An oral history of UMass’s only remote school year

A first-year student versus a senior’s experience


The University of Massachusetts Amherst Skyline from South Field/ Wikimedia Commons user Eraboin

Rebecca Duffy, Campus News Editor

The 2020-2021 academic year has finally come to an end. It was a year unlike any other. During the fall semester, most of the university’s courses were taught remotely, with few labs and specific classes being held in person. All undergraduate students who had reserved on-campus housing, and for whom there was space available, were invited to live on campus under strict public health behavioral restrictions.

During the spring semester, approximately 60% of the campus’s residential population were given the option to live on campus. With a few COVID spikes from parties at the beginning of the semester, there was a two-week self-sequester, dining halls were grab-and-go only, and no guests were allowed on campus. Students said goodbye to spring break and 3-day weekends as they were replaced with two “Wellbeing Wednesdays,” which meant no classes for two Wednesdays of the semester.

On-campus and off-campus students were required to get asymptomatic COVID tested every week at the Mullins Center throughout the entire school year.

How has this year differed for students who just came to UMass as first-years, versus students who are on their way out as seniors?

Angela Bonnell is a freshman psychology major from Hopkinton, Mass. Meghan Sorensen is a senior journalism major from Tyngsborough, Mass. They both attended UMass this school year and shared how this year went for them.


What was your living situation like this academic year?

Angela: First semester I was at home, and that was pretty weird because it felt like I never left high school, like I hung out with all the same people, took the same roads to dance and everything. And it was fine. And then in the second semester, I moved to campus in a dorm by myself. And it’s very strange. You’re working on a very independent schedule, which has a lot of room for you to decide your own schedule, but you can procrastinate a lot too. So that’s a little difficult. And then everything happens in the dorm: I eat in my dorm, I workout in my dorm, I do my schoolwork in my dorm, I relax in my dorm, and I sleep. It’s a little weird.

Meghan: I was at Puffton Apartments. It was me and three other roommates. I live right next to Brandywine apartments and I have more of my friend group over there. So we decided to do a social bubble together, which was interesting. It was awfully sweet though because we kind of became more of a family than anything. We were exchanging recipes, learning how to cook dinner together, and we had game nights and stuff to try to create some normalcy with everything going on. It was really nice.

Angela Bonnell, UMass first-year student


Was it challenging that your freshman/senior year was affected by COVID?

Angela: It was definitely challenging. I used to rely on a lot of guidance, peer work and stuff, bouncing ideas off of other people. So that was definitely a struggle. But I think it might be even more of a struggle trying to get back into it now that we’ve all gotten so used to it. Like, everyone talks about having to sit down and take an exam, like in an actual classroom and everything strange that seems and how crazy that’ll be. So it had its benefits. But I think it’ll be honestly more difficult phasing out of it than it was phasing into it.

Meghan: I think it was difficult because I was a transfer student and I moved around a lot for internships. So this was going to be my last year on a college campus. It was incredibly difficult because that’s really all I wanted was to be able to have a year of normal. Just like, take classes and take a step back and just be a student because I haven’t done that a lot in my college career. It was really hard to focus because I’m taking many of these exams, and many of these classes from my bedroom, and I have a direct roommate. We have to organize our schedules by that. And if anyone comes over, the walls are thin, so I can hear them in the other room, which is fine, obviously, but it’s so hard to be like, ‘I need to focus and I need to do this right now’ when everyone is returning to life as normal around you.


Did you picture your freshman/senior year looking like this a year ago?

Angela: Not at all. I don’t think anyone thought this would last so long. I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like when there’s a full student population because I already look around and see a lot of people out my window walking around. But like, I’ve never seen it at full capacity with everyone walking to classes. It’ll look so much more alive when everyone’s back and normal.

Meghan: I don’t think anyone could have pictured this year. I think that we all expected that when we were going to graduate, we were going to walk and have our families in the audience… But it’s just so incredibly different. Even going into the job field, I’m applying to jobs that are all remote. I can apply anywhere in the continental United States right now and stay at home… I didn’t have any in-person classes. I was doing really everything from my bedroom. I felt so distant from my senior year, I think, more so than I ever have from schooling.


What was the best part of this academic year for you?

Angela: Being able to come to campus was just so nice to get out of your hometown to be able to meet as many people as you could, even if it wasn’t a normal year. Just the independence of being able to walk to the dining hall and get meals when I want, and feel like I’m living independently, even though it’s on a college campus. I was in my hometown for a while and everyone wants to get out of their hometown senior year… It was a weird feeling.

Meghan:  I think the best part was it really gave me space and perspective that I didn’t have before. I think going forward this will have been beneficial for me to really take a step back from my academics. And I know that I complain about having that space for my academics, but it also allowed me to really kind of be with myself and prioritize my life around me. And understand that if I don’t get the best grade in class, right now, that’s not the worst thing, because I’m also trying to plan with the rest of my life: family, relationships, and friendships and my own personal health. And it really let me take a step back from that as I was able to distance myself really from the first time. I’ve always been the person who would cry if I got a bad grade, like it cripples me. And for the first time, I’m just like, “you know, what, it’s not the worst thing in the world, because I’m trying, and I’m doing my best.”


Meghan Sorenson, UMass senior

What was the worst part of this academic year for you?

Angela: Managing all my school work and classes and trying to build schedules without any prior knowledge. And it was hard to meet over Zoom with counselors. It was like you kind of had to search for any information or guidance if you wanted it, they didn’t really put it point-blank. You kind of had to look if you wanted to get help. With online assignments and my first time using Moodle and Spire, I was just trying to find where everything is. They definitely didn’t make it blatantly obvious where all of your work was supposed to be.

Meghan: Quarantining was really hard. I am a social person and it’s really hard right now to not be around people. Our friend group had a number of COVID scares. And then there was one time where everyone got COVID … I know it was extremely hard on all of my roommates … In previous times when we quarantined and we all locked down, even going for a walk with them just offered me this relief of being somewhere and doing something. I know that locking down and sheltering in place has been hell for everyone. Even with roommates, you just feel so alone.


If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself before your freshman/senior year began?

Angela:  [The school year] is not going to be anything like what you thought it would be. Take it day by day, and just meet as many people as you can. If you have a bad experience, you can brush it off and go meet the next person who’s two doors down from you. There’s so many people that are all just trying to make friends. We’ve all been stuck in quarantine, we’re all a little awkward trying to finally be social again. So my advice would be to relax and tell myself every day is gonna be different. They’re all not all going to be good. They’re not all going to be bad. But everyone’s in the same boat.

Meghan:  I think that I’m really trying to trust in the universe and trust that I can’t plan every detail … I just need to let myself relax and not be so focused on my conception of success, especially if this success is fluid. It’s about getting out of bed and getting dressed, making coffee in the morning. I tried something different, I did something better for myself.  It’s just to trust that everything’s gonna be okay, even if you don’t necessarily feel that at the moment.


Email Rebecca at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @RebeccaDuffyTV

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