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IN PHOTOS: The Comeback Kids Photographs and stories by Cassidy Arrington and Lukas Flippo. Video by Natalie Kainz. Introduction by Emily Tian.

After nearly a year away from New Haven — a year spent by one student in Kentucky, by another in Kosovo and others in Florida, New York, Tennessee, Illinois and Maryland — these seven sophomores found themselves back on campus over the past several weeks, almost as suddenly as they had left. These portraits were shot by Yale Daily News photographers during the first two weeks of quarantine when students were instructed to remain within the gates of their respective residential colleges. For many, their late January move-in marked the first time they would experience living in their colleges.

Sam Vitale '24. Photograph by Lukas Flippo.

As spring break approached, Sam Vitale ’24 knew deep down that he wouldn’t be coming back to campus in two weeks.

Subconsciously, he held out hope, packing only a single bag of clothes for his trip back to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

“I really really struggled with online classes. I had a ton of trouble focusing.”

In his gut, Sam knew the pandemic would worsen, and he began to lean toward taking a break from academics.

Still, he was shocked when he opened the email from President Peter Salovey and learned that sophomores would be the only class not allowed back on campus in the fall. But the email also made his decision for him.

“Relieved isn’t the word, but it felt like a confirmation that right now isn’t the right time for [academics].”

Sam took a gap semester, and, as January approached, he contemplated taking another.

Coming back to Yale meant more for Sam than just attending school for the semester. He plans to attend classes in the summer and move into an apartment in the fall, so this plane ride to New Haven meant he was officially leaving Bowling Green and establishing a new home.

For now, Sam is taking quarantine and on-campus life day by day. He is reconnecting with old friends, tackling online classes in an academic environment and still trying to hunt down all the belongings he left on campus last spring.

Sam Vitale's belongings from home. The rest of his things are still lost in the Yale storage shuffle. Photo by Lukas Flippo.
Sachi Sharp '23. Photo by Cassidy Arrington

“It was really bizarre, just leaving all my things. Because when I left, I was just visiting my friend. But then I was home, and all my favorite sweaters were not there.”

Sachi Sharp ’23 knew to at least bring her textbooks with her when she packed her single suitcase and left to visit her friend in Vancouver last spring before coming home to Rochester, New York, for spring break. When she got home and discovered that students wouldn’t be returning to campus that semester, she found herself saddled with the strange feeling of having left parts of herself someplace else.

Quarantine had its own host of challenges for Sachi. There was the lingering fear that she could be vulnerable to COVID-19 in the event that one of her three sisters contracted the virus in their jobs as essential workers. And there was also the stress of starting a semester during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.

“It was stressful because there was school, but I was also going to protests, but there was also a pandemic: it was a lot to keep track of. I would be marching in a crowd while trying to keep 6 feet away from people. I would be yelling while struggling to breathe with my mask on.”

Additionally, Sachi acknowledged the barriers remote learning imposed on her academic track. The monotony of learning in such a closed environment made it difficult for her to focus, and learning from home made her more accustomed to being alone and approaching her studies independently.

Fortunately, Sachi was able to navigate these challenges while staying healthy, but it was really being surrounded by family that helped her conquer the emotional and mental toll of such a historic year.

“It was disappointing but I got to stay home; I got seasoned food. It could have been worse. My sisters and I have always been really close so we were just hanging out. We were distracting each other from everything that was going on around us … My siblings got me through the pandemic.”

Now that she is back on campus, Sachi is looking forward to getting coconut ice cream from her favorite New Haven ice cream parlor, taking naps in the fort she built under her bed and being able to go outside and study around campus when the weather gets warmer.

Though Sachi feels that some of the glimmer of the college experience has dimmed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, she hopes to focus more on taking the steps that will help her secure her degree, and on relearning what it feels like and means to be a college student again.

Sachi Sharp's room. Photograph by Cassidy Arrington.
Marcos Barrios '24. Photograph by Lukas Flippo

“The first stop I made was to Old Campus. I managed to get in, and I went to our freshman dorm. It was weird. That was my room, and I left it totally as it was. I did not take anything with me. So, in my mind, my room is still there with all my things and how I organized it and decorated it.”

Marcos Barrios ’24 took a walk around campus before he entered quarantine in Ezra Stiles College. He remembered how grandiose the celebration was when he arrived on campus as a first year, so he wanted to make the beginning of sophomore year special in its own way, taking selfies and photos as he traced his steps around campus.

Quarantine is new for Marcos. Back home in Florida, restrictions were looser, and Marcos had a job that involved traveling.

But unpacking the boxes of his stored spring belongings kept him busy.

“It took me three days to get everything situated!”

Now with all his pictures taped to the wall and his room decorated, Marcos is counting down the days until he can step outside of the Stiles gates and order Chipotle.

Marcos' bent photographs recovered from his boxes of belongings from last spring. Photograph by Lukas Flippo.
Marcos' yearly journal on the day he left Yale in March 2020. The 2020 space is blank for the rest of the year, as he left the notebook behind. Photograph by Lukas Flippo.
Nicole Li '23. Photograph by Cassidy Arrington.

Nicole Li ’23 packed just enough clothes for two weeks when Yale released students for spring break last semester. She hasn’t seen any of her other belongings from her first-year suite ever since.

Nicole went home to Tennessee for a break and unexpectedly found herself there for an entire semester.

“I don’t think I really considered the possibility of doing a gap semester or a gap year … I was in a position to be able to do remote learning, it wasn’t too strenuous for me, so I just ended up following through with a remote semester.”

