A New Wisconsin Experience

UW–students recount the pandemic’s effect on campus, something they’ll likely never forget

Written by Samantha Idler

Saturdays in Madison are reserved for Badger football.

A year ago, home football games meant waking up early to the sound of “Jump Around” blasting throughout my apartment building. It meant breakfast sandwiches at MacTaggart’s Deli and tailgates along the lake. Wisconsin game days are second to none, and my first time at Camp Randall was an experience I’ll never forget. 

However, that was then. Game days, along with so many other traditions that have defined “the Wisconsin Experience,” fell away because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The first game of the season this year was on Friday, Oct. 23. In spite of that, it looked oddly like any other day. Aside from the handful of UW–Madison students dressed in full red, State Street was relatively empty.  

For the students that did choose to go out, reservations were required at most bars, and capacities were severely limited. Game day in 2020 did not reflect true Badger fashion, and students could tell. I even witnessed the outdoor area of one of the most notable bars in Madison, State Street Brats, clear out by the third quarter. 

College students faced blame this fall for major outbreaks popping up all over the country, but COVID-19 has taken away many opportunities that once seemed fundamental to our experience. Even though UW–Madison decided to bring students back this fall, it doesn’t truly feel like we’re on campus.

“Students are struggling. Face-to-face socialization is critical for mental health and well-being,” says University of Florida psychiatrist Marcia Morris, as reported by CNBC.

I cannot remember a time in my life when something has brought so many new challenges. To a college student, this new era is particularly daunting because we are still learning and growing into young adults. 

The Mosse Humanities Building sits lifeless and empty at the UW–Madison on Oct. 27, 2020. Photo by Brian Huynh

Students as a whole are ridiculed for unsafe behavior even when reckless people remain among the outliers. According to Morris, there needs to be more sympathy and appreciation for the people trying to figure out the next chapter in their lives during this unprecedented and trying time. 

A New Day in History

On March 13, 2020, the U.S. declared a national emergency concerning the coronavirus, and I got sent home from Europe.

I spent the spring of my junior year studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain. Before leaving, I remember there being reports of a mysterious, pneumonia-like disease taking over mainland China. At the time, however, my opinion and information about this disease largely came from internet memes. This quickly shifted as news coverage surrounding the virus grew exponentially. 

I went from having the most freedom and independence I’ve ever had, traveling the world — to returning home and transforming my childhood bedroom into my classroom for the remainder of the semester.   

Five days after returning to the U.S., I tested positive for COVID-19. During this time I had no idea what to expect. I know now I was one of the first cases in Cook County, Illinois — home to much of Chicagoland — and I believe I may have been the first cured case in my hometown, Evanston. 

Though today there is still so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, at that time no one knew what they were talking about at all. 

I would get a call every day from a different doctor telling me different things to do and giving me different requirements for how long to stay in quarantine.

This confusion only continued after I was cleared: Can I get it again? Does this mean I have antibodies? What will the long-term effects be? 

Summer of Uncertainty

Despite a general anxiety for the future, this summer, I was hopeful for a normal senior year. 

“Once the bars opened up and [people] stopped caring as much, [coronavirus] started to spread again,” says UW–Madison senior Mallory Marsherall. 

Marsherall spent the summer in Madison doing nursing work as part of her studies. While nursing students were able to continue clinicals during the start of the semester, as cases began to rise they took a three-week-long hiatus, causing students to lose 30 potential hours toward graduation. 

“In the beginning everybody thought that [the pandemic] was going to be over by the time school started,” Marsherall says. “Then once [cases] kept getting worse and worse, everybody started getting more scared.” 

Colleges and universities across the country have mainly taken three different approaches to the fall semester. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, as of October, 44% of schools surveyed were fully or primarily online, 27% were fully or primarily in-person, and 21%, like UW–Madison, were hybrid, meaning a mix of both. 

A sign warns students that the Zoe Bayliss Co-Op is currently being used as a COVID–19 isolation center at the UW–Madison on Oct. 27, 2020. Photo by Brian Huynh

Once UW–Madison released its Smart Restart plan for the fall, there was still a lot of confusion over the logistics of bringing over 30,000 undergraduates back to Madison.  

Emma Grellinger, a senior who has been working as a University Health Services COVID-19 tester since the end of August, says she was nervous when students started returning to campus. “I knew people were taking flights and coming from all over different parts of the state, which obviously led to that influx in cases.” 

There were — and still are — so many questions: What if I get COVID-19 again? What will online finals look like? What happens if students do come back after Thanksgiving? Will there be a graduation? Will I ever get the “normal” senior year I wanted? 

Reality came and I quickly realized my hopes for the upcoming semester would remain a fantasy. 

