What’s the first ‘normal’ year of college been like at UMD?

Shortly before Saturday’s commencement, the News Tribune spoke to four graduating seniors about how COVID-19 impacted their college years

University of Minnesota Duluth and Lake Superior
An aerial view of the University of Minnesota Duluth campus and Lake Superior.
Contributed / UMD

DULUTH — Lita Lind’s spring break at the University of Minnesota Duluth got an unexpected and lengthy extension in 2020.

With the COVID-19 pandemic mounting, university leaders paused in-person learning while students were on break. While Lind and other freshmen were away, university leaders asked them to pack up their dorm rooms and head home to learn virtually for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

“It was very surreal,” Lind said Thursday. “I was at the mall with my friend and we were getting emails like, ‘Hey, school’s just done.’”

The abrupt goodbyes to her friends were upsetting, Lind said, and both students and professors struggled to adapt to online learning, especially in the pandemic’s early days.

“It was just very much a blur,” she said.


Lind and others’ sophomore years were entirely virtual. Her junior year was a mishmash of in-person learning and online courses, while many restrictions, such as mask requirements, remained.

UMD Grad Lita Lind
Lita Lind
Contributed / Lita Lind

Now a senior on the verge of formally earning a degree in English with a minor in linguistics, Lind and three other UMD seniors told the News Tribune about their final year there, which, in most respects, was also their first “normal” year in higher education — one with a second year of in-person classes, relaxed mask mandates and other COVID precautions, and a renewed social scene.

“I was so excited to get back into things and work with classmates,” said senior Ben Hanzsek-Brill. “I consider myself an introvert, but still, you need to interact with people to gain a sort of energy to do things outside of yourself. It’s important to build those social networks.”

This year was the first, Lind said, where she saw some of her classmates’ and professors’ faces.

“It was just something that I had really taken for granted that I hadn’t realized before,” she said. Virus restrictions in earlier years could make the campus feel empty sometimes.

UMD Grad Ben Hanzsek-Brill
Ben Hanzsek-Brill wearing a COVID-19 mask for his sister's wedding.
Contributed / Ben Hanzsek-Brill

Socializing in earlier school years could mean calculating whether it was prudent — moral, even — to get together, Hanzsek-Brill and other News Tribune interviewees indicated. Is a meetup for coffee or attending a hockey game worth potentially exposing oneself and others to the virus? If someone is out partying with dozens of other people, should you avoid them?

His social circle, like many, had shrank considerably while more stringent precautions were in place.

This year, Hanzsek-Brill said, he was able to organize more readily with other students. A double major in English and math, he helped revive a dormant literary magazine with other humanities types, and put together a “Pi Day” celebration this March with the math department.


UMD Grad Ben Hanzsek-Brill's vaccination card
Ben Hanzsek-Brill's COVID-19 vaccination card. "It was a big trend to post that you got vaxed on snapchat," he told the News Tribune.
Contributed / Ben Hanzsek-Brill

A second round of in-person classes this year meant more opportunities to socialize that simply didn’t come up before, Hanzsek-Brill said — a chance to talk to interesting classmates about something other than, say, the poet Walt Whitman.

“And you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re still really smart and fun,’ but now we’re talking about stuff we actually deeply care about,” Hanzsek-Brill said, “which still turned out to be Walt Whitman occasionally.”

UMD Grad Jack Hartford
Jack Hartford
Contributed / Jack Hartford

Jack Hartford, who’s set to earn a degree in English and history, helped start a literary guild where he and other English majors regularly get together to talk shop for about 90 minutes. It’s the kind of thing he had hoped to do during earlier, peak-COVID school years.

“There’s a lot of value in these connections you can make in college,” Hartford said.

UMD Grads Ben Hanzsek-Brill and Jack Hartford
Ben Hanzsek-Brill and Jack Hartford
Contributed / Jack Hartford

Caitlin Larson, a fifth-year senior, said it was tough to return to a more recognizable, and maybe more regimented, schoolwork routine. She took up skateboarding during the early stages of the pandemic and made some new friends that way, but still couldn’t help but wonder about the people she could have met had COVID never arrived at all.

UMD Grad Caitlin Larson
Caitlin Larson during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contributed / Caitlin Larson

The return to something like normalcy this school year, Larson said, was overwhelming.

“We just went through this big event,” she said. “But it was almost as if nothing had happened, in a way.”

more by joe bowen
Relatives recall the lives of 148th Fighter Wing members who died in the line of duty.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
What To Read Next
Get Local