Four Oaklanders check into their rooms at UC Berkeley on Aug. 21. Left to right: Jacob Williams, 20, a neurobiology major and Tijaan Henderson, 19, studying bioengineering, both chose to stay close to Cal for lab access; Shaka Tellem, 19, studying political economics is an Associate Students of University of California senator; and Mohammed Mustafa, 19, a computer science student is looking for lab access. Photo: Pete Rosos

For some students, the desire for a typical college experience drew them to Berkeley this weekend, despite the fact that all their classes will be online, they’ll only be able to socialize with 10-12 neighbors and student organizations are banned from meeting in person.

Others arriving for Cal move-in — which this year was spread over four days, one of many health and safety measures forced on the process by COVID-19 — feared experiencing a blow to their education. Still others simply wanted to escape the distractions of living at home.

Around 2,000 students trickled into UC Berkeley’s dormitories between Thursday and Sunday, ahead of the start of fall semester. (The university is only allowing 3,200 of enrolled students to stay in on-campus housing.)

Time slots, COVID tests, self-sequestering

Move-in happened in hourly time slots to keep crowds to a minimum. Each student had two appointments: one for a COVID-19 test at the school’s testing site, and one for an hour-long window to move all of their belongings into their room. Afterwards, the students begin a mandated 7- to 10-day self-sequester, when they may only leave their rooms to pick up meals from dining services and return to their rooms to eat.

Photos: Cal move-in 2020

Maya Zhu’s decision to return to campus was complicated, the 18-year-old sophomore said as she waited for her time slot to move in her belongings.

“I don’t think there’s much I need here for learning,” she said, but she hopes being on campus will help her concentrate on her virtual classes. Finishing her classes remotely at home “felt like an extended summer,” she explained.

“I need to step it up a little bit,” Zhu admitted.

For Alex Ocampo, 18, of San Francisco, a room to herself will be a welcome relief: “I’ve always wanted to be independent,” she said.

Ocampo has been at home since her high school went online. She had no private place to study and was often subject to distractions from family members. Being in Berkeley, in a private dorm room, will let her focus on her first year of college, she said.

Cal freshman Alex Ocampo, 18, from the Mission in San Francisco, moves in to her room at the start the school year, Aug. 20. Ocampo chose to physically study at Cal as it will allow her the space she needs to concentrate on her studies. Photo: Pete Rosos

For Cameron Johnson, 19, living at school will help her feel like she’s “still getting part of the normal college experience,” she said. Her decision to move to Berkeley from Manhattan Beach, California, pitted the risk of COVID-19 against social isolation.

Incoming student Cameron Johnson wants to feel like she’s “still getting part of the normal college experience.”

“I had to weigh the fact that most of my friends were leaving,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s mother, Elise Johnson, had accompanied her daughter to Berkeley to help her move in. “It’s a privilege to be able to be in a dorm,” she said. “I’m grateful for [Cameron] to have this typical experience in this non-typical world we’re in.”

Nearly all of the students arriving in Berkeley have had some experience with online learning since the pandemic began. Johnson and Alad Peretz, 18, were both underwhelmed by their high schools’ virtual classrooms.

“They had to scramble to get all the classes online,” Johnson said, and the results were “not the best.” She’s hoping for a more rigorous experience at UC Berkeley, she added.

Peretz’s online classes in Miami, Florida were also difficult to manage, but he’s hoping the few months the university had to prepare will make a difference.

Peretz road-tripped to California from Miami in an RV with his parents and sister to move into his room, a triple that he has to himself. He’s excited to make social connections with his pod and hopes the close quarters will foster deep connections.

“I was ready to head out, strike out on my own,” he said. “I think it’ll be nice.”

Cal Freshman Grace Garcia
Cal Freshman Grace Garcia before moving into her dorm room on Aug. 20, said she was “stressed and excited.’ From LA, Garcia plans to study business. Photo: Pete Rosos

Grace Garcia, 18, felt stressed and excited as she arrived on campus from Los Angeles. Without a roommate, she’ll have to face her first weeks of college with more self-sufficiency than she’d anticipated, she said.

“I feel like I have to grow up a little quicker,” she said. “I’m just glad I get to come.”

Garcia flew to Berkeley on a half-empty airplane with her brother, Robert Garcia, 19, a Cal sophomore who returned because he finds it easier to focus on his studies outside the family home. He’s also hoping his economics classes can return to something resembling normal within a few months.

“We just want the virus to end as soon as possible to go to in-person classes next semester,” he said.

As Grace Garcia moved into her dorm, Robert Garcia prepared to settle into an off-campus apartment with two friends. He’s glad to be at the same school as his little sister so he can look out for her, he said.

“I know my parents are happy,” he added.

Cal Executive Director of Housing Facilities, Heidi Scribner and Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer of Student Affairs, Jo Mackness
Cal Executive Director of Housing, Events and Facilities, Heidi Scribner, and Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer of Student Affairs, Jo Mackness, stand outside the Unit 1 dorms on Aug. 20 monitoring the move-in process. Photo: Pete Rosos

At noon on Aug. 20, foot traffic was low and traffic was calm as Heidi Scribner, the university’s executive director of housing, events and facilities, and Jo Mackness, assistant vice chancellor and chief operating officer of student affairs, observed the street from outside the Unit 1 dormitory on Channing Way.

“It’s a very happy and sad day today, given COVID times.”— Jo Mackness, UC Berkeley

The day was “very slow and steady, which is exactly what we want it to be,” said Mackness. “We really engineered the number of people that could be here each hour.”

Echoing the students moving in, Mackness said she sees the complexities of the decision to live on-campus.

“It’s a very happy and sad day today, given COVID times,” she said. “It’s a sad thing that students don’t get to experience the full college move-in day,” but she’s happy that the university can provide housing “for whom there’s no better option.”

As for Scribner, who has overseen many move-ins over her 20-year career, she said “this is the strangest.”. “It’s ‘Groundhog Day’: We’re going to do it four times.”

As Zhu prepared for her self-sequester, she found herself a little unclear about the school’s safety plan. Still, the risks to her education and future outweighed the risk of COVID-19, she said, and she intends to take responsibility for her own health.

“It’s on me,” Zhu said. “Nobody else can make sure I’m safe.”

Eden Teller is a freelance reporter, writer and amateur gardener. She began reporting for Berkeleyside as an intern in 2013 and continued her career with a B.A. in Media Studies from Macalester College...