Should you go back to college this semester? Advice from a May 2020 college grad
I graduated college in May 2020 and I’m honestly so grateful that I was fortunate enough to finish my degree before this fall semester.
I remember back in the spring when everyone was saying that the world would return to normal by summertime and that the social distancing and switch to online learning would be figured out by the fall.
As I’m still subscribed to my alma mater’s newsletter the only thing I can say now about all that is… yikes.
Yikes. Two yikes. Because… yikes.
I graduated in May but I still have many friends who, like you, are contemplating whether or not going back to college is worth it for the fall 2020 semester.
Most of these friends that are having a tough time deciding are upperclassmen or STEM majors who need courses like labs, practicals, or rotations in order to graduate and get outta dodge.
Even though I won’t be joining the fray with you, I thought I would offer my advice and insight into the question of whether or not you should go back to college this semester.
My advice stems from the fact that I took a gap semester between my first and subsequent semesters of college so I can speak to the anxiety you may feel about disrupting your flow of study. I also spent half of my college career taking classes online so I can speak to the experiences you’ll probably encounter if you enroll in distance courses.
So… should you go back to college this semester?
I feel like this question needs to be answered in several parts.
First, you need to assess your college’s fall reopening and COVID implementation plans. Like I said previously, I still read the news coming from my alma mater so I have a pretty good idea of what large, state universities are contemplating during this time.
Here are some the conditions that you need to consider you’ll be encountering if you decide to return to campus in the fall.
Face coverings will be required by all staff and student populations inside and outside college campuses
Face coverings may make presentations, discussions, or debates that are required for your classes more difficult to have in person. This is something that you should consider before making plans to return this upcoming semester.
While this may not be a huge drawback for some who’ve mastered projection with a face covering, some people have wrestled with having to wear a mask for long durations while out in public.
It is hard to speak to people while wearing a mask and it’s also hard to hear people while wearing a mask. In lecture halls where other student’s questions and insights are very important to your overall enrichment of the course, this is something to consider when making plans for the fall semester.
All residence halls will be converted to single resident rooms and residence halls will be kept at limited capacity in public spaces (i.e., community spaces, study areas, laundry rooms, etc.)
One of the things keeping many students sane during their time living away from home and in the dorms is the community that they find in their residence halls.
Resident assistants and community planning plays a large part in keeping students engaged, social, and positive about their university experience. These constant mixers and meetings also help your RA assess how you’re acclimating to college life, and whether or not you may need some extra help finding resources or groups to join.
If you’re a social butterfly who likes to congregate and chat with others in public spaces, or you relish the idea of throwing dorm room kickbacks with roomies and friends, you need to consider whether or not you’ll be able to handle or adhere to the social distancing rules for your dorm.
If you’re someone who struggles with isolating themselves when uncomfortable and finds it challenging to try new things when you don’t have support, then reduced capacity and limited interaction with community and peer leaders is also something to consider as well.
Dining halls will no longer service mass dine-in experiences; buffets and all-you-can-eat options will be restricted to ensure students are not utilizing the same tools and utensils
If you’re going back to campus and plan on purchasing any sort of meal plan, you need to truly consider how this change to your university’s dining hall is going to affect you and your nutritional needs.
I know as a freshmen I relied on the dining hall exclusively for all of my meals. I ate out maybe one or twice my entire first semester.
I had a three-meal-a-day plan and would rush to the dining hall in the mornings for breakfast, load up on a snack from the fruit and veggie buffet table, then go to the academic dining center for lunch and then return to res campus for dinner.
I would store fresh fruits, veggies, beans, and entrees in Tupperware from the buffet-style dining hall in my dorm to snack on when I studying late at night. This also came in handy when I had a 6pm lab that ended at 10pm which made it difficult to find a nutritious, filling meal.
The buffet-style, salad bar portion of the dining hall also helped me keep myself on track in terms of eating healthy. It also helped me avoid the high grease, high fat foods that are typically served en masse in the dining hall such as pizza or burgers.
If your dining hall has restricted service, which may mean restricted availability to healthy food alternatives and your ability to self-serve, you may need to consider how this will affect your health and your wallet if you return to campus for the fall semester.
