The Orange Bowl game was playing on a television behind me, visible through a reflection on a picture frame. Though I couldn’t make out the details of the players, or their movements, I turned and looked back at the screen hanging over the bar periodically, watching with disappointment as Georgia’s score increased at an exponentially greater rate than the Wolverines’.
My friends, seated beside me in a restaurant outside Minneapolis, listened to my frustrated commentary with a mixture of patience and annoyance. None of them were particularly interested in the sport. And they were probably alarmed that I, someone who had outwardly expressed my dislike of football in the past, was suddenly so invested in a game occurring two thousand miles away.
I was the only University of Michigan student among them. I felt an urgent obligation to convey my pride in our football team, to make them comprehend the enormous significance of making it to the Orange Bowl despite predictions of major losses. My proud remarks were a means of reaffirming my own connection with the school and its underdog success.
As I passed the evening eating food and awaiting the arrival of the new year with my friends, anticipation over the results of the game remained at the back of my mind. Just prior to midnight EST, the final score put an end to our 2021 football success story. As I texted my roommate about the outcome, my heart sank. It seemed as if the illusion of prosperity and school spirit I fostered throughout the 2021 fall semester had shifted. I celebrated our entrance into 2022 with my friends soon after the end of the game, not knowing that the loss to Georgia would perhaps be an omen for the start of my next semester at the University.
We all know the cheer: “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine!” It’s easy for most of us to pick up if someone begins chanting it at the Brown Jug, on State Street or in the Big House student section. But for me, the affirmation was slow to ring true.
Truthfully, most of my college experience hasn’t been “great.” For the past three semesters I’ve attended school here, my feelings associated with being a student at the University generally ranged from neutral to disappointed. There was no common tie linking students together last year, the virtual barrier too big of an obstacle, blocking any possibility for building a Wolverine network.
At any time during my freshman year, starting in the fall of 2020, I felt like I was lying when I told someone that I was a student at the University of Michigan. It was a year characterized by a lack of in-person classes, minimal official community or sports events and a stressful residential situation as I was forced to find alternative housing outside of the dorms a mere two months after moving to Ann Arbor. I was pushed out of every component of the quintessential college experience, denied everything former alumni had told me to look forward to: South Quad-West Quad rivalries, attending hockey games at Yost Arena and other honored Michigan traditions.
The result was a disconnect from any and all things Michigan: when I thought of my status as a ‘college student,’ my emotions were a cocktail of anger, resignation and sadness. I continuously grappled with the abysmal state of the world and the turbulent decisions made by school administration.
I began my sophomore year with tentative enthusiasm — I didn’t want to disappoint myself by becoming too eager at the prospect of meeting classmates and organization members face-to-face, when I knew all too well that that opportunity could be taken away at any moment.
August 2021: Fully vaccinated and utterly unaware of where my classrooms were located, I took on my real first day of college. I entered my first in-person class — a Statistics 250 lecture — terrified at the prospect of talking to strangers around me, or finding someone to sit with among the mass of people. This recognition of my panicked emotions, though daunting, also made me smile internally. This is what first-time college students are supposed to feel like, I thought.
I was able to meet with members of my student organizations in real life, including my Michigan Daily meetings. I was amazed that people actually learned and used my name, without reading it below my face on a Zoom call. I felt like an integral part of the publication team, a sentiment I had never experienced with virtually-run student organizations. I was rejuvenated, ready to contribute to the legacy of the renowned student paper and carve out my own niche on campus with my writing.
This feeling of newfound engagement was a shared experience for many U-M students. For LSA freshman Jack Pribble, the fall 2021 semester provided a genuine first-year college experience, one that lived up to even his pre-COVID expectations for freshman year. For him, “being in person was integral” to establishing connections with students and engaging with student organizations on campus.
“I had a great time meeting a bunch of friends, chatting with professors,” Pribble said. “Whatever year you are, freshman through senior, you experienced COVID. And now this is kind of a return to normalcy. So I feel like everyone was just raring to go, everyone was so excited to be a collective unit and live their best lives with the most entertaining, fulfilling year.”
Though SMTD sophomore Ben Martz did have in-person classes in the winter 2021 semester to fulfill his viola performance major, he hoped that the fall semester would allow him to be more connected to other musicians. In-person rehearsals last year were mainly separated by instrumental section, allowing for smaller class sizes.
“Now that I’m physically in class and I can sit and be a part of the class environment, I’m getting to meet these people, different instrumentalists and vocalists, and there’s more of a network of people who know each other,” Martz said. “That kind of opens up doors for collaborative opportunities. And it’s so much better now that we’re all in person, because I think it was a lot harder to do those kinds of collaborative activities when everything was on Zoom, and some people were in their respective homes around the country, some people in their dorms.”
