1st year biology major Jake Simon moves into Mesa court housing.
First-year student Jake Simon of Newport Beach, a javelin thrower on UCI’s track & field team, pushes a bin of belongings toward his new on-campus residence. Steve Zylius / UCI

Like all things in 2020, UCI’s move-in week – Sept. 25 to 29 – was a little different. The hustle and bustle of excited families was replaced by a scene of tranquility. On any given day, only a handful of masked groups could be seen hauling minifridges, pillows and duffel bags up and down the rolling hills of the Mesa Court, Middle Earth and Arroyo Vista residential communities. To provide perspective, Mesa Court usually hosts more than 3,000 students; this year there will be fewer than a quarter of that, 742. And rooms that typically have two to four occupants will have just one.

Even though classes are mostly online this fall, many students have still chosen to live on campus. Freshman Jake Simon, from Newport Beach, sees a unique opportunity to become more independent, enhance his javelin throwing skills, and get to know his track & field teammates, some of whom are in his housing unit and assigned to his Mesa Court “Zot Pod.”

Eric Parker sr. helps Education major Eric Parker Jr. move belongings to his dorm room in Mesa court.
Eric Parker Sr. helps education major Eric Parker Jr. settle into the freshman’s Mesa Court dorm room. Steve Zylius / UCI

Zot Pods are a uniquely 2020 invention at UCI. They’re clusters of six to 10 students who are allowed to quarantine together after being tested for COVID-19 upon arrival. They may eat and socialize with only each other until Oct. 6, when interactions can be expanded to other residents. The small factions allow for a sense of college normalcy while limiting the spread of the coronavirus and aiding potential contact tracing. Before checking into his dorm Friday, Simon had already established camaraderie with his Zot Pod members via a group chat with their coach.

Simon’s father, Jeffrey, found some other silver linings in the unconventional move-in process. He has two older children who have attended college, and the change this year was, in some ways, refreshing. “Moving in has actually been really easy. You’re not baking in the sun, dealing with crowds and long lines, or struggling with time,” Jeffrey Simon says. “Everything is well-organized. This is the best that could be done with the circumstances. I’m just so happy he could get in.”

3rd year psychological science major Jocelyn Navarro, left, moves into Mesa court housing with the help of friends and family.
Assisted by friends and family, third-year psychological science major Jocelyn Navarro moves into Mesa Court. Steve Zylius / UCI

Like Jake Simon, first-year student Joeville Esliza, who traveled to Mesa Court from Los Angeles, is looking forward to some newfound autonomy, in spite of restrictions. “This is a good time to [move away from home]. You get to a certain age when you need freedom, you need to meet new people and see new things,” she says.

A biological sciences major, Esliza also opted to live on campus to be closer to classrooms in case she needs to conduct lab work. Her older sister graduated from UCI in 2005, so the school seems familiar and safe yet novel enough to offer a fresh start. Esliza’s mother, Corazon, says, “Everybody is so supportive, so it’s better for her to learn to be alone now and become independent. It’s really an exciting time.”

Valeria Ramirez, another freshman who moved into Mesa Court on Friday, intends to study biological sciences and eventually become a labor and delivery nurse. Originally from Pomona, she’s excited about a change of scenery. Despite COVID-19, Ramirez says, “I still want to get the most out of my first year of college. School at home isn’t good for me because of so many distractions. I can concentrate better if I’m physically at school.”

UCI is taking multiple measures to ensure that on-campus students are protected from COVID-19, such as mandatory face coverings and free weekly testing. Anteaters can still access the dining halls through their takeout options, and Aldrich Park is ideal for social-distancing study sessions. It’s not the UCI that most people know, but it’s the only UCI that incoming students will know for now, and they plan to make the best of it.