They can’t pretend that the transition to in-person learning will be flawless. They have their worries about socializing and potential culture clashes, as well as being able to keep up in a physical, academic environment. Nonetheless, for many students, any tentative step forward is an exciting one.

Contact Riley Palmer at [email protected]