Martz recalled the moments from this past semester that made him feel most connected to the music school, including October’s “first (full-orchestra) performance in Hill Auditorium,” as opposed to recording separately by section and combining the parts for a full virtual concert. The orchestra’s Halloween performance was also a memorable event that allowed musicians to connect with the audience in a way that was impossible to recreate during the strictest moments of the pandemic.
“This Halloween concert, it’s an Ann Arbor community thing, where both students and members of the city of Ann Arbor can show up and they all wear costumes,” Martz said. “And that concert in particular, a lot of the stuff that was happening on stage was interactive with the audience… and Hill Auditorium was completely packed. It was really cool to kind of feel like what we were doing had a big impact on the community, that what we were giving to these people was a great form of entertainment. And it was really obvious that they enjoyed it and had a great time there. As a performer, that really makes you feel like what you’re doing matters.”
Ross junior Megha Kunju said that the fall 2021 semester “felt most like college pre-pandemic,” and as an upperclassman, she feels she is even more immersed in the campus community than during her freshman year.
“A lot has changed, but there is a lot of opportunity for growth,” Kunju said. “In fact, in an organization I’m in on campus right now, we are talking about how being virtual really helped with accessibility for a lot of folks. So, we are trying to implement some aspects of our virtual life into our organization moving forward. I don’t think these conversations would have happened during my first semester on campus.”
For transfer students like LSA senior Sean Stiles, being online has prevented extensive engagement with school spirit, but in-person interactions have been crucial to his feeling connected to other students.
“It was hard to feel connected to my work the way I did before I transferred and I have struggled adjusting to online learning,” Stiles said. “I did make some of the best friends I have ever had through a professional fraternity on campus — rush AXE — and these personal connections are what I hold onto in terms of my school spirit.”
SMTD freshman CC Meade noted that in-person rehearsals at times made it more difficult to engage with other forms of student life outside of commitments to the Acting Performance major. However, she agrees that her in-person classes have been “vital” to developing the skills she came to the University to study.
“If our performances weren’t in person, I would not have the same experience at all,” Meade said. “It is so hard to cultivate an ensemble when you can’t physically be there with the other people in your group.”
Testimonies like these, found across all corners and colleges on campus, highlight the shared experience we had, arriving at a tentative peace despite the uncertainty of the previous year and a half. Campus life was altered by the prevalence of hybrid classes, masks hiding the facial expressions of new classmates and a constant awareness of health risks. But we were still able to return to regular college activities and achieve customary milestones. This included one of the most prominent of Big Ten college traditions: football.
The first sporting event I attended as a college student was the football game against Western Michigan at the beginning of this fall semester. My parents encouraged me to purchase season tickets, though I didn’t have high hopes for the team’s success based on last year’s record. I made it clear to my friends that I would likely leave early from most games if I got bored. Nevertheless, I went to the first two games, grateful to finally take part in a proud Big Ten tradition. I thought I could force myself to enjoy the sport, if only to be able to participate in campus conversations surrounding the team’s progress throughout the season.
As the season went on, the Wolverines’ record became better and better. Suddenly, we were high in the rankings. I kept attending home games even as the weather got colder, braving the snow and frigid temperatures, eager to continue sporting maize and blue alongside thousands of my peers. My family was shocked when I started to name individual players, comprehend the specifics of the game and comment on particularly good — or bad — plays. I began to deeply want the team to win, despite my previous indifference.
I was officially a Michigan football fan. I was so invested in the team that I changed my flight back to Ann Arbor during Thanksgiving Break from Sunday to Friday night, just so I’d make it back in time for our long-awaited game against Ohio State University.
The atmosphere of the student section during that game was electric. Snow falling and our toes freezing, my friends and I sang the student cheers in unison with the rest of the fans. “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine!” resounded throughout the Big House countless times, an assertion of our true pride that developed slowly over the season. We stood amazed as Michigan outplayed OSU in a manner our team hadn’t perfected for ten years.
As time ran out and the score — 42 points to 27 — confirmed our place at the top of the Big East division, an overwhelming happiness overtook Ann Arbor. Smiling, shouting students surrounded me in the stadium, joyfully singing along to “Seven Nation Army.” Raucous cheers would erupt randomly on crowded Packard Street after the game — the heavy snow continued to fall. Though I didn’t make it onto the field for the celebration, I savored the victory for the rest of the night.
The pride I had developed for the team motivated me to request a ticket for the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis, and I was able to watch from the stands as the Wolverines demolished the Hawkeyes and entered the College Football Playoffs as the number 2 seed.
