Shae Ashamalla | Mustang News
Shae Ashamalla | Mustang News Credit: Shae Ashamalla | Mustang News

For the first time in 18 months, Cal Poly has welcomed its population of roughly 21,000 students back on campus for in-person courses this year. For many students, especially sophomores, it’s been an adjustment.

Students are able to attend class with their peers and professors face-to-face under the conditions that every student is vaccinated or regularly undergoing COVID-19 testing, completes the COVID self-screener with a green campus pass and wears a mask to class.

For freshmen, the unfamiliarity of college courses is typical. However, for many sophomore-standing students, with a year of virtual Cal Poly courses already under their belts, the transition into in-person classes is just as unfamiliar.

This year, many sophomores are having their first tangible college experience. 

“It was a little bit overwhelming and it felt like kinda when you are a freshman in high school and everyone knows where they’re going and there’s so many people and you think everyone’s older than you,” industrial technology and packaging sophomore Ilana Tenberg said. 

Tenberg is taking Public Speaking (COMS 101) and Lean Six Sigma Green Belt (ITP 303) virtually with Industrial Safety and Leadership (ITP 211) and Physics (PHYS 121) in person. She said she is excited to be able to meet more people in her major this year in those in-person classes and begin establishing relationships with her professors. 

Tenberg said her physics professor, Johnan Fernsler, communicated clearly that any accommodations for this transition will be met, “automatically with no questions asked.”

This transition has been a major step for many students and, although professors are willing to work with students, the adjustment is still a bit disconcerting for some. 

Jessica Drabkin, a business administration sophomore, described her first in-person class this year as “a bit overwhelming.”

“We’ve been in a classroom for most of our lives for classes but I think getting back into the groove of things will take a little bit of time,” Drabkin said.  

Journalism sophomore Cassandra Duarte had a similar experience with mixed emotions of overwhelm and excitement. 

“It was actually kind of weird but also really cool,” Duarte said. “It actually feels like I’m in college now, like I am not just completing tasks like I’m in a college simulator or something. I’m actually sitting in classrooms at a university.”

Many students have said they enjoy the in-person format better than that of virtual, as it creates more accountability for engagement. 

“I definitely got distracted with just my phone or other things when I was in virtual and now I think I’ll be paying attention the entire time,” mechanical engineering sophomore Bradley Allgood said.

This feeling of engagement goes beyond focusing on classwork. Students said they feel they are more engaged socially in class too.

“You don’t really emote the same way in virtual classes and people have their cameras off and you’re not really giving it your full attention,” Duarte said. “But when you are actually there in the classroom you see everyone taking notes [and] responding to the teacher. You are not muted so when you laugh at a joke that the teacher said it’s not just silence.”

The in-person experience makes most feel more comfortable talking to their peers and improves their willingness to collaborate with one another. 

“I feel like everyone has had this experience at least once where you get put in a breakout room and literally no one says anything and keeps their cameras off and it’s the most uncomfortable thing ever. So, with in-person classes that’s not going to happen,” psychology sophomore Grace Reilly said.  “You’re not just going to get into groups for an assignment and you guys aren’t going to just sit there staring at each other.”

Drabkin describes the people in her in-person classes as much more “excited” to be participating and “open” to peer-to-peer interaction. 

Students have also noted that being in person has improved their collaboration with the professors. 

“I feel like it’s a lot easier to be able to interact with my professors,” Drabkin said. “Just from the beginning of my classes, I’ve been able to introduce myself to them and just get to know them more personally and feel more comfortable reaching out if I’m struggling in the class.” 

Although the in-person format has made it easier to interact with the professors, students say they are finding they must go a bit more out of their way to establish that connection. 

“I was thinking about this today, like my professor doesn’t know my name until I like walk up to them in person and introduce myself, whereas, over Zoom, our names are attached to our faces,” Reilly said. 

Duarte expressed a similar sentiment.

“I would be one of the only ones on Zoom who would speak up and so my professor generally knew who I was and I’m not sure how that is going to be affected by going in-person because now I am in a sea of faces,” Duarte said.

As the school year sets off, more students than ever are still finding their footing. Many are understanding and reverting back to the dynamic of in-person learning with a mix of uncertainty and eagerness. 

“I think people who are going to be taking, automatically, all their classes in person, might have a harder time adjusting,” Tenberg said. “But I’m excited to be back in person and learn and pay attention a little bit more than I did online.”  

Other students said they feel like this transition has helped them regain a sense of normalcy, as they slip back into the rhythm of in-person instruction. 

“Obviously, I was very excited but I wasn’t like expecting like fireworks to be shot out by the projectors or anything,” Reilly said. “So after doing it virtually for so long I thought I’d be like so weird about finally being in person but it didn’t. It just felt like no time had passed.” 

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