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Advice from students whose college experience was shaped by the pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, we spoke from time to time with a group of high school seniors about how they were navigating that final year of high school as the world was being upended by COVID. Now they're going into their second year of college, so this week we thought we'd bug them again to see how it's going and to ask what impact, if any, they think that very strange time has had on their lives. We were able to catch up with two of them - Aya Hamza, who is at the University of Chicago studying political science, and Madeline Muller, who is at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania studying Russian and comparative literature. Aya and Madeline, thank you both so much for joining us. Congratulations to both of you.

AYA HAMZA: Thank you for having us back.

MADELINE MULLER: Yeah. Thanks for having us back.

MARTIN: So since the last time we talked, you both started college. You both finished your first year. What was it like making that transition to college and what were the circumstances? Aya, don't you start? I mean, were the classes in person or was it sort of a hybrid? What was it like?

HAMZA: So to start, all our classes were in-person with a mask mandate in place, and that pretty much followed into winter quarter. But right before we were supposed to get off our winter break, a new strain of COVID had emerged and prevented - and presented a huge threat to the city of Chicago. And so they had pushed back our winter break, extending it. And for the first three weeks of our winter quarter, we were virtual. I was among the few students who had returned during that time in break, had moved back in early and was on campus during that small virtual period. And then students returned, and things were fairly back to normal, but even more cautious than I think to start with, because of that new threat that presented itself.

MARTIN: So, Aya, what was that like, though, being one of the few students on campus? Was that weird? Was it like the "Night At The Museum," that movie where, you know, all the statues come to life at night? Like, did it - how did that feel?

HAMZA: It definitely was a more still campus. And it was gorgeous, given all the snow. And in the time where school was in session, I was one of the few students on campus. There were - the dining hall was at a limited capacity but still functioning. And it was ironically a very good time for connection among the few students I did know that were here because we were, you know, of like a small cohort that had returned early. We got to bond fairly well. And I often say that changed, I think, the course of my first year in a large way socially. So not too much like the "Night At The Museum."

MARTIN: Well, that's great. OK. Madeline, what about you? What was it like for you? Now, Bryn Mawr, it has the benefit, I guess, of being kind of a smaller, kind of self-contained kind of place. So what was your experience?

MULLER: So Bryn Mawr also did have a mask mandate throughout the year. We had a - our dining hall was also a limited capacity for a time and was also required to wear masks within the dining halls when you were not eating. But overall, all the events I attended and all of my classes, they were in-person. There was an online option for students who did get COVID. But overall, the only thing it really impacted was theater, because the second semester, we did have to perform with masks on.

MARTIN: Yeah. That sounds - yeah. Well, you know what I'm hearing from both of you, which is kind of refreshing, I have to say, is that we've focused a lot on just how hard the pandemic has been on everybody. And it was hard. Some of you had family members who got COVID that you had to take care of. I mean, it was not easy, but what I'm hearing from both of you is - does this sound right? - like a sense of gratitude for what you were able to do. Does that sound right? Aya, do you want to start?

MULLER: For sure. I think, similar to what was mentioned about theater at Bryn Mawr, we had to be very cautious in organizing events after the omicron outbreak. For example, I'm on the board of the Arab Student Association, and so we had to be mindful of when we had events, making sure there are people who are willing to go outside, also having to switch to outdoor venues at times. But I think that - exactly how you're saying it - brought a lot of gratitude to the events we were able to have, and ironically enough, increased our turnout in a big way. I think there was a benefit in that people were more eager to be social. And I mean both those that are first years who are eager regardless, but also in higher class years. So, yeah, definitely a sense of gratitude here in Hyde Park.

MARTIN: Madeline, what about you?

MULLER: I definitely agree with Aya. A lot of upperclassmen who I talked to at Bryn Mawr referred to our class as kind of the most active class we've had in a couple of years, just because we wanted to do everything and interact with everyone and talk with people and just do all these things that we didn't get to do in quarantine. It was so amazing.

MARTIN: Gosh, Madeline, you know, I'm thinking - you're studying Russian and comparative literature. What's going on in the world has to be, you know, part of your mind. I mean, I think if the world were in a different place right now, do you think you would have been able to go to Russia to study by now, or would that be part of your plans or...

MULLER: For my school, my school is actually one of the eight flagship programs for Russian in the country run by American councils, which is very, like, I'm very grateful for Bryn Mawr's amazing Russian faculty. But I do think I would be studying abroad in Russia if the war had not happened. But I'm very grateful. They've done a great job of sort of facilitating conversation and just talking about the state of the world in general in relating to our studies.

MARTIN: Does either of you know anybody that hasn't recovered as well as you have from all the COVID shutdowns that you worry about? I have to say, we're doing a lot of reports about learning loss and teacher burnout, particularly in the, you know, pre-K through 12 years, lots going on there. Is there anybody who's on your radar? And it's OK if it's not, I just thought I would ask, you know. Aya?

HAMZA: I think a cohort that continues to kind of present an issue is a lot of the friends I've been hanging out with during Hyde Park summer have discussed how it's difficult to make friends. You know, a lot of them have cited having lost a lot of, like, social game during COVID and during quarantine. So that's one thing. And then not as much presently, but beginning of college, I think with both professors and students, we weren't sure how to strike the balance of having assignments that were due with a little less flexible of deadlines and meeting in person. And, you know, people were still catching COVID here and there and being sent to isolation housing. So striking that balance, I think, will continue to be an issue, as I know some people have been getting COVID more so over the summer with travel. And yeah, I think we will all be fine just relearning our basic skills along the way.

MARTIN: What about you, Madeline, anybody you worried about?

MULLER: There's a few friends who I know who have, I think, are suffering from a bit of burnout of just trying to do, like, everything all at once. Once sort of some of the restrictions have been lifted, and therefore are taking like a gap year or they're taking a bit of a time to, like, think about that, which I think is good. But I'm kind of worried about, like, people like that who may not, like, want to keep a gap year or able to take a gap year and kind of consider their options. And just - it's like once some restrictions are lifted, people wanted to do everything, and doing everything is exhausting. And I feel like a lot of people are burning themselves out trying to do everything at once, including teachers and students and college students and just, like, kids in general.

MARTIN: That was Aya Hamza and Madeline Muller. We've been checking in with them about how they're coping with the pandemic, and now they're both in their second year of college. Aya Hamza, Madeline Muller, thank you so much for talking with us. It's so great to talk with you again.

HAMZA: Likewise. This was lovely.

MULLER: It was awesome to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.