No one knew what to expect when classes began at Washington University in St. Louis in the fall of 2020. While students were back on campus and in the classroom, many aspects of student life had changed wildly.
For first-year students, life could be even more chaotic. They had to learn to balance online and in-seat classes, to live independently in their residence hall communities and to meet new people despite most activities being curtailed or canceled.
We spoke to eight sophomores at the McKelvey School of Engineering about what that first year on campus was like. Many said they felt that classes were easier to manage during the lockdown, thanks to both the flexibility of online schooling and an abundance of free time. And that things could be lonely on campus, especially once winter hit and students were stuck indoors.
But, despite the restrictions, many students still found ways to get involved, make friends and thrive academically. Read more to hear how students adapted to college life during one of the most challenging years in recent history.
Major: Biomedical engineering, minoring in anthropology
Hometown: Manhattan Beach, California
Last year was a rough one for Lauren Chao. A member of the women’s basketball team, she admitted that it was hard for her to stay motivated.
“It was very hard mentally to continue to go to practice and continue to lift, knowing that we weren't going to play,” Chao said.
Chao didn’t even get to meet everyone on her team until this year. The team, which comprises 17 players, practiced in small groups to encourage social distancing.
It wasn’t easy to connect with people on campus, either.
Despite the COVID restrictions, Chao was able to forge strong relationships with her advisor and professors which ultimately landed her a summer biomedical research internship at the School of Medicine and a Washington University Student Associate (WUSA) position.
Things are looking brighter this semester. Chao has enjoyed mentoring first years in their transition to college life. “It’s nice to be like an older sibling for my students,” said Chao. Outside of these extracurriculars, she is also a member of the Society of Women Engineers and other social clubs.
“I’m surprised by how easy it is to meet new people now,” Chao said. “Last year, we weren’t even allowed to go into other people’s dorm rooms.
As Chao looks forward to the rest of her time at WashU, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that she hopes to go to the national championships with her team.
“I want to get a ring,” she said. “I want to get a banner for WashU, and that's something that the team's been talking about for quite a long time now.”
How Lauren describes her first year at WashU: Fulfilling.
“Even though we did miss out on a couple of things due to COVID, I felt like WashU really delivered on the social, athletic and academic aspects of college life.”
Majors: Electrical engineering and computer engineering
Hometown: Denver, Colorado
As a high school student, Gabby Day had the opportunity to tour the WashU campus and see what an active community it could be. In fact, that was one of the reasons she decided to live on campus during her first year, despite the ongoing pandemic.
“I needed some sort of community that could hold me together given all the certainty from COVID,”Day said. “I needed to meet new people and get my life started again.”
Which wasn’t easy due to the rules the university put in place to encourage social distancing. Students weren’t allowed to visit other residence halls and, at the start of the semester, students were not allowed to dine outside of an assigned time. Nevertheless, Day was able to find her community.
“During my first year and semester, I was homesick,” Day said. “The people who really filled that gap were my suitemates. They helped me and supported me through a lot.”
Day said she hopes to continue finding herself and her place at the university.
"When I realized that I would need to form a new social circle in college, I was comforted by the fact that WashU is such a supportive, close-knit community,” Day said. “As an introvert, I had to learn to put myself in social situations where I might not be in my element, but in turn, I was able to grow even more.”
How Gabby describes her first year at WashU: Artificial.
“Everything was done from my dorm and in my head, and everything was done at two-time speed. Everything was restricted and restrained, tethered by the COVID restrictions, but what I could and couldn’t do.”
Major: Computer science and mathematics, minoring in music and physics
Hometown: Livingston, New Jersey
After an unconventional first-year of college, Drew Fabian was excited about starting his sophomore year at McKelvey Engineering.
“One of the things I was most excited about was in-person classes,” he said. “I felt like I hadn’t had a real in-person class.”
During his first year, Fabian took most of his courses on Zoom and wasn't able to take part in as many extracurricular activities as he would have liked. Now, in his second year, Fabian is in the classroom and the campus community. He even became a Washington University Student Associate (WUSA) leader, helping the newest class of WashU students adjust to life on campus.
In a way, the experience served as a second-chance for Fabian. During his own Fall Welcome, many of the orientation activities were either canceled or held virtually via Zoom.
“While I was working most of the events, it was kind of like being a first-year student again,” Fabian said. “I was able to form close connections with my first-year students when I was leading the meeting."
Fabian is enjoying his classes and his extracurriculars. He’s already learned a new programming language and joined the WashU improv team, Mama’s Pot Roast, which recently had its first in-person show in more than a year.
“I definitely had a successful first year, and one thing that was like a big part of it was being able to look to the next year and say, ‘okay, things will be better,’” Fabian said.
How Drew describes his first year at WashU: Lucky.
“I know so many other colleges didn't even have the option to be on campus. I felt like WashU was able to pull it together. I don’t think it interfered with my academics. I still have friends this year that I made last year.
Major: Computer science
Hometown: Oakland, California
Despite the pandemic and the disruption it brought to classes, Hjort said she found the time management part of college life to be easier than she expected.
