Sather Gate on an empty UC Berkeley campus during the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020. Photo: Nancy Rubin
The area around Sather Gate is usually bustling but sits empty during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will probably remain that way as many students are opting not to return to Berkeley this fall. Photo: Nancy Rubin

For the moment, Ben Kelly and Nicole Ulakovic, undergraduates at UC Berkeley, are both living in Lothlorien, a Berkeley co-op festooned with windchimes and fronted by a community garden (the co-op is named for a wooded Elvish kingdom in the Lord of the Rings). But in the coming semester they’ll be taking different paths: Ulakovic will live at the co-op and complete her last semester before graduating, while Kelly will withdraw for the term and move back home to Los Angeles.

As UC Berkeley students reckon with the school’s changing plans for the coming year, which now include a fully online start of the semester and heavy restrictions on the use of campus facilities, they are faced with the same choices as Kelly and Ulakovic: Do they stay or do they go? Do they live in Berkeley and create some semblance of a “normal” college semester or do they live somewhere cheaper and just interact with Berkeley online? Do they really want to just learn online anyway?

Students are weighing these different factors and are arriving at a wide range of decisions.

Different choices according to different circumstances

Kelly is a rising senior who transferred to UC Berkeley. In the spring, when the university transitioned to online classes because of COVID-19, Kelly said he wasn’t able to concentrate on his online courses and he fears he would probably fall into the same habit if he stays enrolled. Besides, online classes won’t allow him to build the sorts of relationships with professors that are vital for applying to graduate programs, he said.

So, Kelly will spend the semester at his home in Los Angeles. “Because I only really have two years of doing a proper undergrad degree, it doesn’t seem worth it to me to do it all online,” he said.

“Every single priceless, unplanned interaction that makes up an experience is gone with the online format.” — Nicole Ulakovic

Ulakovic described learning remotely as “awful,” too, but has reached a different decision.

“Online school is not the same as in-person school, and I don’t understand anyone trying to say otherwise,” she said. “Every single priceless, unplanned interaction that makes up an experience is gone with the online format.”

But Ulakovic is re-enrolling for the fall semester because she has already spent time away from school, and doesn’t want to further postpone her graduation. “If I weren’t, like, three classes from graduating, I’d probably take time off,” she said. “But the end is so close.”

Last fall, 43,204 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at UC Berkeley. About 8,500 of them lived in on-campus dorms and apartment and the rest lived off-campus. The university doesn’t have enrollment numbers for this fall yet, but by the accounts of many current students, a large number are considering withdrawing for the semester. Of those who stay enrolled, only 3,200 will be able to stay in on-campus housing.

These are among myriad ways students have chosen to spend the coming months. Alina Flowers and Chayanin Suksunpantep said they will both stay enrolled in classes but move home to San Diego and Temecula, respectively, in order to save money. Cedar Casper, a senior living in a a co-op, said they are staying enrolled to pay for housing. Their family home in Berkeley is too small to move back into, and without receiving financial aid from the university to stay in the co-op, they would have to work full-time to pay for a lease.

Cal student Cedar Casper plans to live in a UC Berkeley co-op when classes resume this year. Photo: Pete Rosos

For some international students, decisions about their next semester are informed by additional factors, like the geopolitics of the coronavirus pandemic and the disease incidence in the United States. Yixin Tian is a rising sophomore, who was able to break the lease he had signed in Berkeley and decided to spend the semester enrolled remotely from his home in China.

“I really miss the campus and all of my friends,” Tian wrote in an email. “Yet, considering the turbulent political climate and the increasing number of people with coronavirus, I decided to take online courses at home.”

Plans made early are now difficult to change

Students’ decisions were also complicated by the fact that they had to make plans before knowing what the university’s own plans would be. Sam Kwan, a rising sophomore, said she and her housemates paid for a lease on a house when it still seemed like there might be some in-person classes. Even though there won’t be any at the start of the semester, and none after Thanksgiving, Kwan plans on moving to Berkeley in the coming weeks.

