Students wear masks while studying in the library

Back to School … Back to Normal?

Fall quarter sees the return of in-person classes, and students look forward to a new college experience.

Photo: Karin Higgins / UC Davis

The scenes that define the UC Davis campus vanished for more than a year. The bike circle traffic jams, the lines for a caffeine jolt at the Coffee House, the packed lecture halls and festivities on the Quad for Picnic Day — all of it disappeared due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, those days are about to fade into memory. Fall quarter 2021, which started on Sept. 20, marks a full reopening of campus and its closest sense of normalcy since March 2020.

The planning for this moment has been underway for months, an all-hands-on-deck effort from across UC Davis to make the return of in-person learning as smooth and safe as possible. Think of it as a “new normal” in which masks will be required inside classrooms and COVID-19 vaccines are mandated. But the UC Davis that most people know, a campus bustling with nearly 39,000 students, will once again look familiar.

The reopening coincides with students hoping to be admitted to UC Davis like never before. As the pandemic unfolded, UC Davis attracted a record number of applicants to enter as freshmen and transfer students in fall 2021. 

Incoming freshman Olivia Chan said she’s looking forward to the fall reopening with a mix of excitement and a touch of nervousness. She’s ready to put the days of distance learning in the past, to enter an actual classroom with her peers.

“I’ll be in a brand-new environment with brand-new people, and immersed in this new environment after not being [in a classroom] for over a year,” said Oakland native Chan. “But I’m really glad and happy to go back, to go on campus. A lot of people a year ahead of me had to miss their first year of college. It will be a shock for me, but I’m excited.”

A student sits on his bed with a laptop

Mahiri Moore Jr. sits in the off-campus apartment that has been his classroom for the past year.

Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis

Before the world turned upside down

Rewind to early 2020, and winter quarter was well underway at UC Davis. Graduating seniors were looking forward to commencement ceremonies. The women’s basketball team had just won its fourth conference title in a row. UC Davis’ annual Picnic Day and the Whole Earth Festival were both weeks away.

But COVID-19 was emerging around the globe, and UC Davis experts were already being asked by media outlets to comment on the novel coronavirus. By the end of January, the University of California Office of the President had advised university affiliates to avoid all nonessential travel to China.

Then it hit close to home. 

I feel like everyone’s excited. It’s a chance for us to get our true collegiate experience before we go on to graduate school or our careers.

— Mahiri Moore Jr.

In February 2020, the UC Davis Health campus in Sacramento announced that it was treating the nation’s first apparent case of COVID-19 acquired by community spread.

A day later, three UC Davis students were in quarantine or isolation after one of them was possibly exposed to COVID-19 and subsequently exposed the other two.

Events unfolded quickly. Yolo County confirmed its first positive case of COVID-19. Within a few days, UC Davis stopped allowing spectators at sporting events and then suspended winter and spring sports altogether. Classes went remote. And with shelter-in-place guidelines issued soon after by Yolo and Sacramento counties, Chancellor Gary S. May announced the suspension of operations at UC Davis.

The resilience of UC Davis was about to be tested like never before.

“Working together as a community, in accordance with our Principles of Community, we will continue to adapt to these challenging times,” said Chancellor May in a letter to the UC Davis campus. “We will get through this, together.”

Aggie ingenuity and a dedication to public service emerged as a bright spot.

UC Davis was touted as a national role model for its response to the pandemic. Healthy Davis Together formed in mid-September 2020 as a partnership between UC Davis and the city of Davis, an initiative to slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus and beyond. The nationally acclaimed program includes public health messages, increased COVID-19 screening and other measures to encourage positive behaviors and lower the risk of spread.

The efforts seemed to make a significant impact. At many points during the past year, the test positivity rate for COVID-19 among the UC Davis community was well under 1 percent.

The student perspective

Even through the disruption of the pandemic, students had never been so eager to attend UC Davis. By January 2021, 105,850 applicants sought to enter UC Davis in the fall as freshmen or transfer students. The number set a new record, an 11.7 percent increase over the previous year’s 94,763 applicants.

As a whole, the University of California system logged a new record for fall 2021 admissions, with an 11 percent increase in freshman admissions over 2020. UC admission also saw record highs for California freshmen, community college transfers and students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

A student plays the cello

Evan Wu practices the cello at his home in San Jose.

Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis

The elimination of SAT and ACT test scores from UC’s admission process may have played a part in driving these record numbers. The UC system also made temporary adjustments to admission requirements, such as providing more flexibility with registration and transcript deadlines, and suspending letter-grade requirements for high school classes taken in the winter, spring or summer 2020.

Either way, students say they are eager to get back into a traditional classroom and learn among their peers.

“My senior year was pretty awful with distance learning,” said Emily Jajeh, an incoming freshman from Danville, who’s majoring in global disease biology. “I had trouble focusing online with a lot of classes. Being in one room the entire day was awful, so I’m excited to be in a new environment and at least will be with other people.”

