Harleen Thandi, Cassandra Sweet and Alan Le, and, pictured left to right.
Returning to in-person classes for their second year at UCI opened up myriad opportunities for Harleen Thandi, Cassandra Sweet and Alan Le, and, pictured left to right. Steve Zylius / UCI

After spending their first year as UCI students taking courses remotely, Cassandra Sweet, Harleen Thandi and Alan Le are three of the thousands of second-year students who adapted through the hurdles and challenges of the 2021-2022 school year with grace, persistence and Anteater pride.

Like most second years who spent the entirety of their first college year online, these three students experienced university life in-person for the first time this school year. We kept in touch with them over the school year to report their experiences.

Fall Quarter

In September last year, Thandi moved into her Middle Earth housing unit, marking her first time on campus. “Honestly, I still feel like a first-year,” she said. “I’ve never actually visited campus before, so I feel like I’m still new. It’s a lot better being here and actually walking down Ring Road or in Aldrich Park than just doing the virtual tours online.”

A psychology major, Thandi spent her first year of UCI at home in Clovis, Calif., a suburb of Fresno. This year, she lives in one of UCI’s three undergraduate on-campus housing communities. Though most second-year UCI students opt to live off campus, Thandi chose Middle Earth because she wanted the dorm experience that she missed in her first year.

Though classes for the 2020-2021 school year were completely online, Middle Earth and the other housing communities remained open, with limited capacity. Sweet, a biological sciences major from Los Altos, Calif., lived on-campus for her first year. She describes her first-year housing experience as lonely. This school year, Sweet continues to live in Middle Earth, but this time as a resident advisor.

“I know I definitely feel less lonely now,” she said, “It’s just so cool to be able to sit in the common room and work with other people or go to Brandywine and walk up to people. Also, just being able to spend time with my residents, it’s like a built-in friend group with a hundred people!”

This year, on-campus housing resumed at full capacity, and residents socialized through programs facilitated by housing staff and RAs, such as Sweet. Though Sweet worked hard to help her residents acclimate to college, she also continued to acclimate to on-campus living.

“Even though I’m their RA, I’m closer in age to them, and I have about the same amount of knowledge and experience as them in campus life and culture.” Sweet said.

Many second years have attributed a positive change in their mental health to the return to in-person learning. This is true for public health major Le, who spent his first year taking virtual classes from his home in Arcadia, Calif.

“This year, [my mental health] is getting a lot better.” Le said. He values the social aspect of college a lot, which is something he found missing in his freshman year. During a trying first year, Le utilized mental health resources available to UCI students, such as UCI’s counseling center, to help get him through his first year. During his second year, he continued to utilize resources such as the Center for Student Wellness and Health Promotion and ASUCI’s Mental Health Conference.

Living in an off-campus apartment this year allows him to meet and hang out with friends in-person.

“I still feel like a freshman too, even though I live off-campus. I still feel just as clueless about campus culture and social college life as someone who is brand new to it might.” he said.

As the fall quarter continued, second-year students found many learning and social opportunities that weren’t available to them during their first year online. Sweet, Thandi and Le took advantage of as many opportunities as they could.

“Last year, we did the [Anteater Involvement Fair] online, and I saw sports medicine listed,” Thandi said. “So I joined the club online, but you can’t really do much hands-on sports medicine stuff on Zoom.”

After meeting the sports medicine club in-person at this fall’s involvement fair, Thandi rejoined the club in a much more hands-on capacity. She sits in on UCI Athletics practices to observe the sports med club interns as they interact with and provide medical support to athletes. She hopes to work in sports medicine in the future.

Thandi has also continued her involvement from last year as a sportswriter for the New University. She enjoys being able to cover games in person, rather than watching streams online.

Le was also excited to be more involved in-person this year. As an intern for the Associated Students of UCI athletics engagement commission, he seeks participation from the student body in athletics events. To support his future pursuit of a career in public health or in the medical field, Le is also involved in the Medical Educational Missions and Outreach club at UCI.

Sweet spent the fall quarter auditioning to be on one of UCI’s many dance teams, INSA, which stands for I Never Stand Alone. Joining a dance team, as well as becoming an RA, were things that Sweet decided to pursue to push her to grow.

