The new Yale community
Strolling Cross Campus at this time of year typically treats passers-by to a warm sight — frisbee games, prospective students touring the grounds, friends sitting together on the grass with pages of reading. This semester, the front lawn of Sterling Memorial Library looks the same at first glance, with people scattered on the grass and lawn games abound.
But on closer inspection, you notice the extra benches placed six feet apart and the masks covering students’ faces. Signs remind students to “practice social distancing” and to “stay at least two arms’ length away from others.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way Yale functions this semester. Remote classes and restrictions on social gatherings have limited how students are able to interact with one another. Yale required all enrolled students returning to New Haven to sign a community compact that delineates what is and is not allowed regarding social interactions and outlines potential administrative action in case of a violation. For the first two weeks after their initial arrival, on-campus students could not leave their respective residential colleges — making what is typically touted as a central pillar of Yale community life into an insulated bubble for the start of term. And while Yale’s strong student life has long been a selling point for the University, both student leaders and administrators are keenly aware of how the coronavirus pandemic challenges that strength.
“How we go about maintaining a vibrant social life at Yale is definitely a question that does not have any sufficient answers at the moment,” Yale College Council President Kahlil Greene ’21 told the News. “One of my FroCo friends said that he polled his kids to see who feared they would end the year without a single close friend. All of them raised their hands.”
PLAYING IT BY EAR
University President Peter Salovey emailed the Yale community on July 1 to announce Yale’s fall plans: a semester of primarily remote instruction, with an invitation to live on a socially-distant, pandemic-adapted campus extended to first years, juniors and seniors. This decision gave the University a little less than two months to completely transform in-person social events and activities to an online format.
In the period following the announcement, administrators and student leaders reimagined highly-attended programs like pre-orientation and the annual Extracurricular Bazaar to take place remotely. For example, outdoor experiences like the First-Year Outdoor Orientation Trips suddenly had to find a way to convert a backpacking and bonding experience into something that could happen over the internet.
Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the News that his office had modified “almost every event” to comply with COVID-19 requirements and thanked the staff and students who helped for their “ingenuity and flexibility.”
“Most community-building activities [will] continue online, and many colleges have added programming to engage students during this challenging arrival quarantine period,” Chun said.
Long before coronavirus hit, Chun made improving residential college life one of his priorities as Dean. He told the News that this aspect of Yale will continue to be important, and that virtual meetings will allow students to remain close to one another — even while physically far apart. According to Chun, the work of the heads of colleges, deans, staff and student leaders will help maintain the residential colleges as a “central circle” for students.
Still, Head of Pauli Murray College Tina Lu told the News that her college will largely have to “play it by ear.” She said that they’re planning on taking advantage of their outdoor space and courtyard to maintain the residential college community, in addition to “experimenting with virtual spaces.”
According to Lu, large in-person events will have to wait until public health guidelines deem it appropriate and that they’re “still working it out.” But, she said, the vast majority of their students seem to sympathize with the college’s administration and understand that they’re doing their best to make the most of what they can feasibly accomplish.
“I can’t wait to be able to throw another dance in real life, I can’t tell you how much I look forward to that,” Lu said. “But I also know that we can’t do that this year. We know that that’s just kind of a fact of our existence.”
Lu also said that she’s optimistic about the future of the residential colleges in the long-run. She noted that while this “is not the way” classes and residential college life should work, eventually they’ll both return.
“I think it’s like acapella,” she said. “I’m not worried about the long-term future of acapella. People love acapella music, and it’s [going] to be back. The colleges will be back … Yale’s going to be Yale, it’s going to be fine in the long haul. I’m sure of that, but in the short haul, we’re going to have to make some accommodations and cut some corners, because we all recognize that we have to keep one another in shape.”
According to YCC Events Director candidate Chloe Adda ’22 — who is running unopposed — she plans to adhere to all necessary health guidelines when planning events for the year. She noted that this would likely mean all events will have to be virtual.
Far from dismayed, she told the News that maintaining Yale’s social events is “completely viable,” adding that she encourages students to attend online events. Still, she acknowledged that virtual platforms are typically “awkward” at first.
“I think the main challenge and focus of putting on such events lies in encouraging students to be open to socializing via Zoom and other video platforms,” Adda said. “I believe many of us still feel awkward over video-call applications such as Zoom given the sudden change from in-person to digital.”
When Zoe Kanga ’24 first arrived at Yale, she was not allowed to be accompanied by her parents and was forced to stay in her room. During the 48 hours it took for her COVID-19 test results to be released, she told the News she felt “trapped” and “isolated.”
