As Georgetown University first-year Dylan Arkowitz (COL ’24) watched his high school friends’ universities announce plans over the summer to allow first-years back on campus, he felt hopeful about Georgetown’s fall semester plans. But his hope was quashed in short order.
Georgetown’s July 29 decision to make the fall semester entirely virtual was crushing, especially considering several high school senior year rites like prom and graduation had already been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Arkowitz.
“It feels weird losing two things in completely different spheres. It’s a major transition period for us, and we lost both. We lost the ending and the beginning,” Arkowitz said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
In an attempt to emulate the typical college experience, Arkowitz spent the fall semester sharing an apartment with high school friends in Cambridge, Mass. After Georgetown announced Nov. 16 that first-years would not be among the group of students brought back to campus, however, Arkowitz decided to move to Washington, D.C.
Arkowitz said watching the social experience of other students who spent the fall semester in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area led him to develop a fear of missing out, and he chose to move.
“I see people making friends and connecting with each other and all the social life that’s happening in D.C. between all the Georgetown freshmen, and it makes me really sad,” Arkowitz said. “That’s my fear — that people have already made friends and groups and that there’s not going to be room for me. Of course, that’s not true, but it’s hard to brush aside that anxiety.”
Arkowitz’s fears are not unfounded; many first-year students have moved to the DMV in hotels for the semester in an attempt to replicate the dorm experience. Others have organized various meetups, including a cohort of first-years who visited Georgetown’s campus over Thanksgiving break.
Frustrated with virtual classes and worried that they may be missing out on the social life that other members of their class are enjoying, many members of the Class of 2024 have matched Arkowitz’s decision and, in an effort to save what’s left of their first year at Georgetown, moved to the DMV for the spring semester.
Six Months of Frustration
Prior to the spring semester, many students were dissatisfied with how the administration handled the virtual fall semester and the subsequent toll on students’ mental and physical well-being.
To first-year Kate Chesnutt (SFS ’24), who lived at home in Seattle during the fall semester and is staying put for the spring, the fall semester was characterized by constant at-home distractions and difficulties making friends over Zoom.
“It’s definitely been weird this fall. I know everyone’s had a weird experience. There was no way this was going to be normal,” Chesnutt said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “I definitely wish that I knew anyone in my classes. I would be doing better if they were in person because I can’t focus as well at home. It’s also weird not knowing anybody.”
Many first-years combated the oddities of their first semester of college by organizing regional meetups with other members of the Class of 2024. Other first-years were able to secure housing and meet their peers on campus.
Despite their best efforts to build community, many students, including first-years, struggled throughout the course of the virtual semester with mental fatigue and lack of social interaction, according to survey data collected by the Georgetown University Student Association.
Georgetown did little to address the challenges of the virtual semester and provide enough mental health resources for students, according to Nicolette Carrion (COL ’24), who lived at her home in New York during the fall.
“I wish they did more to accommodate and talk about mental health overall and really put those resources out there consistently,” Carrion said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “I wish they really demonstrated that they care about the students’ mental health situation right now.”
Throughout the fall and spring semesters, the university has endeavored to provide and expand mental health resources for students, according to the Counseling and Psychiatric Service interim co-Director John Wright.
“Since the start of the COVID pandemic we have had to find creative solutions to help our students manage these trying times, using a combination of telehealth and local providers when necessary,” Wright wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We are committed to helping Georgetown students live meaningful lives, be confident in their mental health and wellbeing, and feel supported by a community upholding the values of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
To address the concerns of mental fatigue, members of GUSA vocalized student opinions and needs to administrators as they met to discuss potential options for the spring semester. In response, administrators met with members of GUSA leadership and publicized the various options being considered for the spring reopening plan.
Prior to announcing its plan for spring 2021, Georgetown released six potential options for the spring semester calendar, including a plan with a delayed start to the semester with shortened breaks in order to disperse days off during the semester. In response, GUSA circulated a survey gauging support for each option.
Ultimately, Georgetown announced Nov. 16 it would extend the spring semester, despite feedback from the survey indicating this option was the least desired among students, and it also announced it would continue without returning first-year students to campus.
In response to its plan, members of the GUSA Senate released a statement Nov. 25 calling on the university to change certain policies during spring 2021, including adding more breaks, providing greater transparency regarding on-campus housing requests and including transfer students among those students returning to campus.
Though the spring reopening decision may have been disappointing to some students, the decision was made primarily with the safety of the Georgetown community in mind, Georgetown University President John DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) wrote in the Nov. 16 statement.
“These are profoundly hard decisions, and in navigating through this difficult time, we are guided by our first priority—the safety of our community,” DeGioia wrote. “We know how eager the members of our community are to return, particularly our first-year and transfer students who have had to delay the beginning of their time on campus, and the disappointment that comes with this decision.”
Although Georgetown’s decision not to welcome the Class of 2024 onto campus this spring was unsurprising, it was still disappointing, according to Maddy Callaway (COL ’24), who moved to Arlington, Va., for the spring semester.