Winter quarter

At the end of winter break, UCI students received the news that the first few weeks of winter quarter would be held online. Sweet, Thandi and Le – who all feel like they learn better in an in-person setting – were disappointed in the brief return to the virtual model, and they were afraid that those few weeks of remote learning might continue for the remainder of the quarter.

“It’s so much harder for me, and a lot of my classmates, to learn on a screen,” said Le, “I respond a lot better to in-person learning.”

Le again felt his mental health affected as the quarter started off remotely. He found relief through self-care by exercising at the Anteater Recreation Center, walking around Aldrich Park and spending time with friends.

Within the athletics engagement commission, Le found it more difficult to get student interested and engaged in athletics while taking online courses for the winter quarter. He was thrilled when mid-quarter, students returned to the classroom for in-person instruction.

For Thandi, who also struggled more in an online environment, returning to the classroom mid-quarter was welcomed, but challenging.

“It was hard to adjust so quickly, having online classes for so long and then having your first in-person class be a midterm or an exam.” she said “But eventually, I got used to it, and it was just nice to be back in-person. It felt normal again.”

After classes returned in-person, so did Thandi’s involvement with the sports medicine club. She was assigned to women’s volleyball and still attends practices once a week. She hopes to shed her title as an observer and become an official intern next year. She also eyes moving up in her other commitments as well, aiming to be sports editor with the New University next year.

Winter quarter for Sweet, on the other hand, decided that not all her commitments would continue in next school year. She decided not to return as an RA – instead, she will be studying abroad in Spain next fall.

“Out of everyone I’ve talked to about studying abroad so far, the only negative thing they say is that they regret not doing it,” said Sweet. “Growing up in America, specifically in California my whole life, everything seems so normal. I always thought it’d be interesting to live somewhere else, like Europe. So why not go?”

Spring quarter

Fears of a Spring Break COVID-19 outbreak causing a repeat of the half-remote winter quarter were assuaged when classes and events returned with students in full swing. Students enjoyed events from live celebrity guest shows – such as YouTubers Ryan and Shane, whom Thandi waited two-hours in line to see – to dance showcases at the flagpoles – including one by INSA, which Sweet performed in at the end of May – and live club functions – such as retreats and banquets, the latter of which Le is excited to attend for MEMO.

All three of these second-year scholars will be attending summer sessions at UCI. Thandi and Le plan to remain in-person, while Sweet plans to take an online course and enjoy the summer at home.

This summer, Le will apply to transfer into the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing. He’s narrowed his career goal to becoming a nurse, because he believes that nurses provide the most patient contact and best comfort care. If he is accepted as a transfer for the 2022-23 school year, he will remain at UCI for a fifth year to complete his nursing degree. If not, he will continue with public health and complete a nursing certificate later.

In his remaining time at UCI, Le plans to apply to be a board member for MEMO, become a commissioner or chief of staff at ASUCI, gain more leadership experience, and spend more time with his friends.

“I still feel new,” Le said. “I feel like there’s a lot of time ahead of me, but at the same time, I know there’s not that much time left.”

Thandi feels the opposite.

“Honestly, now I feel like a second year,” she said, “I feel like I’ve gotten used to campus a lot more, and now that I’m used to everything, it’s a lot more fun. And it feels like I’ve been here forever, even though it hasn’t even been that long.”

Next year, Thandi is hoping to do undergraduate research on working memory, but she is also looking at other research possibilities. She looks forward to coming back to campus in the fall and is vying for those higher positions in each of her non-academic involvements. Thandi, like Le, is also excited to return and spend more time with friends.

After Sweet studies abroad in Madrid during the fall, she is excited to return in the winter quarter as an on-campus Anteater and see where the rest of her school years take her.

When asked about the future, Sweet said “I always tell people that life is like a bowl of spaghetti. You never know when one noodle ends and another begins. I’m not sure what the future is for me yet, but I’m excited to live it.”

Dhanika Pineda is a third-year literary journalism and English major at UCI, and an RA in Middle Earth. This summer she will participate in the UCDC Summer Program and intern at the Smithsonian Institute. For 2022-23 school year, she will be editor of the New University, UCI’s official student-run newspaper.

About UCI’s Brilliant Future campaign: Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu.