When Will We Get Our College Experience?

Photo+courtesy+of+Gabriel+Benois+via+Unsplash.

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Benois via Unsplash.

Grace Gorham, Digital Director

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“It’s going to get better.” 

“Just hang in there – it’ll be over soon!”

“You’re going to be so much stronger after this.”

Rather than feeling motivated when I hear any of these uplifting statements, I now find myself feeling an empty pit in my stomach. 

It started out with just missing high school graduation. Just graduation, right? We can handle that. But now all of the sudden I’m in my sophomore year in college and I find myself alone in my dorm room yet again with teary eyes and fading hope, wondering if I’ll ever get anything close to a normal college year in my twenties. 

Whatever brief second of normalcy that came this past summer is gone, replaced by a complete deja vu memory of my freshman year winter. We had just gotten through the second summer of the pandemic, and we were able to find ways to keep ourselves at safe distances by being in small groups and outside as much as possible. But as winter crept in, isolation followed closely behind.

I cried so much that winter. My therapy sessions were mostly filled with silence as I cried, unable to put into words all of the sadness, frustration, and loneliness that I felt. I went through some of the loneliest moments of my life, and I learned how to find joy in little moments. I’d never wish it on my worst enemy – being a freshman in college in the middle of a pandemic taking online classes, getting takeout meals from the dining hall, and trying to meet new faces under masks. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. 

And before I go any further, let me say that I realize I could have it much worse. I know that people die from COVID, I know that people lose their jobs, and I know that there are terrible ramifications from this disease. But also keep in mind that even if COVID hasn’t affected you physically, financially, or socially, it has definitely affected all of our mental health in some way, no matter what stage of life you’re in. 

It’s mentally frustrating to me being in college during the pandemic because I know that the restrictions and changes to our college experience aren’t the college’s fault. It’s no one’s fault. But because of how strictly Randolph-Macon handles social gatherings and COVID policies, I know that I as well as many others can’t help but feel strong resentment towards the administration. It’s not their fault, but it’s also hard to see my friends at other colleges getting to have some normalcy in their experiences while I feel like I have had most of mine taken away. It’s hard to not take your frustrations out on the college. 

How can we be expected to pay full tuition and put in our whole-hearted efforts as students when we are getting only a portion of the benefits that a liberal arts college offers? 

I didn’t eat a single meal in the dining hall or step foot into any academic buildings until my sophomore year of college. Coming to school as a sophomore felt like I was a freshman all over again, except we were simply expected to catch up quickly on all our lost time, acting like nothing out of the ordinary had happened to us last year.

Should colleges even be trying to offer the “full experience” right now if the promise of that keeps getting taken away from us over and over again? I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place – I want to stay in school, but I also don’t want to waste money on something that I know I’m not getting maximum value from. 

Randolph-Macon needs to do better. As I keep hearing empty words of encouragement, I am told that my best interest is Randolph-Macon’s priority. But seeing how much my mental health has declined and my feelings about R-MC have changed ever since I toured here, I would beg to differ. 

I think that the mask requirement is okay. It’s understandable, especially when we are in class with our professors. But there is also a large amount of hypocrisy when it comes to the college’s COVID policies.

I submitted this question to the President’s open forum on Nov. 15, 2021: 

“Why is it okay that we have tailgates with hundreds of people all sharing drinks and packed into the same parking lot but the second a frat or anyone tries to have any other party/gathering it gets shut down? I understand that the tailgates are outside, but that honestly wouldn’t make a difference because everyone is still shoulder to shoulder. Sicknesses will still spread through sharing drinks/food and being in close proximity no matter if you are inside or outside.”

I received this answer from Dean Azdell: 

“Outdoor tailgates are different than indoor parties. The President’s Cabinet, alongside the Office of Student Life, is looking at options to create safe social events (First Friday’s) but the first goal of the college is in-person academics.”

An example of the crowded tailgate. Pictured from left to right: Catherine Soper and Natalie Knoke. Photo courtesy of @natalie__rk on Instagram.

I personally felt like this did not fully answer my question, and I feel like there are still parts of Randolph-Macon’s COVID policies that I do not understand. I understand that outdoor tailgates are different from indoor parties, as I stated in my question. However, there is still the fact that at both outdoor tailgates and indoor social events, everyone is sharing drinks and in extremely close proximity. Not to mention the fact that all of the students and spectators (many of whom don’t even go to R-MC) are allowed to use the bathrooms in Brock Center without a mask. During the first few games, there was someone handing out masks, but at the last few, everyone was allowed inside without one. 

This leads me to believe that the college cares mostly about money when it comes to restrictions. If we can’t work out in the gym without masks, why should we be able to be shoulder to shoulder with people at a tailgate? Tailgates bring in money to the school from alumni and donors, they bring in new recruits, and they sell tailgating spots. But the school already has our money when it comes to tuition, so they won’t lose money if they decide to change our classes to online, as they did this J-term. 

We are also allowed to take off our masks at events like the EDGE Bootcamp where there are hundreds of people in a room at once. Large groups of people sit right next to each other while they eat at Estes every day. We may not be in as close quarters as a social gathering, but we are still putting everyone at risk by taking off our masks in an indoor space. 

Lastly, I also understand that the first goal of the college is in-person academics. I came to Randolph-Macon because I knew that I could get a valuable education here. I was excited to be able to participate in extracurricular activities I love that would build life skills and prepare me for the real world. To me, R-MC offered something that not many other schools did – academics, extracurriculars, and the social experience that a small liberal arts college offers: creating close relationships both in and outside of the classroom.

By coming to college in person, we all understand that we are putting ourselves at risk by living in close quarters with many other students. If someone isn’t comfortable with this, I respect that. There are other options where they can pursue a college education online. 

I strongly believe that there are ways to be COIVD-conscious while still giving students some freedom and letting them participate in “normal” college life. There has to be a balance. While I appreciate the effort that the college is making to ensure that we stay physically healthy, I truly don’t think the college understands how their restrictions are harming students’ mental health. We can only take so much of the isolation, the back-and-forth between online classes and in-person classes, and following unclear, constantly changing policies. At what point do we start to learn to live with COVID instead of letting it control our everyday lives?

Randolph-Macon doesn’t realize how much they are damaging their reputation as a school by continuing to enforce such strict COVID policies. My hope for enjoying the college experience that I was excited to get at R-MC has been replaced with dread for finishing my last two years here. This is just my experience, but many of my friends have transferred because they are unhappy with the restrictions. I know that for me, personally, I don’t feel comfortable endorsing Randolph-Macon as a school to others because I wouldn’t want people coming to a school that I don’t love.