‘It’s difficult and it’s different.’ University of Michigan students talk about campus life during pandemic

From social life to class changes, students share their experiences

University of Michigan's central campus in Ann Arbor on Nov. 3, 2020. (Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – In March 2020, our collective lives changed forever.

Schools, restaurants, stores and libraries closed. Daily life began to feel like a redundant routine and between scrambling to purchase hand sanitizer and figuring out how to work remotely, many were trying to find a way to navigate this new normal. Some still are.

At the University of Michigan, the pause was equally jarring, new and confusing. College is a time to socialize and for many 18-year-olds, is the first time they are living away from home. Connection with others is crucial to the college experience, and students were having to come to grips with classes on computer screens and very little human interaction overnight.

We spoke with four undergraduates recently to hear their experiences with the big change.

Sophomore Michael Willard from Grosse Pointe remembers that first week after the university announced it was shifting to virtual learning and most students went home.

“It was kind of frantic,” said Willard, who lived in the Bursley residence hall as a freshman at the time.

Since his grandmother lives with his family, he said he was mindful to stay isolated throughout the pandemic.

U-M sophomore Michael Willard. (Michael Willard)

“I’m not going to be the person going out to restaurants or parties, that’s just not who I am,” said Willard, who now lives in off-campus housing in Ann Arbor with two roommates. “I had gone six months where I saw one friend once in person.”

Since then, he and his roommates have expanded their pod.

“We were not super close going in and we did not have the same mutual friends,” he said. “I see five to six people and they see five people. While it’s not perfect, I think the big thing to consider is we’re all seeing the same people consistently.”

Junior Kristen Shaw went home to Utah after Thanksgiving until the winter semester. While she thought she could get more work done there, in the end she found it distracting.

“You think you’d be more comfortable, but I think my mindset back there is: Relax, don’t do anything and hang out with family,” said Shaw.

U-M junior Kristen Shaw. (Kristen Shaw)

Back in Ann Arbor and living in off-campus housing, she said her focus on school has improved, but that isolation can take a toll on her motivation.

“It’s difficult and it’s different,” she said. “Being here in Ann Arbor helps me separate school from home.”

She has also found the emptiness of campus particularly strange.

“The Diag is empty almost every day which is crazy after seeing it full all the time,” she said.

The data science major said she and her friend group have been doing a good job at only seeing each other and following protocols like handwashing and mask wearing.

Shaw is an active member in the campus community, helping facilitate U-M’s First Year Experience. The annual program, which focuses on relationships, bystander intervention and community-building has shifted to a virtual format and now includes older students.

“I can’t imagine what first years are going through right now,” she said. “I was very lucky to have been able to do a year and a half of regular school, living in the residence halls freshman year. That’s where I found my core group of friends and that’s who I’ve been able to stick together with throughout this year and create a bubble.”

Social life and parties

Junior and pre-med student Brian Devorkin went home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin once the pandemic hit and classes at U-M went online. He returned to Ann Arbor for the fall semester, and moved into an off-campus house with four units and 17 students total.

Devorkin is in the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, and said that parties have been taking place throughout the pandemic.

“Are we doing things that we shouldn’t be doing? Sure,” said Devorkin. “I can’t argue that the best thing to do would be to sit in my room and avoid all human interaction. There’s also crazy parties with no masks -- and we’re not doing that either. What we’re doing is fair and we’re playing it safe in our own way.”

He said U-M campus police have shut down numerous parties, especially during the colder months when gatherings would take place indoors.

“This semester, I think that they know that it’s a bit foggier and with people outside, they’ve just been a little more lenient,” said Devorkin.

University of Michigan junior Brian Devorkin on the Law Quad on central campus. (Brian Devorkin)

He said his fraternity has tried to adhere to the latest state guidelines on social gathering numbers, which has been easier to do with the lack of freshmen on campus and the absence of game days.

Still, Greek Life at the University of Michigan has seen several COVID outbreaks, causing entire houses to quarantine. On Sept. 19, 2020, the Delta Chi fraternity hosted a party with Chi Omega sorority members in attendance. Greek affiliated students spoke to the Michigan Daily anonymously about the incident. Days later, a cluster of approximately 15 COVID cases was identified in Chi Omega.

This is not unique to the University of Michigan. Nationwide, outbreaks have been linked to Greek Life as well as off-campus parties.

Despite the school’s effort to enforce two separate stay-at-home orders, off-campus houses fall outside of the university’s control, said Willard.

