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Navigating a College Experience With an “Asterisk”: The Class of 2023 Reflects on Shifted BC Culture, Identity During COVID-19

Like many Boston College seniors hoping to take full advantage of their remaining days on the Heights, Kristen Donnelly said she and her friends have a bucket list to tackle before graduation. 

This bucket list, Donnelly explained, is particularly important to her because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from doing many of the activities and tasks earlier in her undergraduate years. 

“It’s very stressful because it’s like the clock is ticking down and I feel like I just started college,” Donnelly, MCAS ’23, said. “Especially because we didn’t have those full four years after all, so it does feel a bit unfair, but I can’t really do anything about that.” 

The Class of 2023 had just come back from its freshman year Spring Break when it received an email notifying all BC students they must evacuate residence halls within just a few days to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Following the news, many students felt confused, anxious, and sad about leaving campus—even one year after they had to pack up and go home, students were still coping with the new reality of their BC experience.

As the last class that will remember what BC was like before, during, and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors reflected on how relationships and culture at BC have changed. Many seniors define their class-wide identity not by the isolation COVID-19 caused, but instead by their class’ growth and resilience through unconventional times. 

The Pandemic’s Aftershocks

After nearly four years of adapting to COVID-19 testing protocols, mask mandates, and vaccine requirements, there are many permanent changes in everyday student life—ranging from increased use of BC Dining’s GET Mobile Ordering to permanent masking requirements at University Health Services. 

Having experienced BC’s evolution amid COVID-19, many seniors feel the social culture on campus reflects the lingering impacts of the pandemic.

Even though the University largely rolled back its COVID-19 regulations, Donnelly said BC’s social life is slightly different. Students are still recovering from the challenge of maintaining on-campus connections during the height of the pandemic, she said.

“It was just so much easier to socialize before, and I’m sure every school would be able to say that,” Donnelly said. “But there was just no worry about being able to make friends and new connections and also be a part of different activities.”

Before COVID-19, Jake Asato, MCAS ’23, said the University placed less restrictions on social events. The Mods used to be the go-to spot for parties, but today, he said, the Mods party scene is much more tame. 

“Every weekend, even if I wasn’t going into the Mods, I walked past Lower or something and it’d be kind of loud and people would be walking everywhere,” Asato said. “And then after COVID-19, now, I’ll walk through on a Saturday night it just feels like a Tuesday.”

(Photo Courtesy of Maggie Leahy)

Today, Asato said BC is still feeling the residual effects of COVID-19 through its party scene. 

“The social life is not as lively as it used to be,” Asato said. 

Another lingering impact of COVID-19, Donnelly added, is a decline in club participation and meeting attendance. 

Donnelly said she recently joined Active Minds at BC—a club aimed to foster campus-wide conversations about mental health—when the first COVID-19 cases appeared at BC. Because the club was just established in 2019, Donnelly said Active Minds is still feeling the impacts of COVID-19 through a decline in students’ engagement. 

“Even now that COVID-19 has calmed down, I think people are very used to not coming, if that makes sense,” Donnelly said. “So yeah, it’s very difficult to bring that engagement back up.” 

Hannah Yoon, co-president of the Student Health Equity Forum of BC (SHEF) and MCAS ’23, said she has talked to several other senior club leaders who have noticed lowered club attendance post-COVID-19. Despite the SHEF leadership team’s emphasis on advertising SHEF’s events and adding incentives for attendance, Yoon said the club believes there is a general attitude shift toward academic clubs after the onset of COVID-19. 

“I think maybe because of COVID-19 and how we were, you know, really restricted and confined to our roles, and geographical locations even, I think the student body attitude is kind of ‘have fun, enjoy life while it lasts,’ which is important,” Yoon said. “But also I think it’s reflected in the student body’s engagement in activities that are more academic or like academic extracurricular activities.”  

Reflecting on COVID-19’s impacts on classroom interactions, Yoon said professors are more understanding and lenient when students have to miss class due to illnesses.  

