On campus or off? Freshmen reflect on the challenges and benefits of the decision of where to live

UMass freshmen discuss their college experience so far this spring semester

Collegian+File+Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Grace Fiori, Esther Muhlmann, and Sophia Tsekov

Whether freshmen attending the University of Massachusetts decided to stay home or live on campus this semester, both experiences have come with challenges and benefits.

For some, deciding to stay home purely came down to staying safe in a global pandemic. Ryu Huynh-Aoyama, a freshman management major, said he felt safer at home because he would only be held accountable and face the consequences for his own actions, not those of others.

If he had gone to campus, he said he would have worried about “if, that kid down the hall went to a party?’ That whole concept of risk always hovering over people who may be on campus is something that I didn’t really want.”

For some, this pandemic has emphasized how connected people really are and how one individual’s decision can have a massive impact on their family, friends and community.

This semester, many students have sacrificed an opportunity for a shot at a semi-normal freshman year experience in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep themselves and their loved ones safe

For example, transfer student Kelsey Paul, a freshman journalism major, has immunocompromised family members.

“I didn’t want to risk getting them sick if I ever came home for whatever reason,” Paul said. “I just felt like it would be safer for me personally, and others.”

Although most seem ultimately comfortable with their decision, there is still a bit of discomfort over the actions of some on-campus students and the subsequent administrative response.

“I would say I’m kind of disappointed with how I see… students on campus,” Huynh-Aoyama said. “Some students on campus, not tak[ing] any of the COVID guidelines seriously and put[ting] themselves at risk and of course other people at risk.

“But also [I] see it as an issue of the administration just kind of brush[ing] it off and not really address[ing] the problems, reinforc[ing] the rules or mak[ing] people accountable for their actions,” Huynh-Aoyama said.

For students who were originally on the fence about staying home, like Mano Dakshin, the new restrictions reversed their initial reluctance to stay home. Dakshin, a freshman computer science major, said “At first, I didn’t like it but now I am relieved that I made that decision.”

Like Huynh-Aoyama, on-campus student Maxwell Pozner, a kinesiology major, was underwhelmed by the administration’s handling of the on-campus COVID situation.

He said he surprised at how “a lot of people who I was talking to even when they got COVID, no one came to pick them up or anything or like they had to walk to wherever the isolation dorms are,” he said. “[UMass] doesn’t seem as prepared as I thought.”

Despite the risks of COVID-19 on campus, Pozner ultimately decided that the benefits outweighed the potential risks.

“I’d still rather be here than at home,” he said. “Obviously a new environment always brings new things with it even though there’s restrictions, I can still see friends as long as we’re wearing masks and as long as I’m here I’m happy. No complaints.”

Health played a large factor in students’ decisions to stay home, but the financial aspect was just as important in their decision making. For Huynh-Aoyama, the cost of living on campus just didn’t make sense.

“Most of the classes are fully remote, campus life is nonexistent and should be nonexistent. Since all school stuff is going to be on my computer screen, I might as well do it at home where I’ll have better connection to wifi,” he said. “Why spend the extra money on [living] in a smaller room?”

Paul held the same sentiments as Huynh-Aoyama. “I decided to stay home [because I knew] all my classes were going to be fully online. I just didn’t feel like paying for room and board…if I was going to be sitting in my dorm anyway.”

Similarly, Dev Ahuja, a freshman computer science major, said staying at home, “saved a lot of money.” He added that, “It isn’t worth spending the money here. It’s worth spending it somewhere else, productively,”

Huynh-Aoyama did spend money on a trip to Japan when the campus was closed last semester and he saw an opportunity to spend his fall abroad. “It was a really fun experience,” he said, “Without my decision to technically stay ‘home,’ I wouldn’t have been able to just nonchalantly go to Japan and do my classes there instead.”

Although Huynh-Aoyama was initially disappointed with the prospect of not being on campus, he said, “I think because of that decision I was able to do something completely different, which normally I wouldn’t be able to do. It was probably one of my best decisions I’ve made, and I’m really happy about it.”

Although he is back in United States for spring classes, he said there’s a chance he may return to Japan after seeing how the beginning of this semester unfolds.

Since he’s not on campus and many events and conferences he planned to partake in were cancelled, Huynh-Aoyama decided to take advantage of other opportunities and is currently working on getting his real estate license. Huynh-Aoyama planned to get this later in life but he thought, “Hey, why not just do it now?”

