It's been described as "exciting," "refreshing," "fun," and "engaging." Are folks talking about some new Netflix series? The latest blockbuster in the Marvel franchise? No, these are some of the ways Johns Hopkins upperclassmen described the fall 2022 semester, the first without any COVID-19 restrictions since pandemic precautions emptied campus during the spring semester of 2020.
Junior public health studies major Kobi Khong, who came to Hopkins in the fall of 2020, remembers those dark days all too well.
"In our COVID semesters, it didn't really feel like we were in college," he says, lamenting how it was not uncommon for him to, "roll out of bed, go on my computer to Zoom class, and roll back into bed afterward."
The fall semester marked a return to the richness of the collegiate experience. For Khong and many others like him, it was their first time on campus without required regular COVID testing and pandemic-related limitations on gathering and activities.
"The ability to all be in the same room and build off each other while we talk about things we're interested in and passionate about has been so amazing," Khong says. "I feel like for the first time I'm really getting to know my teachers and I can have conversations with them after class about what they're working on."
Outside of class, the little campus interactions also mean a lot, he says: "Just passing by friends in the library and deciding to sit with them at their table instead of locking yourself down in D-level."
Junior Anne Flemming, double majoring in Writing Seminars and film and media studies, recalls when campus social life all but withered and constantly changing pandemic conditions prompted pivots on guest policies.
"There was so much anxiety with all of the restrictions," she says. "People were forced to be exclusive, limiting events to a select number of people and then having to deal with the fallout of excluding others and the hard decisions of who got to make the cut."
COVID-19 and the array of rules it spawned often left Flemming withdrawn and on edge, she says.
"It is so relieving to be able to see my friends without fear of breaking any rules or without having to be selective about who I am able to see," she says.
The end of the mask mandate was also a boon to Ketzev, the campus a cappella group she sings with.
"We can hear each other so much better and have been able to find and fix the problem areas we were having because of that disconnect," she says, adding the group is competing for the first time in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.
Senior behavioral science major Emely Loscalzo simply—and happily—uses the word "normal" to describe the 2022 fall semester. "Even though the previous spring semester was pretty normal, masking was still a thing," she says. "Just being able to see people and their facial expressions without a mask on is what really makes the semester seem a lot more normal."
Senior Estelle Richardson recalls being overly optimistic about COVID-19 when it first shut down in-person classes back in 2020. "I thought that it might only last for a couple of weeks and it would kind of be an extension of our spring break," she recalls.
Richardson began as a chemistry major but is now pursuing a double major in natural sciences and psychology. While she says it's likely she would have made the change anyway, COVID definitely played a role.
"Lab classes online are just not the same experience as being in-person, and it made it hard to be motivated," she says. "I might have been more interested in chemistry had I been able to experience the labs in person and connect with the professors more."
Socially, she's back whirling across the floor with the Hopkins ballroom dancing club.
"I did not stick with ballroom dancing when we were only on Zoom," Richardson says. "It was just kind of weird to be dancing by yourself in your living room and I didn't have the space to do that anyway."
She also has enjoyed returning to bustling Friday Shabbat dinners at the Smokler Center for Jewish Life. "This past semester we were finally able to all come back as a community, and it's one of the moments in which I appreciate that we are back to a normal college experience," she says.
Regular asymptomatic COVID-19 testing and subsequent reminder emails were also part of campus life, and junior Isabella Madruga, studying creative writing and sociology, fully understands why mandates requiring multiple tests a week were necessary and important. But it is certainly something she and her friends don't miss. "We all very much struggled with it because we could barely find time to eat, never mind to regularly go to a COVID testing center and get tested," she says. "It would honestly just slip our minds sometimes."
Perhaps the most curious and creative word employed when discussing the return to collegiate normality came from Khong, who cleverly turned a noun familiar in the biological sciences into a verb.
"Being around the smartest people—faculty, staff, and students—and listening to them and talking about what research we're working on and what classes we're taking—just that rapport—is a new experience of wow," he says. "This is a gathering place of some of the most amazing people, and I love the opportunity to just osmosis in all their intelligence and passion."