This is what it’s like being back at uni for American students right now

One student said it’s like the Salem witch hunt

Imagine this: You turn up to uni after spending months of lockdown at home. You see your friends, start lectures, but then quickly you’re being told to quarantine in your uni home, your friends are being suspended en masse for partying and confirmed coronavirus cases on campus are reaching 1,000.

It seems like a crazy scenario, but it’s the reality for students who’ve gone back to uni in the US right now.

What’s happening on campus is making headlines, and could just be a sneak peek at the future for when UK unis return later this month.

The Tab spoke to students from unis across the US, who’ve recently returned to a uni experience turned upside down, to find out just what it’s like.

‘People are afraid of people with vendettas reporting them for not complying with the university’s policies’

There have been over 1,900 cases of coronavirus at the University of South Carolina since the start of August. 15 students were recently suspended for having pool parties, but that hasn’t deterred people, says journalism senior Shelby Beckler. On Labour Day, earlier this week: “Everyone was off, and there were a lot of pool parties and gatherings on apartment sites. People were not social distancing.”

In fact, there’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse going on – one bar which tried to circumvent newly-imposed limits got shut down by the police. “That was hundreds of students gathering in that bar. A lot of people are not taking it seriously on campus like they should,” says Shelby.

Shelby Beckler

COVID suspensions have introduced a whole new dynamic onto campus at New York’s NYU. Home to Gossip Girl and the Politician, NYU is no stranger to drama, but things have stepped with the introduction of an anonymous email where students can report those violating social distancing laws.

Abby Hofstetter, in her junior year at NYU, gives the example of hanging out with her friends in her bubble, and then someone seeing that on Snapchat and taking umbrage.

“Can we hang out or will someone report us? Because of the nature of the anonymous reporting it kind of reminds me of the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Hunt,” she told The Tab, “where people, if they really hated someone would go to the government and say ’that person is practicing religion in private,’ or ’that person’s a witch’ and they would just be like ‘okay, you’re right’, and not do an investigation.

“What a lot of people are afraid about is people with vendettas against others reporting them for not complying with the university’s policies, because we don’t know if there are investigations being done. We just know that there have been suspensions.

“It’s not like anybody will admit to that, but that’s what a lot of people have been afraid of.”

‘It’s a very different vibe for frats’

Last week, the University of Georgia reported 821 positive coronavirus cases in a five day period, and the uni’s President issued a warning urging students to “resist the temptation to organise or attend a large social gathering.

There’s a big divide in how seriously people are taking this, says UGA senior Henry Queen, with Greek life (that’s frats) seeming to be less bothered by the ongoing pandemic. “It’s a very different vibe for them. We are very careful, my friends and I, but then they kind of have thrown caution to the wind,” Henry told The Tab. “They really don’t care that much.”

Henry lives in a house in a student area – much like Cathays or Fallowfield – with a few other mates. On Fridays it’s usually buzzing with loads of parties. But now it’s toned down – friends from another house across the street come over, play board games, drink, and “just kind of sit around in a house”. One of the group hasn’t been able to hang out for two weeks because he has coronavirus.

People are going out to bars, but it’s mostly frats and sororities. “We don’t necessarily resent them they can do their thing, but it definitely makes it more dangerous for all of us,” he says.

At USC, Shelby thinks the divide is more based on what people think they have to lose: “What really, it comes down to, is many people are already virtual, so they’re not caring about the impact of people who do get to go to class.

“People that do have jobs and that do have to get regularly tested are taking it more serious, whereas the freshmen that are living on campus want that freshman experience.”

‘I had a bunch of friends in dorms who had inedible food delivered to them’

If a quarantine does happen and you’re stuck in your uni room, the food situation might leave you longing for pesto pasta. NYU students had to quarantine when they arrived in halls, and Abby says the food provided wasn’t great. “I had a bunch of friends in dorms who had inedible food delivered to them, who had no food delivered to them. A friend of mine who’s a vegan, they gave her meat,” Abby said.

“There was one friend of mine who’s Muslim. They gave her pork.” Once word of this got out, NYU sent loads of bags of crisps.

‘You’re projected onto the screen in front of the class’

All three students said they felt safe going into uni for lectures. However, blended learning has meant you can’t just sit in your room in your pyjamas, says Abby. For some classes, some students are in the room and some are on Zoom.

“You’re projected onto the screen in front of the class, which is very uncomfortable,” she told The Tab. “The first day of school was really interesting because professors didn’t really know how to work it. Everyone was starting at these nine students who were on screen.”

One of the main worries about going back to classes for Henry and his friends is that they don’t want to expose professors to coronavirus. “I personally of course don’t want to get it, I don’t think any of us want to get it,” he said. “It’s just we understand that there is a more heightened risk for professors.”

Of course, the result of this new uni reality has dimmed what should have been a big final-year blow out. “We just became really become disillusioned because of the fact that this will be our final year,” says Henry. “And this is what the reality is going to be like probably the entire year. And so it’s just bittersweet in that regard, because we have no idea what’s coming.”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

The differences between UK and US uni culture which prove we are not the same

The biggest differences between pulling in the UK and pulling in the USA

Students will have to stay at uni if there’s a COVID outbreak, says Boris Johnson