As local vaccination rates continue to rise, in-person activities have resumed on the University of Richmond's campus. As a result, students have seen various changes in both their classrooms and social activities with the expanded freedoms provided by the fall semester plans.
In accordance with UR's physical distancing framework, student organizations can hold in-person meetings both indoors and outdoors. Additionally, almost all classes have been held in-person with no remote option for students being offered during the fall semester, according to the fall semester plans.
One of the observable differences between UR's fall 2020 COVID-19 restrictions and the fall 2021 restrictions was New Spider Orientation, which took place remotely in 2020 and returned to mostly in-person with masks in 2021.
Last year’s orientation sessions took place via Zoom amid stricter COVID-19 restrictions as part of the Red Stage of the distancing framework. As a result, the sessions primarily focused on delivering basic information about UR to students in the best way possible, orientation leader Hoor Ain said.
This year’s orientation focused more on the social aspects of coming to college and centered around giving students activities.
“There were social events this year that were better than any I've ever seen in orientation,” Ain said. “We had an arcade night where we had all of these old arcade games, like the concert that they had, they had a comedy show.”
In addition to New Spider Orientation, other parts of UR's campus readjusted their operations, and many organizations starting to make the transition back from virtual to in-person. The Weinstein-Jecklin Speech Center and the University of Richmond Writing Center, which have functioned in the past based on in-person conferences, were affected by the move to virtual meetings last fall.
“I think the quality of our consulting is hindered by the fact that we're online,” Lucia Orlandi, a speech consultant, said. "We really do our best work in-person. It's also a very relational job. We do like to connect with our clients and that's harder to do online.”
Last year, most presentations that students came to the speech center to practice would take place over Zoom, so having online consultations was effective, Orlandi said. This way, the speech consultants would be seeing their clients exactly how their professor would be viewing their presentation, Orlandi said.
Similarly to the speech center, the writing center was also affected by not being able to meet with students in-person.
“Having in-person meetings at the [writing] center, people can have the opportunity to have that face to face interaction," Maddie Olvey, a writing consultant, said. "The consultant can get a better sense for who the student is and vice versa."
It can also be easier to have a physical draft of a writing assignment in front of the writing consultant, so that the consultant can talk through it more easily with the student, Olvey said.
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Both the speech and writing centers are currently offering in-person and virtual consultation, Olvey and Orlandi said.
Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, students noted that there were some positive takeaways to virtual consulting.
“I think [virtual consulting] definitely taught me to be more flexible and adaptable,” Orlandi said. “I also think it taught me that the way we communicate is going to be forever changed. I do feel a bit more prepared for the way the world and the communication world is changing, being a speech consultant.”
For Olvey, working as a writing consultant during the COVID-19 pandemic taught her life lessons about setting and achieving goals.
“During COVID, I think a lot of things, even basic, everyday tasks can feel so overwhelming sometimes,” Olvey said. “Every single time you're trying to improve, it's all about setting sort of realistic goals for yourself. You kind of pick out the biggest priorities of your writing you want to improve upon, and you work on those things first.”
Other organizations were able to happen in-person, but all their meetings had to be outdoors. This was the case for the co-ed a cappella group Off the Cuff.
"Last year, we could not rehearse inside at all, which was awful," Off the Cuff President Layla Cobrinik said. "It was too dark and cold outside after classes, so we only rehearse one day a week."
Additionally, Off the Cuff members had to stand six feet a part from each other with masks on, Cobrinik said.
"It was really hard to keep up energy because you couldn't hear each other very well," Cobrinik said. "There there was no concert to prepare for, so it was sort of like we still wanted to meet, but we didn't really have much more reason to."
Off the Cuff also saw a drop in membership last year because auditions were over Zoom and there was no in-person SpiderFest, Cobrinik said. In total, Off the Cuff only gained three new members last year with only one person being admitted through the initial audition, Cobrinik said.
There has also been a drop in returns this year which Cobrinik believes is due to people overbooking themselves.
Despite the challenges, Off the Cuff is now able to do in-person concerts again, including one during family weekend, and can use a practice room again, Cobrinik said.
"Just being in a practice room again makes a huge difference," Cobrinik said. "There's just something about being all together in an indoor space and hanging out and singing that you really can't capture."
In addition to the shift toward in-person activities outside of the classroom, students have seen their classroom experiences change.
“Academics are harder because it's all in person," Ain said. "You really need to be more concentrated and everything."
Masks pose a particular challenge for language instructors, Cobrinik, who is a drill instructor for French, said. It can be difficult for beginner students to learn pronunciation and articulation when they cannot see their instructor's mouth, Cobrinik said.
It is also difficult for instructors to hear what other students are saying and make corrections because masks can muffle their voices, Cobrinik added.
Although there have been many challenges readjusting to both the classroom and activities, students said they were optimistic about the future.
"There were so many restrictions, so [now] it feels a lot closer to what a capella was before the pandemic," Cobrinik said. "I don't think it's quite there, but I think we're getting a lot closer, so I'm really happy about that."
Contact features writer Lauren Oligino at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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