“[I] took the whole pandemic situation as kind of like a blessing. [I can] get a jump start on certain things that I normally wouldn’t have done, and I guess that’s something that I’m really excited for,” he said.

Paul, who works at L.L. Bean, said that an opportunity she normally wouldn’t have had is the ability to keep working during the semester. “Being able to work was something I was interested in. So being able to save money for college while I’m at home is great.”

Being on campus has not been without ups and downs. Pozner noted it was unenjoyable to eat alone in a dorm room and that he was frustrated when the campus recreation center closed.

“Exercising is really good, you know. [It] releases endorphins and it’s just a good break from just being in your room and being in class all day,” he said.

Despite the altered circumstances and limitations, he felt that while being on campus is “still getting an experience of being at UMass, you get to try the food and just the dorm experience itself.

“In the beginning, it was really nice meeting people and sort of feeling like I was actually in college and had somewhat of a normal experience,” Pozner said “But since they’re kind of shutting things down we still make the most of it.”

Pozner is staying positive, despite the increasing challenges, by seeing friends to take a break in between classes. “I like to just go outside, even. Something as simple as grabbing food, just a break from being in your dorm is always good.”

“I just kind of think of it as, it is what it is,” he said. “There’s no point in being upset when there’s nothing you can really do, so just go with the flow and hope things get better.”

For Jason Michalik, a freshman undecided in his major in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, the opportunity to meet new people played a big role in deciding to go on campus.

“I am glad I am here, there [are a] lot of fun people here,” he said. “But it is also hard because I’m supposed to be in my room, not doing anything except going to get food and COVID testing. So, not that I don’t regret coming here, but I wish that it could be a lot better.”

For students on and off campus, social media has played both a good and bad role in their experiences. For Michalik one positive outcome of social media has been that it allows him to be connected with other students.

“It’s nice to be connected with people. Like Snapchat is huge here, and I can meet a lot of people through that,” he said.

Reflecting on how to keep up a positive mindset during this semester, Michalik noted, “Facetime helps. I don’t know. It’s hard to [stay positive].”

The new restrictions have limited the already sparse opportunities to connect with other students. Michalik, who is in the jazz band, was hoping to be able to practice outside in the warmer weather with the rest of the group. With the recent surge in cases and restrictions, the future is even more uncertain and they have continued meeting online.

Michalik said that being restricted to the tight quarters in the dorm room can also pose an almost comical challenge when trying to practice his instrument.

“I play in my room. I told all the people on my floor, ‘I’m sorry if I’m loud’ and they were like, ‘No! It sounds great, I love being serenaded in the shower,’” he said “But it’s funny because people from like two floors away can hear me.”

Social media has often increased the challenges of being at-home this semester. For Paul, seeing what people are posting from on campus has been difficult. She said, “[I] kind of wish I was there but, I mean, I like being safe.”

Paul noted that living at home makes meeting people a challenge. “It’s so weird because I’m in spring semester my freshman year, and I feel like I haven’t really met a lot of people,” she said.

She also noted how difficult it was to make real connections with her professors and participate in group work and projects.

“I was actually kind of surprised at how effective their communications have been with transfer students. There were a lot of required activities and Zoom meetings,” Paul said. “Even since [January] I get weekly updates from peer advisors.”

Paul was glad that the University was sending tips and communicating with transfer students during what can be a rough transition.

Paul decided to join extracurriculars and other activities. She said, “transferring into a new school was hard enough as is. Never mind being home. [I decided to] try and put myself out there, enjoying some things while I can, even if it’s from home.”

Paul was glad that so many groups and activities were adapted to be virtual because it helps people who are at-home.

One thing the campus cannot adapt to be virtual, however, is UMass’s No. 1 dining. Although Huynh-Aoyama does not regret his decision to stay home, he said “I’m missing out on great campus food… It kind of sucks because… [my friends] are like, ‘Oh, you’re missing out.’”

And for Michalik, with restrictions limiting his daily life, the food made coming to campus worth it. “The food here helps. I wouldn’t have expected to be eating this much tofu, but it’s good.”

Grace Fiori can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @grace_fiori.

Esther Muhlmann can be reached at [email protected].

Sophia Tsekov can be reached at [email protected]