As colleges debate reopening, freshmen cautiously prepare to leave home

By: - July 13, 2020 6:00 am
Liam Gunn Campus

Liam Gunn on the University of Utah campus, where he’ll live this fall despite the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Andrea Gunn)

Fresh off the disappointment of having the end of high school ripped out from under them, the college-bound members of the high school class of 2020 are now staring down a very strange beginning to their collegiate careers. 

Whether they’re moving across the country or staying close to home, every aspect of college life remains up in the air as university administrations work through the challenges of welcoming students to campus during a pandemic. 

Can they trust that the roommate they’ve only been speaking with over social media has been social distancing? How do you meet new people and make friends when you aren’t allowed in other dorms or dining halls? Will sports happen this fall? Will you need to move right back home because of an outbreak? 

And, the most lingering question, is this even worth it? 

Liam Gunn, a Madison West graduate heading to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, is heading west to take three of his five classes online in his dorm room — which he’ll be sharing with a roommate from California. 

Liam Gunn
Utah’s outdoor activities will hopefully help Liam Gunn get a college experience during the pandemic, he says. (Courtesy of Andrea Gunn)

He and his family have discussed taking a gap year, but with traveling out of the question, they decided it was better to move forward than stay stagnant. 

“My gut is telling me they’re going to go, something’s going to happen and then he’ll be right back,” Andrea Gunn, Liam’s mom, says. “I’m worried about the financial burden of out-of-state tuition and not getting the full college experience.”

Andrea lamented the fact that Liam’s experience won’t match her own memories of freshman year. For students who’ve grown up with stories of their parents in college, this moment has been built up in their minds. Finally, they’re about to head out on their own into a new chapter of their lives, but this year it feels anti-climactic. 

“Best case scenario is I go and it’ll be fine,” says Liam, who is undecided on his major but plans to study science or technology. “I’ve been having mixed emotions about this whole thing. It’s been tough to be staying at home and seeing the world go through this tough time. On top of that you have going to college, which is this huge transition. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotion these past few months. Hopefully those emotions will subside soon and it’ll all work out. I’m trying to stay positive and optimistic and hopefully have a great time.” 

Even for students staying close to home, like Cece Ohnstad, the beginning of college in a couple of months feels surreal. 

“Obviously I’m excited about a new journey and being on my own,” Ohnstad, who is attending UW-Madison, says. “There’s so much uncertainty with how things are going to be, it’s a lot more stressful than normally.”


Ohnstad, who plans to major in business, graduated from Madison Memorial High School and chose to stay in Wisconsin partially because of the draw of Badger football games. On July 9, the Big Ten Conference announced that fall sports, if they happen at all, will include only in-conference games. 

“When I was looking at schools the big thing I wanted was the football team,” she says. “If that’s not there it’s going to be a little weird and upsetting, but I also understand why.”

Ohnstad’s roommate, like Gunn’s, is from California, which she says is a little nerve-wracking because of the high number of COVID-19 infections in the state. But once they live together Ohnstad will know who her roommate has been in contact with, she says. 

Cece Ohnstad
Ohnstad chose UW-Madison partially for football, which may not happen this year. (Courtesy of Cece Ohnstad)

The bigger concern is finding places to hang out and meet new people when being in the dorms isn’t an option. Being outside is fine at the beginning of the year, but as Wisconsin’s summer turns to fall, that becomes less of an option, she says. 

In Utah, Gunn says he’s excited about the social distance-friendly activities the state has to offer. Learning how to run in the thin air at altitude (Salt Lake City is nearly 4,000 feet higher than Madison), mountain biking, hiking and skiing are all outdoor group activities he says he’s looking forward to. 

For both Gunn and Ohnstad the prospect of going to college comes with one silver lining — the freshman class will have the shared experience of graduating high school during a pandemic. 

“You’ve been stuck with your family so they know what you’re going through, but they aren’t you,” Ohnstad says. “You’ll be surrounded by all these kids that went through the same thing.” 

As they prepare to leave home for the first time, there is also the possibility that they might need to quickly rush back to the safety of self-isolation. 

“I’m going to pack as light as possible,” Gunn says. “I’m only going to bring the bare essentials.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.