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The UW experience, pandemic-style — Corbett scholar Katie Read Kearney

Katie's roommates. Photo credit: Katie Read Kearney

April 15, 2021

I see myself as someone who is incredibly blessed and privileged. This past year has been easier on me than it has been for many others. I have been financially supported. I have been able to live with other people my age. I do not have any health conditions that make something as simple as going to a grocery store high risk. While I am privileged, I have still suffered. And I have never been more aware of how much others have suffered. Almost everyday I hear something that makes my heart break–someone had to drive their sick roommate to the hospital, someone lost their grandparents, someone couldn’t pay rent, someone was unable to continue their education because of the formatting of online schooling, someone else couldn’t see their family for months. 

This pandemic has taken a lot from me. It has taken away my ability to explore the world. It has taken away my ability to go out and meet new people. I ended a 4-year-long relationship largely because of the distance it created. It has taken away my ability to see my family when I want to. To see my close friends when I want to. I have lost family and close friends. My ability to feel safe just breathing fresh air. Spontaneity. 

And at the same time, there is a lot I have learned. About myself and my connection to others. I feel more attuned to what I want and my resilience than I have ever been before. I have never been more aware of the importance of positive mental health practices. I feel grateful for what I have. A home. The ability to adapt to online learning. Good health. An education. Access to therapy. This exchange experience, which has been a silver lining of this pandemic.

This pandemic has been one of the most isolating experiences and yet I have never felt closer to others. Despite the many different degrees of experience, there is common ground. We are all joined in this experience. 

I have had the unique position of living in a home with four other college-aged students during the pandemic. Four of us are University of Washington students this year. I am on exchange, and another is a transfer student. One of my roommates deferred a quarter so they could work and because they did not like the online learning format. With this blog post I want to shed light on how students have been affected by this pandemic, and various experiences each of us have had–the commonalities and the differences. I will be using aliases for each of the roommates that I interviewed.

Zoe, Julia Annabelle, Grace and I all decided to discuss and reflect on the impact of the pandemic together.

When asked about the struggles for our age group, Zoe chimed in. 

“We have to make a choice between keeping the people we love safe and limiting our social circle, or doing what normal 20-year-olds do, which is often partying, going out and experiencing life, and meeting new people. Growing.”

We had this discussion sitting together in the living room of the house we’re renting all together. 

Annabelle expanded on Zoe’s comment.

 “I’ve had burnout from so much screen time. I’ve had migraines constantly from looking at screens all day. Just so much of my life is happening online.”

Grace had just come out of a four hour lecture.

“It’s a big challenge to stay invested and to keep feeling like I am learning. Particularly when you have the option to pause, mute or double speed a lecture. It creates disconnect. Keeping your attention on the screen when you’ve already had 5+ hours of lectures that day, is really hard.”

We talked about what has held us in our day-to-day life to adapt to the online learning format.

“Trying to create a sense of normality and structure is so important. Going on a walk everyday. Leaving the house. Or just calling a friend on a certain day of the week. Have routines that make you happy,” Julia said.

Annabelle then shared her experience.

“I would say I’ve needed to be really busy to feel like I’m using my time. Over the summer I didn’t have as much to do or to distract myself with and it was bad for my mental health. I’ve found that through taking on as much as I can, and seizing this time to further myself professionally and academically, it makes me feel like I’m at least getting something out of this time. At the same time, I have to remind myself that It’s ok to not feel like I have as much capacity to get things done as I did before the pandemic.”

We talked about the positive aspects of this year.

“I think it has exposed some problems that were under the surface. In terms of access for students, especially with socioeconomic differences. Or even how hard it is with mental and physical health conditions or restrictions to maintain a normal school schedule and maybe some of these changes can be carried over to make things more flexible for people who need it moving forward,” Zoe said.

Grace nodded in agreement.

