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Public Policy senior Maddi Walsh poked her head into the classroom while the rest of us milled awkwardly around the first floor of Weill Hall. We all stood quietly — awkwardly — not remembering the proper pre-class etiquette. At what point is it acceptable to walk into the room? How does one engage in small talk? Should I leave and come back just to avoid the sheer awkwardness? The things that should’ve been second nature as I entered my 16th year of school were now completely foreign after almost two years of online learning. 

Growing up, I’d always gotten the pre-school butterflies. I’d make my mom take me back-to-school shopping outrageously early so I could labor over the choices of which lunchbox would appropriately accent my third-grade experience and which brands of colored pens would improve my abysmal handwriting. As I’ve gotten older, the novelty of the first day has naturally worn off, but this year it all came flooding back.

I’d been looking forward to the start of school for weeks with the fervor of an anxious kindergartener. When the big day arrived, my roommates and I all tried on multiple outfits, and I’d spent an hour making sure all my books were in order, my water bottle filled, my iced coffee in just the right travel cup. 

But when our professor, Megan Tompkins-Stange, told Walsh we could come into the classroom, I felt an unexpected wave of anxiety. I was overwhelmed by the physical presence of the class, the rows of desks, the faces I recognized and those I didn’t, the professor at the front of the room. 

And even beyond the social factors, there are new COVID-related taboos to think about. Is it rude to take a seat directly next to someone else? Should I leave room for them? Can I lower my mask and sip my water? All of these factors culminated in one all-important question: Where do I sit down?

After taking a quick scan of the masked faces around me, I chose a seat in the back. A few rows ahead of me, Walsh was having a similar experience. 

“Something I didn’t realize until I got back here was that I haven’t introduced myself to someone in just so long in person,” she said. “That little small talk that you do with the people next to you that we didn’t get to do over Zoom, I totally forgot about all. It was so awkward.”

After getting to know someone over Zoom — at least as well as you can get to know someone through breakout-room chit-chat — it’s hard to gauge that first in-person interaction. I was sitting next to someone who I’ve sat on a Zoom with probably 100 times; I know her political opinions and what she thought of our professors, but I didn’t know her height or whether to introduce myself again. As I sat down, I tried to preoccupy myself with any task I could think of. I organized my pencils, took out all my books and put them back in my bag. I flipped through my planner, looking through a list of imaginary tasks to complete. A couple of times, I thought about saying hi, but in the end, I opted to sit in silence and wait for class to start. 

Even professors felt the strange circumstances and first-day jitters. University of Michigan Education professor Matt Diemer is used to reading non-verbal cues from his students to assess their comprehension and engagement, something made much more difficult when everyone is wearing masks.  

“I get 25% of the information from people’s faces I used to because I can’t see so much of people’s faces,” he said. “This isn’t to complain about masking — I think it’s important — but it’s just something I had not anticipated about what it would be like to be in the classroom again.”

Still, Diemer is excited to be back in person and looking forward to getting back to the aspects of teaching he missed even if it isn’t entirely normal. As he aptly put it, returning to the classroom is a double-edged sword. 

“If you’re a freshman at Michigan or you’re a first-year graduate student, you’re excited about going, and it’s been a lifelong goal for you to go there maybe, but it’s still a new challenge, a new stressful situation that always kind of introduces normative stresses,” Diemer said. “I think just transition periods are difficult because they’re new and novel and may take us out of our habits and routine, so they introduce some stress. They’re also great things but it’s stress at the same time.”

Business sophomore Claire Strimling is essentially living the freshman transition a year late. Even though she was in Ann Arbor for all of last year, she only had one hybrid class. 

“It was really, really amazing being in person and just being with other people,” she said. “I don’t even think I realize how many people went to Michigan.”

Though she prefers in-person learning, Strimling was worried that her classes this semester would be harder than the ones she took online. She went to a small high school in Las Vegas and is still learning to navigate the aspects of a big school — large class sizes and less face-to-face time with teachers — that most upperclassmen had the opportunity to adjust to as soon as we got on campus. 

Even as a senior, I resonate with that idea of the freshman transition, in the best possible way. Underlying the awkwardness I felt was an overwhelming feeling of excitement. Last year, I would take most of my classes from my bed, occasionally turning off my camera to go make a sandwich or refill my coffee. I felt disconnected not just from my classes or classmates, but from the very idea of Michigan. This year, everything feels like a significant first: the first walk to class, the first assignment, the first time sitting in the library. 

On my second day, I got lost in Mason Hall and ended up on the wrong floor. I took a quick lap in an effort to not look so blatantly lost and then snuck down the back stairs to my classroom. There was something in that moment that made me fall in love with Michigan all over again. 

“(The start of in-person classes) brought kind of a sense of fulfillment back to my day,” Business senior Matt Kocsis said. “I guess just once again being able to go out on campus, seeing everybody also on the pilgrimage to class. Things felt certainly back to normal, and it was the energy and the enthusiasm that I’ve been so used to for so long.” 

That energy has been palpable all over campus. 

“It was really difficult for students and professors to truly have engaging conversations and not really being able to read body language and stuff (over Zoom),” LSA junior Lily Anderson added. “So I’ve loved being back in person with them and kind of having their energy to bounce off of and seeing how excited they are to be back in person as well has been really motivating.”

Even with this faux sense of normalcy, this is by no means a normal semester. After the first two weeks of classes, there have been 322 COVID-19 cases reported on campus. By the second day of classes, LSA junior Stanley Wang had already gotten two email notifications that someone in his class had tested positive. COVID-19 was a major concern for him coming into the school year because many of his friends are international students who didn’t have access to the vaccine at home. 

“I knew that (the email notifications) would happen, but I guess I didn’t know it would be that quick,” he said. 

Kocsis is less concerned about the risk of infection. He feels comfortable knowing that such a high percentage of students are vaccinated and he has no underlying health concerns. Naturally, there’s a large range of feelings within the student body. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, wanting to experience this year to the fullest but still holding a nagging sense of doubt in the back of our minds.

Many professors, Diemer included, have younger children at home who are not yet vaccine eligible. One of Diemer’s concerns coming into the semester was that students would be resistant to wearing masks, a fear that proved unfounded. Now with the first day behind us, Diemer is focused on being flexible. 

“The challenges for professors are just trying to know what to expect, to try to be adaptive and flexible and customizable,” he said. “But at the same time, having a plan and a structure, so trying to thread some line between not being so rigid and totally unprepared if a student has to miss class because of a COVID exposure … There’s a lot of invisible labor that professors are doing to try to be responsive and customizable, and this is labor I want to do. I think it’s important for students’ well-being and educational success, but being back in person, this term isn’t like every other term.”

It wasn’t a normal first day of school, and it won’t be a normal semester that follows. I’ve already gotten two notifications that someone in my classes has tested positive. The mixture of fear and optimism and excitement I have for the coming months is always changing. As Diemer said, we have to be adaptable. 

But when my first class was over, I walked out alone, still unsure of how to navigate classroom chit-chat. On my walk home, I thought about my last first day of school and all the first days that came before it. Who knows what will happen in the next few months or whether we’ll be able to keep it up until the end of the semester. In that moment, I was just grateful that there were people on the street, backpack straps in hand, classes to go to.

Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at lkizziah@umich.edu.