‘Best way to describe it is chaotic’: Pandemic reframes UNC student’s college experience

·3 min read

Sneha Pasupula was excited but apprehensive to start her freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill in Fall 2020.

She hadn’t seen her friends in months, since Panther Creek High School in Cary shut down due to the pandemic. She’d mostly stayed at home with her siblings, parents and grandmother. Only her mom, who worked two healthcare jobs, went out to the store. They wiped down groceries with disinfectant.

Despite getting into other colleges, she thought it’d be best to stay close to home because of COVID-19.

Pasupula moved into her campus dorm that August and days later moved out — even before the university switched to online classes and closed residence halls.

Those decisions were some of the most stressful COVID moments for Pasupula.

“The best way to describe it is chaotic,” she said.

UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Sneha Pasapula poses in between classes on campus in Fall 2021.
UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Sneha Pasapula poses in between classes on campus in Fall 2021.

While she and her suitemates were being safe, other students were going to parties. Then, there were outbreaks and COVID-19 clusters in her dorm building and she was constantly worried about whether she’d be next.

“It felt like I was almost deciding do I sacrifice my physical health for my mental health?” Pasupula said.

‘It feels like deja vu’

As the COVID-19 waves ebbed and flowed, Pasupula made her way back to campus for in-person classes, performances with the dance team, student government meetings and protests advocating for vaccines. She calculated her potential COVID-19 exposure before attending any event.

Now, closing in on year two of the pandemic and in the midst of her sophomore year, “it feels like deja vu” from that first semester, she said.

Her family is still disinfecting groceries and she wears a mask indoors and outdoors on Chapel Hill’s crowded campus, but has upgraded to a K95 mask because of the omicron variant. She got vaccinated and a booster shot without hesitation as soon as she was eligible. She didn’t see her friends over the past winter break and decided to stay home for at least the first week of the semester as cases continue to surge.

The burnout for the 19-year-old college student comes not from continued safety precautions but from the collective trauma of mass death and illness and seeing a lack of empathy from some people going on with their lives as if everything is fine.

“I understand people are burnt out and people are tired and it’s not all their fault,” Pasupula said. “But their actions still have consequences on public health, so that’s the hardest thing for me. “

Making sacrifices

Balancing the expectation of a traditional, enjoyable college experience with making sacrifices to keep herself and others safe during the pandemic has forced her and her friends to change their perspectives on college.

“We still have the rest of our lives to live and we can still look forward to our 20s or our 30s,” Pasupula said. “And we don’t have to put so much value on just this experience, although we still want to make it the best we can.”

She recognizes it’s not the norm, but that mindset helps her get through the ongoing struggle.

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