Half semester in-person, half semester online after Thanksgiving break
One of the proposals that I’ve been reading about lately is that the fall semester will open with in-person classes, but then after Thanksgiving break, the semester will switch to online classes to reduce the spread of the virus from people returning from their travels.
With this in mind, you need to consider how this is going to affect the workload of some of those classes that you need to take (think discussions, labs, practicals, etc.) that are unable to make that transition to online instruction.
STEM labs already run from 3 to 4 hours so if you’re thinking of taking classes that have labs, consider how crunched for time you will be when that learning material is condensed in order to fit into a reduced semester of in-person instruction.
Also, if you’re planning on moving into the dorms, you may not be allowed to come back to the dorms after Thanksgiving break to collect your items. This will obviously affect the plans that you make for your living arrangements and the items you will be bringing with you when you move into your dorm.
These are but a handful of the fall semester proposals I’ve seen, but there are definitely more. Check your university website to learn more!
While these specific new rules and regulations may be tailored to my college, I think many of these proposals sound familiar to many students keeping up-to-date with their institution’s fall semester plans. These proposals echo sentiments that are being bounced around the planning committees of universities around the country.
While these new regulations are being considered to ensure the health and safety of the masses, as well as the functionality of universities, you need to make an individual choice about whether or not you will be willing to cope with or adhere to these new rules and protocols.
If you already struggle with having to wear a mask whenever you are outside your home, think of how you may feel when you are required at the risk of being academically excused for not adhering to that regulation.
I imagine colleges will be very intense about enforcing these new regulations to ensure they’re able to stay open for as long as possible, so if you’re not willing to commit to them 100%, it may be safer to either opt for all online courses or take a gap semester.
Taking a gap semester
I took a gap semester after my first semester at college.
I attended a college that wasn’t the right fit for me and I decided to drop out and take a couple of months to figure out where I was headed next in my academic journey.
Taking a gap semester seems scary since it feels like you are giving in to defeat or the challenges that college imposes, but in reality, it could be the best thing for you to reassess why you are actually pursuing a college degree in the first place.
After my gap semester, I was more confident in the courses I wanted to take and I was more willing to play to my academic strengths than listen to advisors who didn’t know me but who were just trying to push me through a program.
Taking a gap semester won’t negatively impact your ability to pursue a master’s program and it probably won’t affect your hire-ability either.
Many people in the real world value someone who is mature enough to make their own decisions, and a gap semester may be the right choice for you if you know that you won’t be able to absorb the material or won’t be able to focus with these stringent policies hanging over your head.
There is no shame in taking a gap semester if you need one. And personally? I would recommend it for the fall semester.
In saying that, I do realize that not everyone has the luxury or the ability to take a gap semester or take a break from your studies, especially in today’s economy.
Some students rely on student funding, federal grants, or scholarships for their housing and may rely on college resources to connect, socialize, and earn a living through work-study programs or on-campus job assignments.
If this is where you’re at and you feel like you have to attend the fall semester in-person, here is my advice on how to navigate the upcoming semester.
These necessities included a mini fridge and a kettle among other things that would help you eat clean and keep your body and mind healthy.
While I do highly recommend that wherever you live you own these necessities, I would not recommend hauling large or bulky items into your dorm room for the fall semester.
My first piece of advice is to pack light! Pack two week’s worth of outfits, a light and heavy coat, and the bare necessities you need to keep clean and healthy (i.e., laundry detergent, shower essentials, water bottle, etc.), but leave the giant bean bag, Keurig, and TV at home.
Many schools plan to close after Thanksgiving break so you won’t be able to return to campus for your belongings. This means you’ll need to pack up and move all of your stuff when you leave for Thanksgiving. If you have a bunch of big, heavy stuff, this may over-complicate your move and add unneeded stress to your mid-semester which is already rife with midterms.
It’s best just to pack light at the start. Trust me, you won’t even miss most of the stuff you thought of bringing as soon as your semester starts. You’ll be so busy with schoolwork you won’t even notice.
This is my advice to everyone going to college regardless of the condition of the world, but I feel like this is advice that needs to be shared twice as often in today’s age.
You will find that college is a place where it’s easy for health to fall by the wayside in lieu of socializing or studying. You need to stay healthy while at college. You need to stay healthy for your body, your mind, as well as your grades.