Moreover, students said that many freshmen opted to live off-campus after the university severed housing contracts to mitigate transmission risk in residence halls.

In January, outbreaks were identified at off-campus houses as the B.1.1.7 virus variant began to spread among the school community. As time went on, outbreaks weren’t just limited to the undergraduate population. Cases began to emerge in graduate and professional student circles, causing the university to implement mandatory weekly testing for older students, as it had for undergraduates since the start of the winter semester.

Devorkin said more than half of the residents in his building have contracted COVID.

Across the board, all students interviewed said they knew multiple people who have tested positive for COVID-19 on campus this past year.

Study abroad cut short

Eden Blutstein was in Copenhagen, Denmark when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year. The junior from Maryland said she remembers the feeling of panic once it became clear how quickly the novel virus was spreading.

“It was absolutely nuts,” said Blutstein. “I went to sleep and a couple of my roommates stayed up to watch the news. At about 2 a.m. I was woken up. Everyone was freaking out. My parents were calling me. My roommates said we need to pack and go home, and we were scared we couldn’t get into the U.S.”

After a hectic night, the students got on a plane the next morning.

“Luckily, my abroad program continued to function online,” said Blutstein. “They adapted very quickly and I was able to get all the credits I needed. The difference between studying abroad and traveling with my friends to being in my parents’ basement was very intense.”

Eden Blutstein poses for a picture on campus with her commencement cap and gown. (Eden Blutstein)

Blutstein moved back to Ann Arbor for her final semester in August because she was already locked into a lease for an off-campus house.

“Unfortunately, the way housing here works for students, you kind of have to figure out where you’re going to be living a year in advance,” she said.

She said it took time for her roommates to form a united front on how to stay safe during the pandemic.

“We’ve definitely had to have a lot of roommate chats,” she said.

At the beginning of the year, they established a pod of five friends, and agreed to see acquaintances either from a distance or if they tested negative for COVID in the past five days.

Although she and her roommates were in a sorority, she said upper classmen tend to be more removed from Greek Life and don’t participate in parties.

“With my friends there wasn’t any pressure to go to that stuff,” said Blutstein. “The pressure was: ‘We’re going out to dinner indoors or someone invited us to their apartment.’”

Virtual classes

While Shaw said her program lent itself well to online classes, others had a different experience.

“It was difficult and there was a lot of burnout,” said Blutstein, who graduated in December with a degree in environmental studies. “It was hard to pay attention. All the classes that I took, the professors were wonderful and very accommodating but of course it wasn’t the same and I didn’t make friends in any of my classes. I didn’t meet anyone new or forge a relationships with professors.”

Devorkin echoed her experience.

“It’s just so dry,” he said. “There’s not a lot of body language coming from the camera. Some people don’t even turn them on. One of the most upsetting things to me is networking. We’re at U-M where so many of my peers are just so impressive. I want to get to know them and I’m missing all of that.”

Willard, who has the unique experience of studying at both the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the Ross School of Business, said one major difference between the schools is the use of a software that thwarts cheating.

Ross uses the LockDown Browser management system.

“It videotapes you, to make sure you’re not cheating,” said Willard. “It tracks your eye contact and it prevents you from using other browsers. There was cheating in the winter and they developed this to address it. It’s created an even playing field. As a student, while I hate parts of it, I understand why we need it.”

Mask adherence and vaccine sentiment on campus

Overall, the students said that attitudes on campus towards mitigation measures and COVID-19 vaccines are positive.

“I personally would feel comfortable sitting in a lecture hall if I was fully vaccinated,” said Shaw. “I’ve definitely found that I miss the social part of going to class. There is something about sitting next to somebody in a lecture hall, for what it’s worth.”

Devorkin, who is already vaccinated due to his work as an Emergency Medical Technician, said that anti-vaccine sentiment is rare on campus.

“I think there’s so few people in the academic environment who are against the vaccine,” said Devorkin. “I seldom to never hear people say that they won’t get it.”

Willard said he has found the student population to be compliant with safety measures on campus.

“It’s been very good on campus walking around,” said Willard. “Ann Arbor’s pretty educated, college students are getting educated, and I’ve never heard someone to say, ‘I don’t want to get the vaccine.’ Vaccine means normalcy and getting back to the normal college lifestyle.”

In March, the University of Michigan announced its Fall 2021 term plan, which includes a return to in-person classes, fans at athletic events and raising residence hall occupancy to 80%.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.