OPINION: Returning to campus will be more challenging than we think, but we can do it together

A beige building with windows is surrounded by shrubs and trees.
Returning to campus in the fall will be both an exciting and challenging experience for which students should prepare. (Jerie Wang • The Student Life)

In five short months we could all be back on campus — and if current trends continue, we will. This means moving into dorm rooms, reuniting with friends and getting used to classrooms full of living, breathing humans who don’t need to remember to unmute themselves if they want to share in a class discussion or wake up at 4 a.m. to log on to their first class. Or so we can hope. 

I’ve played all of these scenes in my head dozens of times, imagining what those first weeks back will be like and trying not to create a mental countdown, knowing that will only make the time pass more slowly.  

There’s something about picturing those first in-person classes — whatever form they end up taking — or my first shift back at the Green Bike Program that makes the endless days of Zoom somehow more bearable, as if I’m working towards a hopeful future that’s just around the corner.

But another part of my mind always reminds me that this isn’t the full picture. A year and a half is a long time. 

It’s tempting to assume that we will be able to smoothly transition back and simply resume right where we left off last spring. But the actual process of adapting back to life on campus cannot be left as an afterthought or something we’ll figure out along the way. 

By setting accurate expectations for what the fall semester will look like, and preparing accordingly, we can collectively create an environment that is both understanding of the challenges ahead and well-equipped to face them together. 

The campus itself has changed while we’ve been gone; dorms have been renovated, dining halls have been remodeled and new athletic facilities are under construction. And the student body will have changed too. 

Half of all the students on campus this fall will experience their first days at the 5Cs, and half of the students who emptied their dorm rooms and drove away last spring have already graduated, or will do so this coming May. 

This change is natural. A host of goodbyes in the spring and a new class of students in the fall are the most constant and predictable changes on campus in any given year. But this one promises to be unique, especially as the entire campus collectively works to get back on its feet. 

As a perennial optimist, I am hopeful for the fall and all that it may hold. As we prepare to return in the coming months, hopefulness and positivity will be our greatest allies, but so will a measure of realism. 

While some aspects of the transition back to campus will be as exciting as we imagine them, a set of challenges also inevitably awaits. 

In underestimating these challenges, we set ourselves up for a much more difficult transition back, filled with unmet expectations as we confront the realities of a campus that is different than the one we left, and the work that lies ahead to get back to normalcy. The process of preparing ourselves ahead of time is not a magical, cure-all solution, but it will be incredibly helpful in making the transition as expeditious and straightforward as possible. 

Approaching the fall semester, whatever particular form it takes, with understanding and a commitment to rebuilding community on campus, we can rise from this transition stronger than we were when we left. 

Community building is something I believe is already deeply embedded in the culture of the 5Cs. I encountered it countless times as a new student those first few weeks on campus, still adjusting, and still learning my way around my new environment. In those early days, words of encouragement, directions to my next class and a warm welcome into campus organizations I was interested in joining were pivotal in the process of adapting. 

While this strength already exists in so many ways, we must draw from it most deeply this fall. 

The task of understanding, on the part of both students and school administrations, will also be critical as the semester begins. Change is never easy, and in especially large doses, it can feel completely overwhelming. In the fall, this change promises to manifest itself in vastly different ways for different people. A commitment to understanding means accepting that everything will not return to normal overnight, and that everyone will need space to adapt to the change at their own pace. 

We have faced a barrage of unanticipated challenges in the past 12 months; we have had to scatter across the world, but we have also weathered the storm, together. In being there to support one another, we can begin the process of restitching together our campus community. 

The next several months will be demanding for everyone — students, faculty and staff — as we work to conclude what will hopefully be our last semester online and start planning for the fall. Despite the challenges that lie ahead, both expected and unexpected, I am excited and hopeful for what the future holds. 

If we can recognize the many changes on the horizon and draw together as a 5C community, we will be able to overcome the challenges of transitioning back to campus. 

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 lives in Carlsbad, CA but grew up in Florence, Italy. He is an avid reader and intends on majoring in international political economy with a minor in cognitive science.

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