Jajeh said she didn’t consider a “gap year,” or taking time off before starting her freshman year, unlike many other students across the country. According to an August 2020 survey by SimpsonScarborough, a higher education research and marketing agency, 40 percent of incoming freshmen said they were likely or highly likely to not attend any four-year college in the fall of 2020.

“Overall, my goal is to complete college within four years,” Jajeh said. “I didn’t want to prolong that time frame with a gap year since I intend to go to medical school afterward.”

“It’ll be like a culture shock. [But] It’s also exciting to be taking a first big step toward living on my own.”

— Evan Wu

Mahiri Moore Jr., a sophomore majoring in communication, said he looks forward to a fuller UC Davis experience starting this fall. He spent his freshman year taking classes remotely in his West Davis apartment. Like Jajeh, Moore remains focused on graduating in four years.

Moore found ways to thrive and stay motivated during the pandemic. In February, the Southern California native was selected by Chancellor May as his mentee in the Sacramento Kings’ Dream All-Stars program, which recognizes community figures and future leaders during Black History Month. He also stayed connected to campus by working as a special projects assistant for UC Davis’ Special Transitional Enrichment Program.

“Being in college was a big step, and then I was alone physically, and everything was socially distanced,” Moore said. “It’s going to be an amazing time [this fall]. I feel like everyone’s excited. It’s a chance for us to get our true collegiate experience before we go on to graduate school or our careers.”

Chan, who became the first Eagle Scout in the history of her Oakland troop during the pandemic, said she was concerned about not getting the full collegiate experience, but ultimately went forward with enrolling.

“Because UC Davis has a great plan for in-person instruction, a gap year didn’t seem like a pressing option,” Chan said.

Still, some students have expressed feeling a bit anxious with a return to in-person learning. Starting college can be challenging enough with navigating a new campus and making friends. Add more than a year of isolation and ever-shifting pandemic conditions, and students have plenty on their minds.

A student stands on the UC Davis campus

Maddie Sciortino on West Quad Avenue.

Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis

Shoes decorated with clouds, stars and the words UC Davis

Maddie Sciortino wears shoes she decorated herself.

Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis

“I’m just excited … I’m hoping to just adapt and make whatever’s thrown my way work.”

— Maddie Sciortino

Evan Wu, an incoming freshman from San Jose who’s majoring in economics, knows the upcoming year will require a lot of adjusting. He’s found some balance in his hobbies, including reading, aquascaping and playing piano and cello. But he knows overall this will be a freshman year like no other, from shifting to in-person learning and adapting to college life.

“It’ll be like a culture shock,” Wu said. “I kind of adjusted to being at home, and now it’s changing back to seeing people again. But I’m looking forward to learning in-person again. It’s easier to learn that way instead of Zoom. It’s also exciting to be taking a first big step toward living on my own.”

Maddie Sciortino, a transfer student from Fairfield who’s majoring in sociology, knows that the adjustment to in-person learning won’t happen overnight. She liked the flexibility of remote learning, especially with her work as a nanny. But she acknowledged the anxieties brought on by the pandemic, like forgetting to bring a mask to the grocery store or wondering if visiting with friends is safe. 

“With how much that year and a half affected us, it will take that much time or more to get over that anxiety,” Sciortino said. “UC Davis is doing a good job of reminding students to get vaccinated and stay safe. I’m just excited, and it’s a great time to embark on a new journey. I’m hoping to just adapt and make whatever’s thrown my way work.”

A student stands on a city street in front of a vintage theater

Olivia Chan in her hometown of Oakland.

Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis

The college experience begins again

The new academic year at UC Davis will, in a sense, welcome two incoming classes. A program called Aggie Refresh will be offered to all students who entered the university during the 2020-21 school year. It’s designed to help these students reorient themselves on campus and build connections with their peers.

Chan and Jajeh, who will be roommates with another student in the fall, have stayed connected through texts and group chats to get to know one another before they finally meet in person.

“I’m excited about living with two other people,” Jajeh said. “We’re texting once in a while to check up and see how everyone’s doing. It’s nice that we all want to get to know each other.”

Their college experience will be as normal as possible in the era of COVID-19. Since February, UC Davis’ Fall Planning Work Group of campus leaders has developed recommendations on such topics as in-person instruction, on-campus activities and research. 

Face coverings will still be required inside classrooms and physical distancing will be encouraged this fall. As of July 15, the University of California issued its COVID-19 vaccination requirement for all students, staff and faculty who returned to campus throughout the summer.

While the look and feel of the Davis campus won’t be the same compared to pre-pandemic times, the university will be activated again — the busy bike circles, the lines at the Coffee House, a bustling Quad on Picnic Day.

“I’m pretty excited now,” Jajeh said. “I think it was hard to feel excited about anything during the pandemic, and I wasn’t excited for college at all. Visiting the campus made me more excited. I could envision myself living there and what I’d be doing. I think it’ll be good for my mental health to be around people. I’m done with the pandemic.”