UC Berkeley undergraduates reflect on 2020-21 school year, returning to in-person instruction

photo of the campanile
Lisi Ludwig/File
After the completely remote 2021-22 school year due to COVID-19, several UC Berkeley undergraduate students reflected on their experiences, both virtually and on campus.

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UC Berkeley rising sophomore Derek Tan endured the first semester of his freshman year in quarantine as the quintessential young adult: by spending his days in the confines of his room at home, either watching lectures or playing video games.

“When COVID first started, I thought that it would be over during the summer and I’d have a normal college experience,” Tan said. “That clearly wasn’t the case.”

In the hope of gaining a semblance of the “freshman experience,” he moved into a triple room residence hall that had been converted to a single room in Unit 3 for the spring semester.

When Tan first came to campus, he said he was “pleasantly surprised” by campus architecture and environment, having thought that based on Google Maps images, the campus would be “sketchy.”

After spending more time on campus, he recalled going to Golden Bear Cafe to use meal points and either sitting in front of Sproul Hall or on Memorial Glade with friends, where he would often see other students playing spike ball or relaxing.

Rising campus sophomore Elaine Tong decided to live at home in the interest of her personal health. While she said she does not regret her decision, she added that she felt sad watching campus life play out on social media.

“I thought it was the best thing to do because I knew that living in the dorms could be dangerous, especially since some students didn’t really obey the whole self-sequestering rules,” Tong said. “I was a little bit sad because I lost my opportunity to meet people in dorms and stuff, but it’s just that I prioritize my health.”

Aakriti Aggarwal, a rising campus junior, remembered her freshman year as one full of silent disco nights, llama petting zoos and a cappella competitions.

Being a chemical engineering major, she mentioned her first time entering a campus lab as a particular standout moment for her.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is what labs are supposed to look like,’ because I’ve only seen high school labs,” Aggarwal said. “Then I step into a university lab with these massive machines that I don’t know the names of. It was amazing.”

Both Tan and Tong asserted that they felt disconnected from campus and campus life during the pandemic, claiming that being on campus was essential to being a UC Berkeley student.

Tong added that although she was able to connect with people through discussions online, attending classes still didn’t “feel real.”

Rising campus senior Ashley Yang described the empty campus as a “ghost town,” calling the lack of interactions with other students “eerie.”

“When I was at home, I didn’t feel like I was a part of Berkeley at all,” Tan said. “When you’re on campus, you can meet people, you can walk on campus, you can really just experience Berkeley life.”

Tong mentioned being excited to relax on Memorial Glade and explore the campus. She also looked forward to meeting friends but said she was nervous about large gatherings.

Aggarwal anticipates entering her research lab for the first time. After completing organic chemistry labs online, she said she hopes to physically perform experiments in person.

Yang also mentioned awaiting being able to walk around, claiming that her “calves (were) crying from disuse.”

Aggarwal mentioned looking forward to casually linking up with friends in lecture halls, campus walkways and coffee shops. Yang called it “young people doing young people things.”

“I’m really excited to be able to have discussions in actual buildings and I’m excited to study in the libraries since I’ve never been in them,” Tong said in an email. “However, I am excited to experience Berkeley in its true glory and feel the energy around the school and the students.”

Contact Kavya Gupta at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.