“When I first found out, I kind of expected the outcome that we got, but I was still hopeful just for the slim chance that it would change, especially since so many other schools were open. It felt like we were kind of left out of the freshman beginning experience, so it was kind of a letdown just to hear the final decision,” Callaway said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
Fueled by frustration with their experience during the fall semester, many first-years took action to change their environment and moved to the D.C. area. Despite the continuation of fully virtual learning, many first-years said they expect being around other students in the D.C. area will enhance their college experience.
To Carrion, moving to D.C. during the spring semester presented the opportunity to change her surrounding environment and be more productive academically.
“I’m someone who thrives off of the environment around me,” Carrion said. “On campus, some people were saying that not only the environment changed, but just being around people who were focused on school, especially Georgetown students who are very motivated and can be super helpful, creates some semblance of a college experience.”
Yet, to other students like Arkowitz, the decision to move to the D.C. area was more socially motivated.
“Although I am moving there, I find it a little illogical because why move when you’re going to be online no matter where you are?” Arkowitz said. “Academically, it doesn’t make sense, but I see my move as more socially motivated.”
The fear of missing out, driven by seeing social media posts from students who lived in the area during the fall, was another factor, according to Callaway.
“I know there were already people living there during the first semester and people who took trips down there to meet Georgetown people, and you see them posting on social media,” Callaway said. “It just seemed like people were having so much fun meeting people, obviously in a safe way, and I wanted to have at least some form of a college experience that a lot of other schools are having.”
However, the influx of first-year students in the surrounding areas of Georgetown has also pointed to issues of privilege, Carrion said, especially for those students in different economic or familial situations.
“I think another unintended negative impact of Georgetown not opening campus is that it will allow the privileged people who can pay for apartments to have a great experience in D.C. while everyone else has to stay at home,” Carrion said. “Obviously, it’s great that they’re bringing kids on campus who have extenuating circumstances, but it still doesn’t make an equitable situation.”
Although the vast majority of students were not allowed to live on campus for the fall or spring semester, students not already invited back to campus could apply for university housing if they met certain criteria, such as living in dramatically different time zones from Georgetown or having a home environment unsuitable for online learning. Students who had been offered housing in the fall were also offered housing in the spring.
Max Preiser (COL ’24), who spent the fall semester in his home in London, secured on-campus housing after reapplying in the spring semester.
“I actually lined up off-campus housing with a couple of friends and had every intention of moving in there,” Preiser said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “Ultimately, I told them that I have to pick the on-campus housing because the ultimate goal is emulating the real experience, and living on campus helps with that.”
Other students, like Duda Figueiredo (COL ’24), facing the same time differences were not offered housing on campus, though. Figueiredo, who spent the fall semester living at her home in London, is now living in an apartment by herself in D.C. in order to avoid time zone difficulties for the spring.
“I had some classes that went until 11:15 p.m., and it’s just a little hard to keep as focused during that time, because obviously no one would be going to class during that time if they were on-campus,” Figueiredo said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
However, moving to D.C. in the middle of a pandemic simply isn’t feasible for every student. Chesnutt, who decided to stay at home for family reasons, hopes that when a return to campus is an option, there will have been enough students at home that adjusting socially does not present any issues.
“I’m sticking around at home in the spring, partially because I don’t want to abandon my mom because it’s just the two of us,” Chesnutt said. “I feel like there will be enough people who have been at home and are feeling the same anxiety about not knowing anyone when other people do, that I feel like it won’t be too bad.”
An influx of students, including first-years, into the areas surrounding Georgetown’s campus has the potential to impact the rate of COVID-19 infections in the campus community, especially as cases rise both in the Georgetown community and in D.C.
Arkowitz said that Georgetown’s free testing program was an incentive to move to D.C., as testing in Cambridge had been expensive and difficult to come by.
“I feel as though it’s selfish of the freshmen, including myself, to be like, ‘I need to move to party during a pandemic,’ but what really motivated me to actually consider moving is that Georgetown offers tests,” he said.
The testing program the university offered to students in the neighborhood will hopefully help to mitigate infections, and beyond that, students should be aware of their impact on others, according to Preiser.
“The testing program seems pretty rigorous, so I’d like to think that they’re being as responsible as they can, and people are cognizant of their actions. But I also know lots of people who have gone to Georgetown and gotten COVID,” Preiser said.
Even with rigorous free testing offered to students, though, the university community experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases in the first week of the spring semester.
To move to D.C. and live with other first-year students is to prioritize social and emotional well-being over physical health and take on the risk of exposure to COVID-19, according to Figueiredo, but the risk of exposure is still a concern.
“That’s something that’s a little worrisome, especially if I’m coming home to visit my parents later. I wouldn’t want to put myself in an environment where I would be super open to getting it,” Figueiredo said.
But for some first-year students, the move to D.C. seems worth the risk, even as the Class of 2024 remains scattered around the world, and Callaway hopes the fortunate few can have a livelier spring semester.
“For the people who are moving down, that’s very exciting, and I hope everyone gets to meet each other while staying safe. But there are so many people who aren’t moving because that’s just not possible, and I just hope they don’t feel left out,” Callaway said.