Post COVID-19, most professors post lecture slides—and some still even post Panopto lecture recordings for students to review,” Yoon said. “Many of my professors emphasize that if you’re sick, [you shouldn’t] come to class.” 

Jeffrey Lamoureux, a psychology and neuroscience professor and director of undergraduate studies for the psychology department, said it was challenging to figure out how to adapt and accommodate students amid constant change.  

“I think it was a time of uncertainty, a time when we had to work really quickly and hard to adapt both pedagogically as well as personally to the challenges that we and our students were facing,” Lamoureux said. 

Lamoureux said he saw a range of reactions among his students, from resilience to an understandable difficulty with handling virtual classes. 

“What I was seeing when I was talking to students in meetings was some anxiety, some concern,” Lamoureux said. “And then also their isolation, some frustration with the change in lifestyle or a change in what their expectations were for what college is supposed to look like.” 

This feeling of isolation also applied to the workplace for Michael Britt, MCAS ’23, who began working for BC Dining in McElroy Commons during the January of his freshman year. He worked there throughout his sophomore year. 

“You’d just have two people working at each line kind of isolated together in a way, but they never interacted with each other compared to how it was in the two months I worked there before COVID-19 protocols,” Britt said. “That was when it felt a lot more isolating.” 

Cross Conrad, CSOM ’23, has worked as an Resident Assistant (RA) since his sophomore year. He said RAs felt pressured to help their residents during the pandemic, but it was difficult due to social distancing restrictions. Despite this, Conrad said he thinks the Office of Residential Life’s housing policies have fully returned to their pre-pandemic state and that his RA duties are no longer affected by the pandemic.

Yet, even though Conrad said his job as an RA is back to normal, he still feels heavily affected by COVID-19 because he missed out on many typical college experiences.

“Even if [Res Life] policies are the same as they were pre-COVID, the impact still hits our class,” Conrad said.

(Photo Courtesy of Maggie Leahy)

Tom Mogan, interim associate dean of the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences and former vice president for student engagement and formation, said even though BC policies have generally returned to normal, he does not want to downplay the struggles students faced because of COVID-19.

“I don’t want to say that there weren’t some real challenges with COVID,” Mogan said. “We definitely saw students who struggled during COVID to engage in healthy ways or to be successful during these difficult times, and I think that all was normal.” 

Finding “Silver Linings” and “Deepened Connections” 

When talking to students in his senior capstone class, Lamoureux said he is impressed by their ability to remain positive. Though the pandemic posed many challenges to current seniors, some have found “silver linings,” Lamoureux said. 

“One of the things that I found many students say was that there were a few silver linings to COVID-19,” Lamoureux said. “They deepened connections with a few individuals … they became really close with them, maybe perhaps to an extent that they hadn’t before.” 

Conrad said this year is the first of his college experience that feels somewhat normal, mostly because of school policies. Because BC has largely returned to its pre-COVID-19 procedures, Conrad said he feels like he gets to have a regular senior year. 

“I think this year it’s all getting better again,” Conrad said. “I think this is the first year where we’re really starting to get some return to normalcy.” 

Britt said he thinks his peers are more intentional about their relationships and look to invest time in quality friendships after the isolation of the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

“Coming out of the pandemic, people really were emphasizing maintaining their personal relationships that had faltered throughout the pandemic,” Britt said. “And I think that was a culture that was really nice to see in a really endearing way.” 

Because her friends at BC are from different places around the country, Donnelly said she lost an opportunity to see them when students were sent home in 2020. As the University lifted COVID-19 regulations and started to allow in-person gatherings, Donnelly said she prioritized making time for friends on campus.

“I think just recognizing how valuable those connections are, especially because when you’re at college, it’s so different from being in high school where you know that you’re all coming from the same hometown and if you’re not at school, you could find a way to be with them,” Donnelly said. 

