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Lucy Yang and Shirley Xiao are second-year computer science students at UC Berkeley.

They’re roommates with full course loads and, just like their freshman year, they’re living in Berkeley with busy schedules. Yet unlike last year, and along with millions of other university students, the lecture halls and libraries of yesterday have been replaced with bedrooms and living rooms.

Freshman year was an opportunity to see new people and new places — neither Xiao nor Yang is from the Bay Area — but now their studies are online and they see a limited number of friends if they have time outside of class to socialize.

“The classes are starting to feel like Khan Academy,” Xiao shared, referencing the popular, and free, online courses. “Not like UC Berkeley.” 

How are Cal students adjusting to a shift in their education that costs tens of thousands of dollars? And how are they staying safe in a college town with lots of opportunities for fun? For Lucy and Shirley, fall semester has been a combination of hard work, self-accountability and an expensive, yet diminished, college experience.

Before school could even start, however, Xiao and Yang had to decide where to do it.

Originally from Seattle, Yang flew back to Berkeley in order to stay focused on classes. “[In Washington] I had too many friends and too many distractions. I needed to go somewhere where I could go and study,” she said. 

After consulting with family and friends, Xiao decided to leave her childhood home in Los Angeles to benefit, like Yang, from the academic setting of a college town.

“Focusing is so hard when you’re in the same place every day. I’ve been working in short bursts and taking short breaks and so far that’s been working well for me,” said UC Berkeley student Lucy Yang. (Photo courtesy of Shirley Xiao)

Fortunately for Yang and Xiao, their parents are able fully to support tuition costs and living expenses. For many other students, as they weigh the costs and benefits of where to live and how they’ll study, the financial advantage of rent-free lodging at home is a big reason why Berkeley is sparsely populated compared to years past. Yang estimates that roughly half of her friends decided to stay home this semester.

Additionally, Cal is sharply reducing the number of on-campus residents to 2,200, compared to a normal level of 8,500, and rooms are strictly single-occupancy. Residence hall students are required to take a twice-a-week COVID test.

For Yang, the transition this semester has been less than seamless, and she finds that it’s been easier to fall behind with the schedule of pre-recorded lectures.

‘I’ve been working in short bursts’

“Online classes are way harder than in person, partially because it’s harder to learn online. If it was as effective, we would be doing [online classes] all the time,” Yang said. “Focusing is so hard when you’re in the same place every day. I’ve been working in short bursts and taking short breaks and so far that’s been working well for me.”

Yang wakes up at 9 a.m. most weekdays to have breakfast, and generally doesn’t stop working until 9 p.m.  

I try to make time to eat lunch and dinner. Somedays I literally forget to eat,” she said.

Xiao agrees that adjusting has been hard while acknowledging the positive aspects of pre-recorded lectures. Specifically, she can pause and rewind, which would have been impossible during a live class meeting. That said, both roommates are skeptical of high tuition rates in the face of Cal’s changing format

“I pay $20,000 in tuition for the most awkward Zoom calls ever.” Yang said. “I still pay campus fees and a transit fee even though I’m not going anywhere. It’s awful.”

The pre-financial aid tuition rate for Yang, as a non-California resident student, is $44,008, roughly $29,000 more than in-state tuition costs.

On April 23, UC Berkeley announced, along with many other universities, that tuition rates would not be reduced for the fall semester: “Mandatory university charges for tuition and student services continue to help cover ongoing operations such, as the delivery of instruction, and the cost of student services, such as registration, financial aid and remote academic advising.”

Yet, for Xiao at least, one of her classes in particular has been largely “understaffed and unable to help.”

“I didn’t know if I would’ve been able to stay productive,” said UC Berkeley student Shirley Xiao. “I needed the structure to grow as an academic and as a person.” (Photo courtesy of Lucy Yang)

In a survey class roughly 2,000 strong, students can sign up for help via a Zoom link, but might not get help in time. Sessions range from 10-30 minutes, and the queue wait time can be as long as seven hours — too long for many students with a myriad of academic responsibilities or student club engagements.

Additionally, Xiao and Yang believe course loads have increased with the online format. Videos that normally would have been viewed in class are expected to be completed before lectures and, in Xiao’s case, a two-hour midterm was assigned on a Sunday.

Xiao considered taking a gap year, but like many students caught in the higher education predicament, worried about falling behind.

“I didn’t know if I would’ve been able to stay productive,” she said. “I needed the structure to grow as an academic and as a person.” 

Though students like Yang and Xiao are using the college town setting to stay committed to their studies, other students are still using the space to host parties and large social gatherings in defiance of physical distance guidelines.

Frat parties linked to COVID-19 spikes

In early July, UC Berkeley reported that the sudden emergence of 47 new COVID-19 cases could be traced to “a series of recent parties connected to the Cal Greek system.”

Additionally, a New York Times article in August found that fraternities and sororities nationwide, ranging from the University of Washington to the University of Mississippi, have been linked to COVID-19 spikes.

When asked how Berkeley students were doing in terms of COVID precautions, both Xiao and Yang expressed muted optimism, but pointed to the Greek life system as more prone to social gatherings and/or travel in large groups.

“People are really sick of this. I understand how they feel,” said Yang. “They just want things to return to normal.” 

To help cope with the combined anxieties of school and the ever peripheral pandemic, Yang says she shops to spike serotonin levels. Purchases thus far include a Nintendo Switch video game system, a candle, a book about DMT, and most recently, plants.

Even with a limited social life and an ever present list of assignments and Zoom discussions, Yang still finds positive aspects of quarantined life. 

“I talk a lot of trash about it, but coronavirus has allowed me to think of my personal life,” she said. “I feel like I’m learning to live by myself. When I get done with school work, I paint, and I draw, and in general I feel like I’m full of more peace and love. Period. Make sure to put that in the article.”

On Sept. 10, the California State University chancellor announced that most of the 23 CSU schools will remain virtual for the spring term beginning in January. The 10-school University of California system, which includes UC Berkeley, has yet to make a similar announcement or decision.

Given current rates of COVID-19, it seems likely Cal will soon follow suit.