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How College Life Has Changed A Year Into The Pandemic

It's been a tough year for college students as the pandemic has completely upended college life. The University of New Hampshire moved all classes online again last week to help combat the rising number of COVID cases on campus.

Julia Sommer is a junior at UNH studying theatre. NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley talked with Sommer about what things are like on campus now that there are even more restrictions in place.

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Rick Ganley: I know that you spent your first year and a half at UNH before the pandemic. What are some of the ways that university life is different now?

Julia Sommer: Well, definitely a lot less just seeing people generally. As theater artists, we are always in the building. We're always working on something. So you kind of just see people all the time. And we usually have our green room downstairs, which is kind of like where everyone hangs out during the day. And even just the change of not having that is really different. As freshman and half of sophomore year, you get really used to the routine of like, oh, I'm going to go to class and go hang out in the green room with my friends, and then we'll go to the dining hall or we'll go somewhere. And you're just always with people. You're always in the process of working with other people.

And for me personally, especially the semester going into orange mode now, it's a lot less of the literal social interaction like physical social interaction. And I still talk to my friends as much as I can, but it doesn't feel quite normal still, if that makes sense. Even though we've been doing this for a year at this point with the pandemic, it's still, everyday you miss it.

Rick Ganley: When you say orange, you're saying that this is a school code for the restrictions that are in place now on campus?

Julia Sommer: Yeah. So orange mode is basically all classes are online unless the dean approves like small in-person classes. Like I have one class that will be allowed to meet in person with like a really small group. But otherwise classes are online. You're not supposed to go to other people's rooms or buildings, try to keep your bubble as small as possible, that kind of thing.

Rick Ganley: It's even more important to be able to interact with your classmates through your coursework. So how have you and your classmates adapted to the new restrictions?

Julia Sommer: In a lot of ways it's definitely kind of difficult being a theater major. I mean, you're right, it's all about interaction. So we've done really our best to kind of preserve as much of that as possible. Obviously, we're in orange mode now, but before having in-person classes, still doing the same kind of work we would normally be doing just obviously with masks, social distancing. This past semester, I took a directing class, which learning how to direct with social distancing is really hard. But everyone just has kind of that willpower to make it work, I think.

Rick Ganley: I mean, obviously, you want to be together. You're doing rehearsals together. You're building up a play. You're directing. You're expecting at some point to perform in front of an audience, either, you know, virtually or in person. So what happens now?

Julia Sommer: Oh, great question. Well, I mean, what we've kind of been doing in terms of performance is seeing how we can blend live theater with virtual theater. And there's a lot of different ways we figured out how to do that. Beginning of the semester last year, I was in a film project. I have just recently been directing a performance that would be performed live and then live streamed. But I think from here, I've actually thought a lot about this in terms of the generation of students right now kind of learning the craft under these circumstances. As awful, obviously, as the pandemic is and we all want it to be over, I think there's going to be some really interesting and incredible work that comes out of it, just like as a necessity.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, people adapt, I know. But there is nothing quite like that in person interaction, is there? I mean, you've got the technology in between. There is the process of getting that technology set up. There's always a little delay like, you know, today talking with you. There's a little delay on the line. I mean, once you finally get people on the stage together, it must feel really good and it must feel really good if you can get somebody in there, you know, as an audience to be able to watch it.

Julia Sommer: Yeah, I mean, even to go back to the example of my show, once we got to the end of the Zoom rehearsals, we knew we were -- like we were all itching to get out of our seats. Like it got to the point where we were all so impatient to be in person that Zoom rehearsals were like more and more of a chore. But once we got in person, it was like everyone just let out a sigh of relief, like we're back. To theater artists, you walk into the theater and you're kind of just like I'm home. That's where you belong. It's where you want to be. And the process of being in person just felt even more exciting because of how limited we were before, like before that being able to communicate and get our points across.

Rick Ganley: So now you've recorded a dress rehearsal, the performance, and it'll be available online. Is that how you're going to get this play out?

Julia Sommer: Yep. So we we filmed our dress rehearsal and it'll be available for streaming. So it's kind of like a live stream, except it won't be performed live. It's a pre-recording, but yeah, that's how people can access it.

Rick Ganley: More and more people are getting vaccinated every day. The case numbers are going down overall. If the university is able to lift some of these restrictions in time for your senior year, what are you most looking forward to?

Julia Sommer: Oh, man, there's so much I'm looking forward to. The biggest thing I want is I just want to work on a show like we used to without having to worry about all the COVID restrictions and everything, because theater is so difficult to try to restrain in that way. And as an artist, it can be really frustrating having to have your idea of what a show can be or what it can look like, and then knowing that there's these rules you have to follow, which of course are to keep everyone safe. But I'm excited to not need that anymore, so we can kind of make art the way we all want to. And also just like being able to say, like, I'm going to go over and hang out at someone's apartment, or I'm going to go hang out in someone's room and not have that, like, be a risky thing to do. You know, it's so strange still, that that's kind of a potentially dangerous thing to do, and I can't wait to not have that be a problem anymore.

Rick Ganley:  Yeah, and maybe get a full theater, a full house at some point next year.

Julia Sommer: I would love that. That's my biggest dream.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.

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