“Moving forward things will shift. I think we saw a little of that before the pandemic even hit, with technology being better integrated into the classroom, at least at UW we already had Panopto before. Professors just usually forgot to turn it on. And it was only really used for the big lectures” Grace said. “One of the big issues and one of the reasons why Panopto was integrated before COVID-19 was even remotely on the horizon, is that you got students with accessibility issues. You’ve got students who have health issues or are in the hospital, who still want to get an education. Seattle is really expensive. Many people cannot afford to live in Seattle proper. And that means it’s a big commute to campus. For people who don’t have time around their job, who don’t have the time or means to get to classes everyday of the week, having more access to online courses, having that option, could really increase people’s accessibility to courses. I think that sort of thing is going to continue where there is more awareness of that, and making sure that students have that option of remote learning.”

Grace continued.

“It’s made it a lot easier to find a time when everyone can meet. Because it does not require people who live off campus to meet on campus with everyone. It’s easier to work around class schedules when classes work asynchronously or have the recorded option. To get the entire group involved. However, for international students there’s widely different censorship laws. And last quarter there was a girl in one of my study groups who was living in China. Our main form of communication was Facebook Messenger. But with censorship laws, and time difference, it was hard for her to be at all involved. Massive time difference, as well as varying censorship laws make a huge difference to accessibility to certain sites. Even just within Seattle access to good enough wifi, access to a reliable computer, access to quality speakers and camera systems is an issue for many people. That’s hard.”

I asked them what they are looking forward to in the future when campuses reopen and there is herd immunity in Washington state.

“I’m looking forward to spontaneous social interactions. Because during the pandemic they’re so deliberate. You schedule a Facetime, you schedule a zoom call. Whereas pre-pandemic, I would bump into a friend in the lunchline and we would end up chatting for a couple of hours. So there’s so much less spontaneity now. I can’t wait to just run into people on campus again and chat with and give them a hug,” Annabelle said.

Grace added what she missed about campus life.

“It’s the communal feeling you get during exam weeks, during midterms season, that I miss a lot. While you’re in the library studying and you know you are all in the same boat. That atmosphere of concentration and trying to do your best, supporting the people around you. You have that imagined accountability to those around you” Grace said. “It’s fun to be on campus. There is something pretty unique about the one time in your life where a lot of the people surrounding you are in a similar stage of their life.”

Grace spoke about her favorite spots on campus for incoming students this coming fall.

“For studying I have two favorite spots. One is in the life sciences building. There are wide-open, massive windows. I grab a comfy chair and study. I like going there late in the day when the sun is shining through the windows. My absolute favorite is Parnassus Cafe. It’s one of the hidden gems of campus. It’s in the one of the arts buildings. It’s on a lower floor, but it’s super cute and artsy. It’s right off the quad, so a great location. It’s one of two cafes on campus that grind their own cafe,” Grace said. “Really nice people and a fun atmosphere. There’s art all over the walls, a little couch section. There’s always some chatter, it’s great.”

We spoke about what it’s like living in a house with 5 college students during the pandemic.

“The challenge is that we are all in our 20s and we want new experiences. There’s some tension always because things that would be so easy normally. But you have to have a conversation about basic basic things. In terms of COVID the more people the higher the risk. We’ve needed to be really deliberate about our communication around COVID, just because there’s so many of us. And we all have our things we need to do that do pose some risk. Pretty much nothing has no risk. So it’s just necessitated a lot of careful balancing and scheduling, and a lot more proactivity,” Zoe said.

“I would say we are in a very explorative, fragile stage,” Annabelle said. “We’re just learning how to be adults, but in other ways compared to elementary schoolers right now, we’re much more independent, we’re able to manage our own time during remote learning. And we’re able to try and make choices for ourselves. So in some ways that does make it a little easier. And while there are large numbers of college students going to parties, I think that on the flip side there have been a lot of people our age who have used this time to recognize the inequalities that exist in our world and dedicate themselves to being activists against these inequalities. Or who are now so much more socially and politically aware than they were before. The pandemic has brought to light a lot of these social inequalities, and in a sense that is a very positive thing.”

Annabelle finished the conversation off by reflecting on her year and her own personal growth.

“I’ve always been a more idealistic person and this pandemic has helped me come back down to reality in a lot of ways. It’s helped me develop a lot of resilience and to realize that life often doesn’t go to plan” Annabelle said. “It’s taught me in a lot of ways we’re in different boats riding out the same storm. I think this pandemic has allowed me to recognize how precious life is, and reconnect to that.”

The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington.