Vanessa Velas Romero, 18, is a member of the high school Class of 2020 — an entire group of students across the country who saw their proms, graduations and beach weeks evaporate as the coronavirus pandemic was declared last year.
Velas, whom WTOP profiled last year as a senior, graduated from High Point High School, in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, and joined another unique demographic: the young people who would start their college careers at a time when campuses are faced with a host of COVID-19-related decisions on student housing, orientation and classroom operations.
Velas, now at the University of Rochester, in upstate New York, said adjusting to college and campus life during a pandemic are one and the same for her and her classmates.
As soon as she arrived on campus, Velas said, the impact of COVID-19 was obvious.
Like college students across the country, Velas’ parents came along to drop her off and help her move in. But there were restrictions.
“They only allowed one person to help us,” she said. “So one person had to stay in the car and the other person could come up to the dorm with me.”
Velas plans on majoring in political science and economics, and takes her academics seriously.
But with many classes online only, she quickly learned that firing up her computer in her dorm room to take Zoom classes was not going to work “because I will fall asleep.”
Her solution: “I would go to the library or I would go to the study room that they have here,” she said. Just changing to another setting helped her focus and felt a bit more like attending in person.
There are some in-person classes too, with social distancing and rotating attendance.
“With classes that I have in person, I do better. Because I’m actively listening; I’m actively taking notes,” she said. “It feels a little bit more personal. I think it’s just that human interaction—it’s needed.”
Mask-wearing is just a part of college life for first-year students such as Velas.
“I’ve just gotten so used to it” she said. “The only time it’s gotten annoying is at the gym.”
Hand sanitizer stations are everywhere, Velas said: at the gym, the dining halls, the lounges. Velas said it’s become a routine to sanitize and wipe down surfaces. Students have adapted to the practices. “Everyone’s doing their part.”
On social media, some women are saying there’s an upside to all the mask-wearing: They’re saving a bundle on lipstick and foundation. “That is the case,” said Velas, but she added with a laugh, “I kind of miss doing my makeup sometimes. You can’t show off anymore.”
Meeting new people is a bit more complicated, though. Instead of asking the campus classic question “What’s your major?,” students might ask each other when they were last tested for COVID-19. And flirting is a bit different too, she said, “Honestly, you don’t really know if someone’s smiling at you.”
But she’s made a conscious effort to branch out and make new friends within the limits imposed by the coronavirus, and says, “I found a really good group of people here.”
She said there is a lot of support to battle the sense of isolation that’s hit many young people in the last year: “I think the most positive thing is finding people who help you when you’re feeling low. … Everyone’s going through the same thing” and that’s created a sort of bond.
“It’s just nice knowing that you’re not going through it alone.”
What’s the first thing she wants to do once the pandemic is no longer a threat and life can return to something resembling normal?
“Just go out without a mask,” she said. “I think that’s going to feel amazing.”
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