The News reached out to each of the first years running for a seat on the First-Year Class Council. The nine that responded, including Kanga, explained their transitions to Yale and expressed different views on how Yale should incorporate first years into the student community.
Kanga said that at first, her transition was “extremely difficult,”which sparked worry about the overall school year. Until now, she said, she hasn’t felt “like a true Yale student” since she hasn’t been able to leave college grounds. But she noted that the arrival quarantine helped strengthen her connection to her residential college and helped her get to know her peers.
The eight other first years interviewed by the News all said they feel especially close to their peers in their residential colleges. But Adia Keene ’24 also said that there seems to be a “divide” between the first years and the rest of the student body, mostly due to the arrival quarantine.
Social divides are especially sharp for students who are enrolled remotely, many of whom have had to invest significant energy into making friends online. William An ’24 noted that he feels connected to the Yale community through his classes, participating in FOOT and a groupchat made specifically for remote students. Still, he noted that he is had some “unique challenges” as a remotely enrolled first year and that transitioning to Yale had “not been a walk in the park by any means.”
Lu also noted that because of the arrival quarantine, she feels that the first years have been able to “really get to know each other.” She added that they seem to be spending a lot of time with each other online, outdoors and while social-distancing. Still, she said that the quarantine was “definitely a really, really big fact in all of [their] lives.”
“The transition has gone as well as expected, and some first years actually feel as though the transition was helped by the two-week quarantine,” said Grayson Phillips ’24. “…The start of college was primarily centered on the residential college and meeting your classmates. People that would otherwise have gone four years without having a meaningful conversation now have real connections, which was only possible because we were stuck inside together. While colleges are tight, it’s been hard to feel like a part of Yale itself at times, because without classes or the freedom to roam it doesn’t really feel like you’re a part of something bigger.”
First-year counselors, the friendly faces during the opening days of orientation, have worked to create a strong community around the residential college — where most first years spent two weeks upon arrival.
Unlike in years past, all first-year counselors held meetings with their students virtually. Grace Hopper First-Year Counselor Abdah Adam ’21 said that although it was at first frustrating to not see them in person, her group ultimately became very comfortable with each other.
According to Timothy Dwight first-year counselor Nishanth Krishnan ’21, there is a “collective effort” to help first years find their place at Yale, but everyone is aware that the public health guidelines create new restrictions and a “new reality” for Yalies. For example, he noted that many of the places where people typically meet other Yale students are “far less available for making meaningful connections,” like in class or in student organizations.
Several of the first years who spoke to the News said that Yale should attempt to host responsible, in-person social events as much as possible. Phillips said that he recognizes that in-person events would exclude remotely-enrolled students. The University should work to accommodate remote students and prepare students for a completely virtual semester should they be required to go home early, he said.
Still, the large number of virtual interactions has “[taken] a toll” on students, Phillips added. An overreliance on Zoom, he said, would encourage students to attend unofficial and unsafe events.
“I think that it’s extremely important that we still have a non-virtual social life while on campus,” Kanga said. “If it gets to a point that we are only interacting with people online, there is no difference between us being on campus or being remote. We all chose to take the risk by coming here, and I think that we should still have modified versions of existing traditions.”
“If it gets to a point that we are only interacting with people online, there is no difference between us being on campus or being remote. We all chose to take the risk by coming here, and I think that we should still have modified versions of existing traditions.”
—Zoe Kanga ’24
DISCONNECTED, BUT CONNECTED
But while first years adjust to life on campus, sophomores — the only class barred from campus for the fall semester — are establishing homes beyond Yale.
Luka Silva ’23 said he was at first “shocked” and “mad” upon hearing Yale’s decision. Now, he recognizes why administrators made that choice, even if he’s not “sure [if he] really agrees with their decision.”
Silva — who’s enrolled remotely from home — told the News that since everything is online, it’s easier for him to stay connected to his friends and student groups at school, despite his initial fears. He added that it’s easier since everything at Yale is online — if he were forced to be virtual while there were in-person or hybrid activities, he would feel much more “severed” from the Yale community.
“I do think it’s been tough to connect to classmates in zoom classes though; in person you can talk to your neighbors and make little comments and stuff while the class is going on or when you’re walking in/out,” Silva said. “I think virtual definitely just makes making new friends tougher, but works fairly well with allowing me to stay connected to the friends I already have.”
