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Campus Comes to Life as Students Arrive for Mid-Semester Experience

A familiar scene took place on March 4, as students started moving into residence halls. The Mid-Semester Residential Experience (MSRE) is a chance for students, many of whom had never lived on campus, to experience community in person and safely.

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Letts Hall

Students arrive at Letts Hall, one of several halls housing MSRE participants. (Photo by Jeff Watts)

It was an emotional sight. Finally, after many months, the students were arriving.

For almost a year, the campus felt empty. While some sophomores, juniors and seniors near AU ventured to campus to study, first-year students were a rare encounter. When they started their college life in fall 2020, the evolving COVID-19 pandemic had prompted a health and safety decision by AU to offer all courses online, with no residential experience. So first-year students, with the exception of some approved for emergency housing, were studying from home. 

Then in December, President Sylvia Burwell announced a change: AU residence halls would open in March for a two-month residential program, running through the end of the spring semester. The Mid-Semester Residential Experience (MSRE) would be a chance for students, particularly those who had never lived on campus, to be part of a safely distanced, in-person AU community. 

There's no doubt that life on campus during Spring 2021 will be a different experience. For instance, all participants have single bedrooms, with rooms that are typically doubles used as singles for health and safety reasons. They are split among several residence halls, with common lounges restricting the number of students who can gather at a time. Only other on-campus residents can visit the residence halls. AU Dining is operated by pick-up only, and many but not all food venues are open on campus. Classes aren’t impacted by MSRE participation; they are still primarily online, as are meetings with advisors. 

The 535 MSRE participants (as well as several hundred students in emergency housing) must be tested twice weekly for COVID-19 and submit a daily health screening. Isolation space is provided if a student tests positive.

Yet in spite of all the differences, the scene on a sunny day on March 4 was a familiar one. Cars started trickling in, parking in the Letts-Anderson quad and in front of other residence halls, and out came students and their families carrying boxes, new bed sheet sets, and suitcases full of clothes. Housing and Residence Life staff and Resident Assistants gave directions while reminding people of the health and safety protocols. While students were walking around six feet apart and masked, the scene felt normal and comforting.

In these early days of spring, first-years can be seen soaking in the sun on the quad for the first time as students — even if that means enjoying it in much lower temperatures. Anand Balan (CAS '24) is from Phoenix, Arizona — where it was in the 90s just last week — and moved into Anderson Hall on Sunday. "I applied as soon as the application was open in early January. I've been wanting to come to AU and DC, and have some sort of resemblance of a normal college life,” he says.

Anand BalanAnand Balan (CAS '24) enjoys the quad.

Move-in has started on March 4 and is running until March 14, with times scheduled to control density in the halls and align with health and safety measures. Sophia Fingerman (SIS ‘24), from Northern California, started her preparations with an early cross-country flight to Delaware, staying with family to isolate and test for COVID, then drive in on Friday with her aunt.

For Fingerman, the decision to participate in MSRE had to do partly with the three hour time difference between California and DC. “It was annoying to try and attend club meetings at odd times of the day. There were a lot of activities I felt like I was missing out on,” she says. “It’s cool going out and sitting on a blanket on the quad. I have a feeling of ‘I’m in college and this is what it’s supposed to be like!’”

Sophia FingermanSophia Fingerman (SIS ‘24) finally has a residence hall home - Letts Hall.

Students with early time slots for move-in have had a few days to adjust to their new home. “We just met last night and came to get tested together today,” says Colby Mazzoni (Kogod ‘24), who was sitting with Charlie Kistenbroker (SPA ‘24) in front of Constitution Hall, the student COVID-19 testing center. “I got to go to my first in-person class — an art class in Katzen — which was really nice. It was the first time I saw a teacher in a year,” she adds.

The chance for face-to-face interactions (six feet apart, of course) was a common decision-maker for joining MSRE. “It’s been difficult to make friends over Zoom or Instagram. I think being able to have in-person communication is great,” Kistenbroker says.

Charlie Kistenbroker and Colby MazzoniCharlie Kistenbroker (SPA ‘24) [left] and Colby Mazzoni (Kogod ‘24) [right] hang out by the Eagle on East Campus.

For Abigail Williams (SOC ‘24), who moved into Letts Hall on Saturday, there was no question she’d come to campus after her application was approved. “I feel safe. I feel responsible. Based on intuition, I wouldn’t want to endanger any of my fellow students because we’ve all been chosen to be here,” says Williams, who looks forward to visiting more of DC and kayaking on the Potomac in the warmer weather. “I accidentally got on the wrong bus,” she laughs, “which is part of the experience.”

It's all part of the process of learning about life at AU and the broader DC community — and Williams and her peers are finally here to learn in person.

Abigail WilliamsAbigail Williams (SOC ‘24) enjoys a take-out drink on the Letts-Anderson quad.

Students participating in the Mid-Semester Residential Experience can visit the one-stop guide that gathers key information — all in one place — to help navigate life on campus.