You will be surrounded by people with very questionable hygiene and absent social etiquette so you want your immune system to be as strong as possible. One way to achieve this is through constant exercise.
It’s super important for you to find an activity where you’re able to take your mind off of studying.
Studying and stress have very negative impacts on your health as well as your brain in general. Exercise is a fabulous way to shake off the negativity of the day and recharge.
I imagine university gyms will be operating at reduced capacity in the fall, but don’t fear because there are plenty of in-dorm workouts that you can do from your own room. You can also take up walking or jogging in parks around campus to take in the fresh air.
Any exercise is good exercise. Any amount of movement will prove to be very beneficial so don’t neglect it!
TALK WITH FAMILY OFTEN!
This is one aspect of college advice that I wish more people would follow regardless of the state of the world.
College is a very isolating experience.
You’re changing and discovering who you are. It’s very easy to feel like you’re alone, misunderstood, and that no one cares for you in this brand new sea of strangers. When you haven’t established a friend group or you are moving to a new city or state where you don’t know the culture, people, or general vibe, it’s normal to feel out of place and vulnerable.
Usually colleges address this by having frequent mixers and trying to get people involved in social activities, clubs, or school-wide festivals, concerts, or fairs. With the new regulations in place for fall 2020, I imagine most of these social opportunities will be cancelled or will be awkwardly allowed to continue with social distancing protocols.
This means that it may be harder than ever to make friends or establish a social group while in college. This also means that you need to rely on your family or your non-college friend group more than ever before.
Call your family often, Facetime them often, chat with them often!
You will find that they will help you feel grounded and not feel so alone while you wade through your studies. Fall 2020 is going to be a strange semester for all students, but you’ll be able to get through it if you rely on your established social network for support.
ONLY TAKE THE CLASSES YOU NEED IN-PERSON
If you are planning to take classes in-person, only take the classes that you really need!
Avoid taking electives or filler classes in person.
If you can manage to put off taking that biology class or that intro to stats class until the spring, do that. Only take the classes that are exclusively offered in the fall semester, or classes that have poor conversion to online instruction (i.e., labs, presentation capstone research courses, practicals, etc.).
Most students will be forced into taking classes online at some point this semester, but if you’re able to, only take a limited amount of classes in-person to avoid that dissonance that will inevitably come from having to switch to online courses in the middle of the semester.
HAVE YOUR DEPARTURE PLANS READY NOW
Even before you leave for school, take this time to prepare for what your departure plans will look like when Thanksgiving break arrives.
Will you be flying home? Will you be driving home? Will anyone be coming to pick you up? Will you be staying with friends? Will you be self-quarantining if you’re going to visit elderly or immunocompromised relatives? Where will you self-isolate? Will you be able to find a job off-campus?
These are answers that you should have in mind before you even consider leaving for school. Usually most students don’t solidify their plans for Thanksgiving until a week or two before Thanksgiving rolls around (me, I was that student), but this semester has to be different.
You should have a solid plan for how you’re getting home and what your life will look like once you are taking all online classes.
You need to imagine what your routine will be, how you’ll stay healthy, and how you’ll pay your bills.
Also, have a plan in place in case your school is hit with a wave of the virus.
It’s inevitable that these social distancing policies will fail.
There will absolutely be off-campus parties, kickbacks, and get-togethers which will facilitate the spread of the virus.
It will happen.
You need to have a concept of a plan of what you will do if your school or residence hall becomes a hot spot for the virus.
Do you have access to healthcare or health insurance? Is your family willing to take you back into the house if you’re sick or ill? Are you willing to go to college if there is a possibility you’ll be bedridden or quarantined in your dorm if you test positive for the virus? Are you prepared for your grades or GPA to be impacted by this?
These are also questions that need answers before you leave. If you feel uncomfortable with some of the answers to those questions, I think that’s a good sign to reassess your plans for the fall.
While my advice is based on what I would do in this situation, it is also rooted in my own college experiences. It’s for this reason that I will say that only you can make the decision for what’s best for you during this time.
Things may not be as bad as everyone is making them seem. There’s that possibility.
But there is also a possibility that things will be so much worse than we could imagine right now.
Take these next few weeks to really sit with yourself, your family, and your feelings about the state of the world to decide for yourself whether you should go back to college this semester.
Above all, good luck!