Isabella Huang ’24, a Production & Design staffer for the News, said that she chose to take a leave of absence since she didn’t see the value in paying tuition for online classes, in addition to not wanting to “miss out” on typical campus life.
She added that because most of her friends are also not in New Haven, she still feels connected to Yale’s community. Since most of her extracurricular activities have continued to happen online, she said that she’s still able to feel involved.
“I don’t think I’m missing out on too much if I’m joining the same Zoom sessions from home,” she said.
While the sophomore class is slated to return to campus for the spring semester, first years must return home and complete the academic year remotely. Chun explained that the decision about class restrictions for first years and sophomores, although difficult, was necessary — since all students needed a single bedroom, the campus would not be able to house both classes at one.
To that end, deans and residential college heads had to redo every housing assignment, making it imperative that students decide weeks before term whether they would live in the dorms. Only after administrators knew who planned to return in the first place could they assign first year students to their residential colleges.
“I regret that we are unable to house sophomores in the fall and first years in the spring,” he said. “However, reducing the density of housing was an essential requirement to bring students back to campus … Every step got delayed in a cascade. I’m grateful for the students’ patience and understanding.”
Also unique to this year is the unusual amount of students living off-campus compared to years past. Yale Director of Media Relations Karen Peart told the News last week that only 36 percent of on-campus housing capacity is filled, meaning that the number of students living off-campus has increased by 79 percent.
Ashley Dreyer ’22 told the News that she chose to live off-campus because it allowed her to live with her close friends while still seeing other people via socially-distanced get-togethers.
For Siddarth Shankar ’22, living off-campus seemed like the safer and more affordable option. He added that while living on-campus would have given him less control over communal spaces and food options, he’s now able to choose who he interacts with.
“I still feel connected to the Yale community, but the community looks and feels different than it did in the past,” he said. “The lack of extracurricular involvement and activities this semester is definitely something that I am missing a little bit. I rarely venture onto campus except for my twice-weekly testing appointments and I’ll still remain wary of being in such close proximity to many other students as facilities begin to open up.”
YCC Vice-Presidential candidate Matthew Murillo ’22 said he was “grateful” that he could afford to live off-campus with the room and board refund Yale provides students receiving financial aid. Still, he noted that some of his peers on financial aid found it difficult to secure off-campus housing.
For much of the summer, administrators feared what many students love: large gatherings — now in violation of both the community compact and public health guidelines. Recently, several colleges around the country — like the University of North Carolina and the University of Notre Dame — have transitioned to online classes after reopening for the fall due to COVID-19 outbreaks stemming from large parties.
Three first years and two juniors who requested anonymity for fear of punishment told the News that they had recently been to a party, in suites and off-campus spaces respectively. Although the parties were less than 10 people in each case, the events still violated Yale’s 14-day arrival quarantine.
“It’s just hard after not seeing people for so long not to socialize in groups,” one of the first-years said. “What did Yale expect to happen?”
Phillips said that while he doesn’t condone suite parties, he thinks “some willful neglect from the administration” could be beneficial, to a certain extent.
“Groups technically breaking Yale guidelines regarding suite guests but remaining relatively small [around 10] present a lesser risk to the safety of the community,” he wrote in an email to the News, “and by allowing kids to ‘get away with partying’ in a lower risk manner, the administration can avoid large-scale gatherings replete with the sharing of bottles and other activities with high risks of transmission.”
An told the News that many students chose to enroll remotely because they were worried about students not following through with the regulations. The administration should take suite parties and similar matters seriously, he added. Kenan Collignon ’24 similarly said that if students do not heed warnings by administration, “strict” and “immediate” action should follow.
Shankar said violating the regulations is “disrespectful” to the Yale and New Haven community, since doing so would detract from the progress the city and the state has made in curtailing the virus’s spread. He noted that many Yale students are from populations that the pandemic has not disproportionately affected, and that it’s likely many of them don’t know anyone who’s been impacted by COVID-19.
“Partying under these circumstances is not just a simple misunderstanding or a mistake. It is a deliberate action taken with malintent.”
—Siddarth Shankar ’22
“People downplay the severity of this disease and they continue to believe that life can continue as normal,” Shankar said. “Moreover, people think that their individual actions don’t make a difference — they think if everyone is breaking social distancing, then why does it matter if I do as well? Partying under these circumstances is not just a simple misunderstanding or a mistake. It is a deliberate action taken with malintent.”
