Thursday, October 21, 2021

A Rocky Start: Living through COVID-19 as a First-Year College Student

Genevieve Soh
Genevieve Soh, ‘24, is a student writer in Cendana. A starry-eyed storyteller, she loves seeking beauty in everything and transforming these discoveries into words.

Story | Genevieve Soh

Photo | Jameela Silmi

A treasure trove of student activities, lectures in grand performance halls brimming with eager young minds, daily self-service dining hall buffets with an endless flow of cuisines from around the world…

I reminisce on these exciting musings that had once buzzed through my pre-matriculation mind, as I watch my suitemate lay her plate down, piled high with boiled broccoli and carrots, sighing to me with defeat, “The dining hall uncle gave me too many vegetables again.”

Since January 2020, Yale-NUS College has adopted an array of precautionary measures against the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time I had moved into my suite in August 2020 to begin my first days as a university student, these regulations had only grown all the more stringent, to everyone’s dismay.

My family and friends were not allowed to visit the living space I would be spending my next four years in. To date they still do not know what my room looks like. In addition, as much as the Orientation Committee tried to make our first-year orientation as engaging as the previous years, playing games of slipper toss or the mass dance never quite felt as fun when we had to gasp for breath through a mask most of the time, or when I could not even see the faces of the fellow first-years I was meant to bond with through these activities. The downsizing of the A-Maze Orientation itself—a program that was initially supposed to be an island-wide activity—to a reimagined school-wide activity was an even bigger blow of disappointment for us.

My suitemate, Betty Wang ’24, also shares these sentiments. “Since my high school was more structured with strict timetables, and what I learnt and who I met in school was more restricted, I expected…more freedom in meeting people and doing what I want to do, and having more autonomy compared to back in high school.”

However, with the list of COVID-19 related restrictions on our everyday actions still present, it appears much of the autonomy us first-years had hoped to gain—even the freedom to sit close to our classmates—has been lost to the virus.

Being an avid foodie, one of the restrictions that devastated me the most was the downsizing of the daily dining hall buffet spread. I remember gushing over pictures of the daily Yale-NUS buffets, eagerly showing them to my parents and bragging in a teasing manner that I would be enjoying four-course meals thrice a day at my luxurious university. Now, looking back on the six months since my orientation week, the four-course meal I had dreamt of feels as far away as the end to this pandemic. 

COVID-19’s presence has caused the closure of numerous food stations in the dining hall such as the salad bar and cereal station, slicing the variety of cuisines served in half. Students are also no longer allowed to take food for themselves. Instead, dining hall staff scoop the food students choose and place it on a plate for them. The downside to this change is that most of the time, the food proportion on the plate will be one of two possibilities: a mountain entirely concealing the plate underneath it, or a single spoon’s worth fit for a serving at a five-star restaurant. 

Lectures and seminars didn’t escape unscathed either. Having suffered through a 7.30pm to 9pm Literature and Humanities 1 seminar every week last semester, I cannot help but believe that my surviving of late-night classes would have been easier had I not needed to wear a mask the whole time. Constantly feeling the warmth of my breath trapped behind my mask for hours made it monumentally harder for me to keep my eyelids from drooping every ten minutes when I was already exhausted, even though the seminar was one that I was genuinely interested in.

With a white piece of cloth plastered to the face of every student, the once interactive in-person seminars feel much more impersonal. My classmates all sit apart from me, the masks on our faces muffling our words and concealing our facial expressions. The unfamiliar environment sadly makes the discussion space in the classroom less encouraging of my shy self to contribute to as my classmates evermore appear as a tough crowd for my already insecure self to attempt to engage.

The constant restraint necessary for almost every activity on campus had me wondering if my start-of-school experiences were that different from my friends at the National University of Singapore (NUS), who were spending their first semester entirely through remote lectures and seminars. Tan Siow Huan, a first-year student in the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, laments that even though “doing university online was actually very convenient especially when it came to lectures, [it] also distressed me because of the lack of social interaction.”

“I did not know anyone in any of my modules and I felt alone and did not know if I was doing things right or missing out on anything I needed to know.” Tan concludes her reflection on her first semester that “[attending university remotely] clashed with what I expected university life to be—lots of interacting and socializing besides studying.” It is undeniable that annoyance and disappointment are the most shared sentiments amongst students encumbered by a global pandemic.

Each of us first-years came into university with our fair share of expectations which were unfortunately dashed by the reality of a pandemic occurring around us. I really do resonate with my roommate’s reflection that us first-years truly “don’t know what [Yale-NUS student life] was like in previous years.” We have no knowledge or memories of college life from a time before COVID-19. We are told stories from our seniors about university days we have not experienced, the endless salad bars and cereal stations in the dining hall, sitting shoulder to shoulder with classmates during seminars or lectures in a crowded Performance Hall, and inviting your family and friends over for a visit.

But at least we have these stories to remind us of such days that are worth looking forward to. They remind us that our college journey comprises much more than just a first year hijacked by COVID-19. 

Looking back, despite all the downsides the despised virus has brought to our college, I can still reminisce my first semester at Yale-NUS with a chest full of happiness. We may well be among the luckiest first-year students of 2020, being endowed with luxuries other colleges could not afford: professors who continue holding in-person seminars and lectures for our learning benefit (in a time of widespread Zoom lectures and remote classes), dining halls open three times a day to fill our bellies, and just being able to see our schoolmates (almost fully) face-to-face every day.

Although I sigh thinking about attending another seminar wearing the same mask and being separated the same way from my classmates, I soften up when I realize it is these very precautions that allow me to feel safe while a global crisis rages on beyond the campus gates. This indeed is a sense of security we are lucky to possess, one borne from the college’s earnest efforts in protecting us in unpredictable times.

So, even as we continue our natural human tendency to whine about the inconveniences of our first year at university, let us all just take a breath, and remind ourselves that things can only go up from here.

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