(Photo Courtesy of Kristen Donnelly)

Amanda Fogarty, president of Women’s Club Field Hockey and CSOM ’23, said morale among her teammates shifted in a positive direction after the peak of the pandemic—because they missed out on playing and bonding time, her teammates were eager to spend time together once restrictions were lifted. 

“I think people have much more of a zest for playing and just being a part of the team too,” Fogarty said. “Even the social aspects of it, like between dinners and stuff, are a lot of fun, especially when you’ve had to go without it.” 

After the senior class’ experience of isolation, Yoon said she is thankful the campus culture is still lively despite the challenges building connections online posed.  

“I think the student body has done a really good job of still being as connected as we are, despite the obstacles that we faced being online,” Yoon said. “For the current junior class, as freshmen, they were completely virtual for their first year of college and I can’t even imagine how daunting it must have been.”  

Natalie Mutter, CSON ’23, said the Class of 2023 is trying to embrace the quintessential aspects of the college experience after losing so much time to socialize. 

“I think by our junior fall, we were ready to party—to be together again and celebrate,” Mutter said.

Mutter said she feels lucky to be able to participate in traditional BC senior activities. 

“We had the whole football season, tailgating in the Mods,” Mutter said. “I’ve really enjoyed the senior events that we’ve had like the 100 Days Dance, and I’m glad that we were able to squeeze in an extra Marathon Monday in. I feel really lucky about that and I’m going to miss BC a lot.” 

Though the Class of 2023 had a somewhat limited college experience, Mogan said it has shown resilience in the way it has treated its last years at BC. Instead of giving up, Mogan said the senior class has taken full advantage of its time here.  

“The last two years, they’ve really been trying to soak up as much of BC as they could,” Mogan said. “And so, to me it just seems like there’s even more of a desire to connect with one another and to connect with BC.” 

Forming a Unique Identity and Learning Life Lessons 

Yoon said the experience of attending BC before, during, and after the onset of the pandemic taught her the importance of valuing herself and her mental health. She also realized that health and friendships are more important than getting good grades or completing work, Yoon said.

And she hopes other seniors feel the same way. 

“You know, we all go to BC, we’re all excellent students, we take rigorous courses, and a lot of times we overextend ourselves because we are such driven students,” Yoon said. “And you know, I think coming out of COVID-19 and reflecting on that period as a senior looking back, I think it’s important to value both your physical health and your mental health.”

Similar to Yoon’s newfound perspective on the importance of self-care, Donnelly said she has adopted a more optimistic perspective on the future and stresses less about what is to come.

“I do think that every graduating class probably has experienced similar things, and a change of identity, and the development of it,” Donnelly said. “But for me, during COVID-19 I did experience a big shift in my mindset on college and just my young adulthood in general.” 

(Photo Courtesy of Hannah Yoon)

Regarding the experience of her entire class, Emily Torpey, CSOM ’23, said the senior class’ identity is not defined by COVID-19, but it definitely plays a role in the way her fellow seniors experienced college.

“Your friends, the clubs you’re a part of, and your major and all that still very much defines your senior BC experience,” Torpey said. “I think there’s a strong asterisk there of how our class is different.”

Mogan said he has grown to admire the senior class’ perseverance in dealing with the effects of COVID-19. As a resident minister in the Mods, Mogan hosts dinners with his residents where they share insights from their college experience. 

“I have the utmost respect for the seniors who are graduating this year because they really, for two years, did not have the typical college experience,” Mogan said. “But I would say that they proved to be extremely resilient, creative, and I’m just so impressed with how they were able to manage the difficulties associated with going to college during a pandemic.”

In addition to keeping up commendable attitudes throughout the pandemic, Mogan said he also noticed how the Class of 2023 gives back to BC more than previous classes. This year’s seniors are especially enthusiastic about mentoring underclassmen and being leaders for them, Mogan said. 

“They’ve given a lot to BC,” Mogan said. “One of the things that I’ve always been impressed with in terms of my experience at BC, is how much the seniors are willing to give back … and I think it’s been even magnified with this class.” 

April 30, 2023