Although the task of taking on classes remotely may have seemed daunting, Nicole found positive ways to get through the semester, such as adopting a “pandemic puppy” with one of her close neighbors. Thanks to her quarantine puppy, now seven months old, and the knowledge that at least she wasn’t going through quarantine alone, she was able to get through learning during a remote semester.

Even though she couldn’t bring her puppy along with her, Nicole was looking forward to returning to Yale. But when she opened the door to her new suite, none of the boxes she saw belonged to her. It turned out that Yale movers had delivered boxes from her suitemates’ old suite to their new room, and her own belongings were nowhere to be found.

“I am still missing everything but … the first day that I got here and I had none of my boxes in my room ... Sergio [the Silliman Grounds Manager] was really helpful, he was the one who gave me temporary bedding and a bag of toiletries. And [Silliman Head of College Laurie] Santos even sent me a text like ‘Do you need anything?’ so people have been checking in on me, which I really appreciate.”

Additionally, Yale forwarded Nicole and many students in similar positions emergency funding to replace essential items like bedding, winter clothing and toiletries while the University continued the search for the rest of Nicole’s belongings.

Despite trouble with moving in, Nicole is happy to be back on campus, living with her suitemates, eating from the dining hall and experiencing some semblance of what last year felt like.

Belongings of Nicole Li. Photographs by Cassidy Arrington.
Lena Ansari '24. Photograph by Lukas Flippo.

Lena Ansari ’24 arrived back on campus in January 2020 after last year’s winter break with a simple goal: be more social. Balancing field hockey and academics made Lena’s social life take a backseat in the fall of her first year.

“But that never happened.”

When everyone left for spring break, Lena expected to come back.

“I doubt anyone was thinking, that was it.”

She left everything in her room and flew home to Chicago for spring break. Then, the coronavirus escalated its attack on the United States.

Lena was forced to put all of her attention on online classes, which was a struggle. When asked how she did it, she laughed out her reply.

“Barely.”

She spent the summer working remotely for a Yale lab but noted that the lack of interaction made it tough because computer science is such a collaborative field.

As a Yale varsity athlete, she held out hope that she would be able to return to campus in the fall. But that continued hope came at the expense of certainty. Athletes weren’t notified that they wouldn’t be given special treatment regarding residential status until weeks after the initial announcement that sophomores wouldn’t be allowed back to campus in the fall.

After struggling through online school in the spring, she decided to take a gap semester in the fall. She spent her time interning at a nonprofit bike shop.

Lena Ansari and her ivy-covered window. Photographs by Lukas Flippo.
Henry Rodesno-Hercules '24. Photograph by Cassidy Arrington.

When he heard the news that sophomores would be returning to campus in the spring, Henry Rodesno-Hercules ’23 knew for a fact that he wanted to come back.

Leaving behind Baltimore, Maryland, and three younger siblings, Henry decided to return to Yale — which meant having a much bigger living space, a quiet environment and freedom. As far as he was concerned, all his expectations for the return to campus had been met. Except for one thing: He hadn’t realized how conversation-starting would be altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During his first semester at Yale, Henry appreciated how anyone could go anywhere and spark conversation without feeling strange and is remiss that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed that valuable part of his Yale experience.

“Now it’s kind of weird starting conversation. You can't have those casual, bump into someone, learn a little about them, and now you have an acquaintance moments — that doesn’t really happen now. A lot of my time has been spent in my room or with my friends that are in Silliman. … It helps build the relationships that you already have, but it limits the relationships that you can make.”

Despite this, Henry says that quarantining made him more thankful. When he first got into Yale, he felt like it was a dream come true. When Yale was suddenly taken away, he had a lot of time to think about how to make the most of it once he got to come back to campus.

He has been taking advantage of the fact that he has constant access to his friends, so he is making sure that he sees them more. He is also being more intentional about the way he spends his time and goes about choosing his day-to-day commitments.

“It’s very easy to get yourself lost in feeling like you have to do all these things, and you really don’t. There were a lot of things that I realized weren’t working for me and I was willing to drop them now. COVID made me realize that I should just focus on what I want to do, not what I feel like I have to do.”

Hercules' entryway. Photograph by Cassidy Arrington.
Leart Ajvazaj '23. Photograph by Lukas Flippo

When everyone left for spring break, Leart Ajvazaj ’23 chose not to go home to Kosovo and stayed on campus instead.

He said goodbye to his suitemates and friends, expecting to see them in two weeks.

He wouldn’t have that opportunity.

Instead, less than a week later, he would pack his bags to head back home for a month of online classes. And a few weeks after touching ground in Kosovo, his hopes of finishing the semester in New Haven were dashed with the announcement that the semester would conclude online.

Then came another announcement: that sophomores would not be allowed back on campus for the fall.

“When the announcement came out, I considered taking the semester off and just wait for things to get back to normality.”

But Leart felt pressure from the idea of losing touch with his class and from his family, who were not supportive of the idea of taking time off. To them, taking a gap semester meant a serious risk of not returning.

So Leart continued with classwork, living on eastern time despite being thousands of miles away from it. He would wake up in the early afternoon and fall asleep in the morning, local time, to attend Zoom classes and complete his classwork.

The shock of returning to campus at the end of January reminded Leart of coming to the United States for the first time in the fall of 2019.

The excitement of being back in new surroundings has carried Leart through quarantine. He has spent his time catching up with his suitemates and friends over a chess board propped up on a cardboard box table.

Leart's makeshift chess table. Photograph by Lukas Flippo.

Credits:

Cover photo by Lukas Flippo, photo editor