The football team’s success enhanced my connection to a school that previously felt foreign when its name sat on my tongue. I had never expected to like football in college, let alone actually enjoy it, making fall 2021 even more of a fleeting, unforeseen moment of bliss as I took part in activities that were nonexistent this time last year. Students like Pribble and Stiles share similar views on football, seeing it as a bridge between them and the spirit of the school.
“The experience where I felt most connected [to the student body] was when I went with friends to Cantina during the Iowa versus Michigan Big Ten Championship game,” Pribble said. “It wasn’t even just the football because we were all talking, and laughing, and things like that. But it was just such a crazy experience, and then everyone went out onto South University after. Just going on Snapchat the next morning just seeing everyone posting it out on a story made me feel it was like home. And I feel like the win definitely solidified that feeling.”
“One moment of connection I had with the University this semester was the Michigan and Ohio State game,” Stiles said. “I have never prided myself on being a Michigan football fan, but I am extremely invested in the sport. Walking around the stadium before kickoff, with the snow coming down, and excitement in the air, the feeling of school spirit was contagious in a way I had never experienced with my own favorite teams.”
It’s this positive association with the team, and the connection it fostered, that made the Wolverines’ defeat in the Orange Bowl all the more crushing. The success of the team in arguably the most popular college sport reaffirmed a unity and our status as, in James Earl Jones’s words: the greatest university in the world. For me, it was less about football itself and more with my newfound, startling satisfaction with my school, made all the more enjoyable by the people who accompanied me on each game day.
And yet, our fall 2021 in-person semester became a beacon in the darkness as of recently: the undeniably controversial decisions made recently by the University administration tempered even the brightest of college experiences. Among these actions is the lack of recognition granted to the survivors of Dr. Robert Anderson, a blatant disregard for the victims of harrowing abuse within the University. The discovery of emails detailing a hidden, “inappropriate relationship” between former President Mark Schlissel and a University employee is yet another source of shame and disappointment for students.
With the start of the new year and our winter semester, I’ve come face-to-face with a bitter new reality: the harmful actions displayed by those who claim to represent the values of the school have complicated my views of the institution, dimming any glimmer of spirit I once felt in the fall.
Stiles, who works with the campus’s “Justice for the 950” social activist group, believes that recent events have “colored a negative image of the University,” nullifying any positive occurrences on campus we might’ve experienced during the fall.
“The victims of Doctor Anderson deserve their stories heard, and need to be a part of the process of ensuring nothing like this can happen again,” Stiles said. “This is the least the University could do. The fact that Mark Schlissel could raise tuition prices, cover sexual assault violations and sit on billions in endowments, but gets fired for inappropriately using his University email speaks for itself. The University needs to start prioritizing its students over its donors and money, and that starts with giving the survivors a voice at the table.”
With the alarming rise of the omicron variant and the recent dismissal of Schlissel, the winter 2022 semester quickly proved itself to be a continuation of chaos on campus. Immediately upon returning to Ann Arbor after winter break, the lack of University guidelines outlining online courses resulted in a jumble of online and in-person classes amid the rising COVID-19 cases on campus. Each instructor individually decided whether to remain in person or ‘e-pivot’, despite demands from the Graduate Employees’ Organization to implement a school-wide shift to online learning. Those who do test positive for COVID-19 continue to grapple with isolation housing challenges.
The environment on campus is stressful and sporadic — I once again feel uncertain, my fragile Wolverine identity from last semester threatened by the tumultuous atmosphere, ready to crack on any given school day.
Those I interviewed expressed a range of feelings about the current semester. For one, Meade said she’s “super optimistic about this semester.” She continued, “I feel much more settled here now and I’ve been able to realize what I need to do for myself to feel more connected and fulfilled here.”
Similarly, Pribble said “going into any semester with a pessimistic attitude doesn’t allow for the possibility of success,” and emphasized the importance of staying positive despite outside circumstances.
Kunju is “neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” and “[tries] to take it day by day.” Martz said that “it is a little scarier” due to the prevalence of omicron and the feeling that, “we’ve even regressed a little bit from the progress we seemed to be having throughout the course of last year.”
Finally, Stiles is “excited” for his final semester, “[hoping to] return to in-person classes and social events” before entering “post-school life.”
Fall 2021 was replete with myriad emotions and special moments, shoving all of the quintessential, first-time college experiences into one eventful semester. It gave us a chance to cultivate our identities as valuable contributors to the U-M community and to take part in the spirit that has driven the school for over a century. It was a complete shift from the previous school year, but the experiences were far from perfect — the current COVID-19 situation just punctuates how ephemeral our circumstances can be.
As students, all we can do is hope that the maize-and-blue, glimmering memories we made in 2021 aren’t fleeting, and that the turmoil 2022 brought with it doesn’t overshadow the milestones to come. If last semester taught me anything, it was to relish these joyful moments of school pride before they slip away.
Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.