Campus Chaos

When I drove up to campus, there was an overwhelming sense of normalcy. While my suitcase included a few added essentials this year — masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and Lysol wipes — the pontoon boats and kayaks lining the shores of Lake Mendota gave the illusion of a typical Madison summer. 

This changed when I saw State Street. Businesses from Library Mall all the way down toward the Capitol were boarded because of damage from this summer’s protests. Small shops and restaurants that had fallen victim to the pandemic lay abandoned, and the sidewalks were eerily empty. 

The local art that took over the plywood on storefront windows turned State Street into a gallery highlighting community goals and drawing attention toward pressing injustices. 

There’s a grave misconception that college students don’t care about contracting COVID-19: getting it, spreading it and everything in between. 

“There’s obviously people still living their lives, but I would say the majority of the student body is [being safe on campus],” Grellinger says.

Over the course of the fall, Wisconsin became an epicenter for new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. With an average of several thousand new cases per day, people are skeptical rates will drop anytime soon. 

While Dane County did see a decrease in case rates after its early semester spike, the New York Times COVID-19 data tracker shows every county in Wisconsin experiencing at least 56 cases per 100,000 residents each day as of mid-November — which makes the state consistently among the very worst in the country for new cases. 

“[In Wisconsin] I don’t think [the COVID-19 outbreaks] are due to the campus,” Grellinger says of the initial autumn uptick in Wisconsin’s caseload. “A lot of the places that have been affected so severely are more northern, rural areas who probably didn’t have any direct impact from the university resuming.”

Among students, Greek life specifically has come under fire for many of the campus outbreaks.

According to sophomore Erin Murdoch, many sororities are taking extra precautions to help stop the spread of the virus, including requiring masks in common areas, individual food services — compared to buffet style — and supplying hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes and other cleaning supplies for members to wipe down an area after using it.

While students continue to navigate new challenges, several think it’s unfair to only blame student bodies, or student organizations, for spreading COVID-19. 

“I don’t think it’s fair to put the blame on college students,” says Michael Ovsak, a first-year UW–Madison student from Bloomington, Minnesota. 

A Starship robot delivers food from one of the residence hall dining locations at UW–Madison on Oct. 6, 2020. Photo by Brian Huynh

Freshmen have faced new challenges this year as many of the rules for social distancing have made it harder to meet new people.

Along with added pressures, two UW–Madison dorms — Witte Hall and Sellery Hall — were put under a two-week mandatory quarantine in mid-September following a rise in cases among students. 

“When it first happened, it really felt like prison because you could not get outside,” Ovsak says. “As it progressed, you were allowed a 30-minute period outside … So that definitely helped.”

TikToks and memes helped capture student experiences as people spent their time reviewing quarantine meals and spelling out “Help Me” and “Save Us” in Post-it notes across dorm windows.

“It’s pretty difficult on a student because your whole world, everything is shifted because of [the pandemic],” Ovsak says. “Not only has the school aspect [changed], but also the social aspect. Making friends is a lot harder.”

College is a time for self-exploration and growth. Without the ability to perform simple rituals, like going to Gordon’s for waffles on game day or talking face-to-face with a professor during office hours, students’ worlds have been turned upside down. 

Last Firsts

With senior year comes the impending “last firsts.” Your last first day of school, your last first football game, your last first midterm — although this one I cannot say I will miss — all leading up to graduation. 

“Campus is a lot more sad in general,” Marsherall says.

At-home Hobbies and suggestions that anyone can do while they are inside!
By Samantha Idler

Now, when you walk along State Street on a Monday afternoon, you don’t see the rush of students heading to class or leisurely wanderers talking with friends on the street.

My apartment has become where I sleep, where I have my classes, where I eat, where I work out, where I socialize. It pretty much houses every other aspect of my life, too — including all of my last firsts. 

I stood up from the couch in my apartment before the fourth quarter to prepare for the infamous “Jump Around.” Madison’s House of Pain tradition started in October 1998 during a match-up between Purdue and Wisconsin.

Though I doubt the Richter scale in the geology department was able to pick up signs of an earthquake, nearly 22 years later and under extraordinary circumstances, students are still carrying on this part of the Badger legacy in their apartments across town.   

I have lived my whole life trying to see the positive in every situation, however; this virus has challenged the views of many optimists. 

While it is easy to note the hundreds of missed experiences, it is also important to recognize the opportunities COVID-19 has afforded us. 

“[Alumni] are not going to remember quarantining for two weeks — I will never forget,” Ovsak says. “I feel like that’s a huge part of college now, these crazy experiences with COVID … We’re all in this same situation together and so it’s really just a matter of making the best of it.”