“There was a lot of understanding academically, which was really appreciated,” Hjort said. “I'm sure some people needed that because they were at home sitting in their room.”
In fact, one of the things that surprised her about her sophomore year at WashU was how much extra time she had to spend planning around her coursework.
“Last year, a lot of exams were open-note, which would have been closed-note in most years,” she said. “Also, you were given all day to finish any exams.”
This semester, however, exams have returned to being scheduled at a set date and time. For Hjort, who works at a store off campus, this requires her to stay on top of her schedule to ensure nothing conflicts. In spite of that, Hjort said she’s happy for things to return to normal.
“Campus feels so much more full,” she said. “You can always tell what time it is by how many people are walking around. I like the feeling of me and these thousands of other people. I like the energy.”
How Vanessa describes her first year at WashU: Dynamic.
“With COVID, a lot of stuff was more chaotic. The university didn’t know much of what would happen when. There was a lot of times when they’d tell us something, and we’d have to react to that change.”
Major: Chemical engineering
Hometown: Northbrook, Illinois
Sebastian Klein didn’t expect to be able to work in a research lab during his first year at WashU.
“I emailed the professor expecting either ‘we can't do it this year’ or maybe ‘try again in the future’ because of COVID,” he said.
To his surprise, the faculty member was on board. During the spring semester of Klein’s first year, he worked in the lab of Richard Axelbaum, the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science, helping with a test of pilot carbon-capture technology.
“That was a lot of fun, and I think I'm going to try and get back into research next semester,” Klein said. “I definitely am surprised about how alive campus feels right now.”
Klein isn’t sure which specific areas he’d like to focus on, but he’s excited to explore them.
“There are other areas that I haven’t fleshed out, and I want to experience all that the chemical engineering department has to offer,” Klein said. “That’s why I chose to come to WashU; I like their focus areas.”
How Sebastian describes his first year at WashU: Surprising.
“There were a lot of aspects of my first year of college that I didn’t expect after hearing about the experiences of family and older friends. I am very grateful that WashU allowed students on campus, which was a surprise. I honestly had to cross my fingers and hold my breath because I didn't believe I was going to be able to go on campus until I set foot there.”
Major: Biomedical engineering
Hometown: Miami, Florida
Camila Maneiro was grateful for what the community the Annika Rodriguez Scholars Program provided her when she first started at WashU. The program requires students to take part in a separate orientation program, which allowed participants to meet before classes started. Maneiro also was required to take part in community service events.
“It was really nice to have that community coming in,” she said. “There were juniors and seniors telling me about things they were involved in that I might like.”
That said, Maneiro said she was looking forward to her sophomore year and the changes a less-restricted campus would bring.
"I was definitely very excited to not just make new friends, but to get out of my bubble,” Maneiro said. “I was very excited to move somewhere and meet people with different experiences.”
How Camila describes her first year at WashU: Experimental.
“Everything was very trial and error. No one had ever experienced it so no one could tell you what you were going to go through.”
Major: Mechanical engineering
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Clayton Miller, a member of the WashU baseball team, didn’t let the uncertainty of whether there would be a 2021 season get to him.
“We were really good about realizing that's not in our control,” Miller said. “Whatever happens, happens. We just had to prepare like we would have a season.”
Still, it was a season unlike any other. Since the UAA canceled its season, it was on the team to set its own schedule. And thanks to social distancing, the team was unable to stay overnight during road trips.
“We would be getting up at like three or four in the morning sometimes and taking a five-hour bus trip and playing two games, then coming back at like maybe midnight,” Miller said.
The schedule and uncertainty didn’t come without some benefits.
"Being a part of the baseball team is the main reason that I was able to meet people,” Miller said. “If I wasn’t on the baseball team, I would have had a harder time making friends.”
How Clayton describes his first year at WashU: Flexible.
“Class scheduling with COVID was different. We had to be flexible with the teachers getting used to things. It wasn’t a normal year.”
Majors: Computer engineering and computer science
Hometown: Bridgeview, Illinois
COVID restrictions made it more difficult for students to make friends last year, but Andrew Ortiz was determined to do so regardless. With no in-person Welcome events or roommates, making friends that first week required more initiative.
“That first week I told myself ‘Okay, I'm just sitting in my room. I'm going to go and talk to people,’” he said. “I went downstairs and saw some dudes playing foosball. That’s how I made some of my really good friends.”
He also made sure to take as many in-person classes as he could, as well as making sure he didn’t spend too much time alone in his room.
“I tried to get out as much as possible, whether that be studying, working outside, in the DUC or in the Edison courtyard,” he said.
This year, Ortiz is still making connections. He credits the in-person activities fair with helping him discover Club Baseball, through which he’s been able to travel and play other schools, such as Vanderbilt University and the University of Illinois.
“That would have never happened last year,” Ortiz said. “It's just been awesome doing that.”
How Andrew describes his first year at WashU: Adaptable.
“I feel like first semester I was more kind of like chill and laidback. I was fine with staying in my room and doing my own thing. Second semester, I started meeting new people a lot and making new friends.”