By Sarah Myers
Stanford recently announced that frosh, sophomores and transfer students will no longer return to campus this fall quarter. This was almost certainly the right decision, given the frightening rise in cases in California in recent weeks and the United States’ seeming inability to contain COVID-19.
Buried deep in that Re-Approaching Stanford email, though, was yet another disappointing bit of news. Stanford’s original plan for the 2020-21 academic year called for juniors and seniors to be on campus in the winter and spring. Now, the University says that frosh, sophomores and transfers will be on campus in the winter, leaving only spring for juniors and seniors. Frosh, sophomores and transfers will still be on campus in the summer, meaning that juniors and seniors are now getting half of the time on campus that underclassmen will get.
Stanford’s original rationale for bringing underclassmen back first was that they, and frosh in particular, needed to spend their first quarter of college on campus. That made sense at the time — the first year of college is when most students meet the vast majority of their friends, join clubs, learn how to live independently and lean on other students for emotional and academic support during a time of enormous change. Additionally, underclassmen are less likely to have summer internships, so they could return in summer without seriously disrupting their academic and professional development. The longer break between the fall and winter quarters would allow Stanford to clean the dorms between occupants.
Almost none of that logic applies now. Frosh and transfer students will have to spend their first quarter remotely, and bringing them to campus in winter won’t change that. Students can’t realistically wait to start school until winter unless the University suddenly decides to push a whole bunch of three-class series back a quarter — which would seriously undermine students in every other class and put seniors at risk of not being able to graduate on time. Furthermore, the break between winter and spring is never going to be long enough to safely turn over the dorms. Stanford hasn’t even managed to pack up and store the stuff I left in my dorm room five months ago; how can they expect to clear out and sanitize every room on campus in a week-long spring break?
There’s also the important point that juniors and seniors had entirely justifiable and reasonable expectations that the University would at least make an effort to help us salvage this year. Junior year is often one of the hardest academic years. Senior year is supposed to be difficult in some ways but also fun and rewarding in others. Seniors are facing enormous decisions about their future, made even more challenging now that the job market is cratering, saying goodbye to college and their friends and often working on theses or final projects. And, to be completely honest, senior year is supposed to be the year when you get to celebrate all the work you’ve put into college.
I thought I would spend this year working on my thesis with my friends and cohort members, spending way too much time in Green Library and relying on the books there for much of my background literature. Now, I won’t have that support and I may not be able to get the books I need for my thesis. Perhaps foolishly, I spend the three years leading up to this one prioritizing work over fun. I’ve still had plenty of fun, but I thought it was better to focus on my academic record so that I could really enjoy senior year. Now, it seems that I’ll never get the chance. This year was supposed to be a year of being a student leader and building communities that would continue long after I left campus. Instead, I am desperately trying to figure out how anyone can feel a sense of community from a different time zone and battling my own Zoom fatigue while wondering if I can possibly convince my friends to show up for yet another Zoom event I’m planning. I am painfully aware that these losses and griefs are utterly insignificant compared to the experiences of so many others right now. Yet that doesn’t make them hurt any less.
Many rising seniors had already accepted that celebrations would be scaled back and socially distanced, that graduation would be done over Zoom and that this year would not be the year we were promised. Now, Stanford is asking us to accept yet another sacrifice. Admittedly, I don’t have an anonymous source in the President’s office, but it’s hard not to suspect that this is more of a cynical calculation than a compassionate choice.
Stanford knows that seniors and juniors are significantly less able to take this year off and wait for the return of normal college life. We have thesis programs, professional plans, and other pressures keeping us enrolled. Underclassmen, especially frosh, have significantly fewer reasons to stay enrolled for a subpar frosh and much more freedom to simply wait until next year. Stanford has made it clear that they don’t want students taking time off, even though doing so could lead to much better academic and personal experiences, because it hurts their bottom line. So it’s hard not to see this decision as motivated by cash rather than caring. After all, it’s not as if frosh and sophomores will somehow be less prone to COVID-19 than juniors and seniors, and prioritizing them actually makes the logistics more difficult.
You would think that the work upperclassmen have put in, the contributions we have made to this university, would mean something, but apparently they don’t. Frosh and sophomores have the choice to take a leave of absence, and a reasonable expectation that COVID-19 will end before their college years do. Juniors and seniors have neither.
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