According to a Yale site detailing the enforcement of the community compact, students found not in compliance will first answer to one of Yale College’s Health and Safety Leaders: Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd or Senior Director of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Cathy Velucci. Repeated or serious violations will be handled by the Compact Review Committee, which may result in administrative action like restricted access to campus spaces or more serious disciplinary action.
The site also notes that such consequences may be dealt with without the CRC, if violations are found through data capturing methods — like not filling out Yale’s daily health check while on campus. In an email to the News, Chun said that after the arrival quarantine, suite gatherings of 10 people are allowed if everyone wears a mask and stays six feet apart. Still, he noted that since on-campus gatherings are limited to one guest per suite resident, the majority of these events will have to be fewer than 10.
“All enrolled students have agreed to abide by the community compact, so I expect that they will support and protect each other by avoiding risky gatherings,” he said.
But Keene ’24 said that conversations with friends have shown just how unclear many students find the rules — including limits on personnel and visits to other residential colleges.
She added that moving forward, clarifying these rules is “essential” for Yale.
“If the administration wants to effectively enforce rules, they have to make sure everyone knows them well,” Keene said.
Kanga said that it should be “the responsibility of the individual or group” to realize the consequences and risks of their actions, and that the administration shouldn’t directly interfere due to “privacy concerns.” Leleda Beraki ’24 also told the News that such illicit activities are “more on the students” than the administration, who have provided students with the means to have a safe semester.
Andrew Aguilar ’24 noted that there should be more an effort to “[cultivate] a culture of accountability,” both within friend groups and the wider Yale community. While Kanga said that students who do not choose to stop breaking guidelines should be “removed from campus immediately,” Aguilar said that he hopes there can be alternatives asides from this like returning to on-campus quarantine.
“This is not our space, this is not a place for people to let loose and have fun, this is a city full of people who are endangered by our presence,” Beraki said. “This responsibility lies in the hands of every student. As cliche as it is, peer pressure works. If we all hold the same mentality that we want a safe year, then those who decide otherwise will feel isolated and follow suit. Being a part of the Yale community means thinking about the greater good and not ourselves, there is no better time than now to show how strong our campus truly is.”
Despite the challenges of this semester, student groups are hoping to at least break even — maintaining old relationships and perhaps building new ones with first years.
Still, these efforts are not without challenges. Yale Dems Membership and Inclusion Coordinate Kennedy Bennett ’22 told the News that many of their group’s friendships develop in settings unavailable this semester. The issue, she said, is not exclusive to their group. For many clubs, little events like getting a meal together or going to Woads are quintessential Yale experiences.
“It isn’t that our Zoom meetings are limited, but it’s the ‘something extra’ — like doing work together in a coffee shop or getting ready together for a Saturday night with a new friend — that’s missing.”
—Kennedy Bennett ’22
“It isn’t that our Zoom meetings are limited, but it’s the ‘something extra’ — like doing work together in a coffee shop or getting ready together for a Saturday night with a new friend — that’s missing,” Bennett said. “We are working to compensate for these experiences by encouraging members to participate in socially distant in-person activities…”
Still, she said that their group is “committed” to building a community and that they’ve added a mentorship initiative to add to their “social cohesion.” She added that they’ve also transitioned their social initiatives to online platforms.
Shankar — a member of Yale Jashan Bhangra — said that the team plans on allowing anyone to join instead of holding auditions online. He added that they’re considering hosting workouts and dance lessons over Zoom during the semester. While he said it’s not the same as in years past, their “strong, tight-knit” community will help maintain their bonds.
“We have learned and are continuing to learn how to build and sustain relationships in a largely virtual landscape,” YCC Presidential candidate Abey Philip ’22 said. “We are forced to carefully decide who we hang out with, how often we hang out with them, and how much time we invest in them. Through these past months, we have made time for each other, and we have found new and engaging ways to still connect with one another. This will be a challenge. But we will come out stronger on the other side.”
Phillip echoed that although Yale’s student body faces “immense challenges” this semester regarding maintaining its community, he believes that students have risen to the occasion.
Collignon said that since students will continue to want to socialize, it should be done in a safe manner, like through movie nights or small-scale sports. Ava Saylor ’24 and Andrew Du ’24 expressed similar sentiments, giving the examples of a water balloon fight or scavenger hunt respectively.
Yale’s administration also believes in the ability of campus student groups to maintain their respective communities — whether their members are in New Haven or elsewhere in the world.
“Because so many students are participating remotely, we ask that student organizations conduct their activities virtually,” Chun said. “We want all students to feel connected with each other and with campus life.”