“If it was going to be in person, then I needed to be there,” Kwan said. “So I took the chance to move, even if fall was moved completely online.”

Edward Hwang, a rising senior, intends to live at home with his parents in Santa Clara but is trapped in an expensive lease in Berkeley that he cannot get out of. In November, he signed a one-year lease at the Stonefire Apartments in downtown Berkeley for the 2020-2021 academic year. A friend had agreed to join him and they planned on finding three others to split the $4,700 monthly rent. Only Hwang had signed the lease, though.

In March, after the coronavirus hit, Hwang notified his landlord that he wanted to cancel his lease. Stonefire informed him that he was legally responsible for the rent, but he could pay six months of rent to cancel. Stonefire also told Hwang that it would try and find new tenants. That has happened yet, which means Hwang is responsible for paying the full $4,700 starting Aug. 1. It’s money he doesn’t have.

“They’re asking me for $4,700 a month for the next year and there’s been no way for me to get out of it,” he said. “I live with my parents in Santa Clara. No one intends to go back to that apartment. I can’t even afford one month’s rent by myself.”

A number of UC Berkeley students have found themselves in similar situations — stuck with a lease that they are legally obligated to pay, according to Mark Lucia, the UC Berkeley attorney for students. He is telling them that they are required to pay the rent but landlords are also legally required to try and find a replacement tenant. Lucia is also counseling students to try and negotiate a month-to-month lease.

Miles King after finishing a long day of work and class. A pre-med at Cal, King is juggling a job as a camp counselor, training to be an EMT and studying for his MCATs. Photo: Pete Rosos

Not everyone is sure what they will do, even though the new semester starts on Aug, 19.

Miles King, another UC Berkeley undergraduate, has not yet decided whether to withdraw for the semester or stay enrolled. He struggled with learning online last semester, he said.“Days are just sort of ‘wake up, sit in front of the computer, and then go to sleep,’” he said. “That’s not fun.”King has been taking an EMT certification course over the summer, which includes one day of in-person instruction. If he doesn’t enroll at Berkeley in the fall, he plans on working as an EMT.

On-campus life will be different than in the past

Social life for students living on and around campus will also look very different than it has in the past. The university announced that students living in dorms will need to stay in closed social “bubbles,” and co-ops have their own strict guest policies. Dining halls will be closed and students will get prepackaged meals.

Casper, who will be their co-op president in the fall, said social life there will also be different. She hopes to institute a rule by which each resident will be allowed one designated guest for the semester, which would be enforced by a fine for offenders. She hopes the fine will be a deterrent from bypassing the rules.

Sam Kwan is frustrated to witness UC Berkeley case-counts increase because of parties at fraternities and sororities.

“During the spring semester, we had a no guest policy, which was really hard and a lot of people ended up sneaking people in,” said Casper. “So it doesn’t really work super well to have a no guest policy, but it also doesn’t work to just let anyone come over.”

Kwan said she has been frustrated to witness UC Berkeley case-counts increase because of parties at fraternities and sororities, “especially because it has been proven that wearing masks and social distancing works.”

She said she trusts her housing group, which includes people with conditions like asthma that could exacerbate the symptoms of COVID, not to go to parties and to be responsible about things like mask-wearing and social distancing. But she worried that being confined with the same people for months on end could come with its own problems.

“Everyone’s going to be in the house at the same time, pretty much for the entire semester,” she said. “It might just be a little bit crowded.”

Some students living in the co-ops said that that housing model would help mitigate some of the social costs of courses being moved entirely online. Ella Parker, a rising junior living in the Kingman co-op, said the health guidelines in place over the last few months had made the co-op a place of “increased connection.”

“A lot of people, they can’t outsource for their social lives anymore,” she said. “So they turn to each other to make friends.”

Ulakovic also said living in her co-op would make the altered structure of daily life more bearable.

“I’m very grateful for my community living experience right now,” she said. “But it is going to be hard regardless.”

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.