“I am a sophomore and a half right now,” said Hailey Shapiro ’22, as a junior who decided to delay her junior year through a leave of absence this fall, although looking forward to officially becoming a junior in her eyes in the spring.
The University recently reported that only about 75 percent of students enrolled in classes are studying in Ithaca; the remaining quarter of students, along with about 600 taking a leave of absence, are not on East Hill. For some, many of whom dropped their housing plans to save money, the assimilation back to campus will require some more effort.
After months of preparation, research and language classes, Hailey Shapiro ’22 wasn’t ready for her spring 2020 semester abroad in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu to end so abruptly. She participated in the Nilgiris Field Learning Program, where students take classes for the first half of the semester and then work on a research project in the second half. Shapiro made it through the classes, but then, like the rest of the nation’s study abroad students, was sent home.
Though able to continue her studies online last spring, Shapiro said that virtual learning from her home in Davis, California felt “empty” without the possibility of talking to classmates and professors in person. Because of this, she decided to take a voluntary leave of absence this semester.
In her decision not to return to Ithaca, Shapiro cited the financial burden of returning to campus, saying that it was more affordable for her family to keep her and her sister, a college freshman, at home. Another factor was her belief that extracurriculars would be drastically different in a socially distant semester.
“A lot of what made Cornell so special for me was things that would be taken away this semester,” Shapiro said.
She expressed concern that club meetings and class discussions wouldn’t be the same online, and that it wouldn’t be possible to spend time with friends, even if they were all together in Ithaca. However, Cornell’s success in handling the virus exceeded her expectations, and, as result, feels much safer about living on campus next semester.
But, in the meantime, she misses not only her friends, but also the entire academic experience.
“It’s just disappointing to read an exciting article and want to talk about it with classmates, but then just not having anyone to speak to about it,” she said.
Although not currently taking Cornell classes, Shapiro is still connecting with Ithaca during her semester away. She has continued her work with the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, an organization that provides data on capital punishment practices across the globe and engages in advocacy and litigation. She worked with professionals and grad students alike, connecting with coworkers entirely through Zoom.
Shapiro said that the application to leave for fall semester was “super easy,” and she anticipates it will be a similar process to return to campus. She plans to live in the Wait Terrace co-op for the spring semester.
Other students decided that, while they wanted to continue their studies, returning to Ithaca just wasn’t the best choice for their situation. Liam Ordonez ’23 chose to take his classes from his family’s home in Sarasota, Florida.
“It’s very interesting to compare Florida schools to schools in the North,” he said. “Because [with] Florida schools, it seems like everything is back to normal, it just seems like COVID-19 never really happened.”
This summer, Ordonez saw reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at other colleges and watched as thousands of students were sent home before their fall semesters even got started. Although he loved being in Ithaca, he said the potential of needing to evacuate campus wasn’t a financial risk he was able to afford.
“I don’t have the privilege to go to campus and spend $8,000 for three months for a room or housing and everything else, and then, halfway through the semester, get kicked out,” he said.
Ordonez has tried to make the most of his time at home. Online school has worked well enough for his learning style, and the virtual world affords many unexpected benefits.
“The biggest benefit is that with the pre-recorded lectures, you can do 1.5 to two times speed,” he said. “So those lectures that are like an hour and a half, you can speed them up and learn the content, and [in] probably half that time.”
He knew from the beginning that he wanted to come back for the spring. Like Shapiro, Ordonez was also able to easily retain his original housing spot. He is going to live in the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house and is impressed with how Greek Life has handled the pandemic.
“I appreciate more that Cornell is my school, and I’m proud to call Cornell my school,” he said.