At the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, there are currently over 28,000 undergraduate students from across the globe working toward their degrees and prepping for life after college. For Ben Olson, a 21-year-old senior from Minnesota, nearly half of his time at the UW will have been spent from the comfort of his own bedroom.
“I wanted to go out of state for personal growth. I didn’t feel very connected to my community in Minnesota. I wanted the opportunity to explore and give myself lots of freedom and flexibility, so going to another state was something I’d always wanted to do,” said Olson. But for Olson and other students at the UW, their recent college experience has felt like anything but freeing.
In March of 2020, UW President Ana Mari Cauce and the rest of the administration made the decision to cancel all in-person gatherings and relocate all classes and events online. Despite the hopes of many for just an extra long spring break and a normal spring quarter, the year quickly became one lived beneath masks and through Zoom boxes.
Olson, who studies Human Centered Design and Engineering, will be completing his undergraduate degree this December after spending a little more than three years at the university. While his sense of accomplishment is strong, Olson acknowledges that he lost access to several valuable components of the HCDE program during this remote school year. “The major is pretty small — maybe 50 to 70 kids per graduating class. I really feel like I missed out on the benefits of having the small cohort experience such as close connections to students and faculty, having more individual support from professors and teaching assistants and getting individualized activities and learning styles,” he explained.
Academic, mentorship and career opportunities aren’t the only thing Olson feels like he missed out on. “I had really only started to make friends in the program around the time the pandemic hit. When everything went online a lot of those friendships and aquaintanceships fell flat,” said Olson.
But there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. As vaccination rates continue to rise and coronavirus cases start to drop, students and faculty are feeling more hopeful than ever for a mostly in-person 2021 fall quarter. In early May, President Cauce announced the university’s plans to require all students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Prior to the start of the quarter, students will be asked to confirm their vaccination status in order to return to in-person classes and activities. Additionally, the UW has been attempting to make getting vaccinated easier than ever by opening non-appointment pop-up clinics around campus.
Students haven’t always been so uplifted by the university’s decisions, though. When asked if he had any thoughts about what the university could have done better in the face of the pandemic, Olson shared a list. “I wish UW had adjusted its tuition rate. I understand that at the beginning it was probably challenging to make quick financial adjustments. But after the first couple of quarters of online learning, I feel like they could’ve found a way to cut costs. I am curious to know where all of the money we paid that normally goes to in-person resources actually went,” he said.
Olson also feels as though the UW administration fell short when COVID-19 cases routinely skyrocketed throughout the school’s Panhellenic community. Several outbreaks over the course of the year were traced back to parties and large gatherings in the sororities and fraternities on Greek Row. When asked to address the problem, the administration expressed disapproval of the gatherings and banned partiers from going on campus.
“I don’t think that [the administration] was active enough in enforcing guidelines and keeping the community safe. I suppose I don’t really know how much power they have, especially since Panhellenic is a separate institution, but I really felt like their response was unproductive. We all already couldn’t go on campus,” said Olson.
Olson also wishes that the university had provided COVID-19 testing a little earlier in the pandemic and more easily. The UW is currently partnered with Seattle Flu Study to conduct Husky Coronavirus Testing, which Olson is enrolled in. But testing, he explained, can be hard to access since a lot of who gets tested is based on random selection.
Still, there have been some silver linings to the year, Olson pointed out. “I’ve had a lot more flexibility to do things according to my own schedule. I can participate easily in class even when I’m still in my PJs and not feeling up to it,” he laughed.
Olson noted that had it not been for the pandemic, he would have graduated this June rather than December, and was still planning to until only a few months ago. “Right now the job market feels a little unsteady. I am relieved that I made the decision to wait until the end of the year to graduate and get more time in my program and hopefully have one last in-person quarter,” said Olson.
While Olson, along with many other graduating seniors, are feeling wary of entering the workforce at a time of such uncertainty and instability, he pointed out that the pandemic has resulted in remote job opportunities that may not have existed prior to this year. People living in Seattle may be able to find work across the country without needing to move — something Olson hopes to take advantage of in the coming year.
As he prepares to return to campus for his final quarter, Olson reflects fondly on his time in school but also continues to mourn the loss of the opportunities, experiences and relationships that he missed out on during the second half of his time at the UW. He hopes that this year’s freshmen and the incoming class relish their time on campus and take advantage of every opportunity they can. “I think that there will be a lot of drive and effort put forth by everyone to make this fall’s in-person experience really positive, and I am really excited to see what that looks like.”
Ben Olson is a senior at the University of Washington studying Human Centered Design and Engineering. This summer, he will be interning at Motorola Solutions Inc. as a User Experience designer. In his spare time, he enjoys writing satire, playing piano and annoying his roommates, including Riis.