Pairs of students hovered over kits filled with glass pipettes and beakers in a chemistry lab. Across campus, animal science students gathered outdoors in front of stacked hay bales to hear about expectations for the semester, with a cow mooing periodically in background.
A small group clustered in Aratani Japanese Garden, while a few students sat on benches in the Rose Garden and others strolled along the pathways near the residence halls.
While not the usual packed campus, the sights and sounds of university life returned to Cal Poly Pomona last Thursday, the first day of the fall semester.
It’s a welcome feeling for Neelam Mistry, a mechanical engineering sophomore. Mistry spent her freshman year living at home with her parents and sister in Placentia, taking her courses remotely. Now, she is living on campus in the Residential Suites and taking one in-person, one hybrid and a few fully online synchronous classes.
“I have to admit I was very disappointed when soon after we started the quarantine, I realized there was no way Cal Poly Pomona was going back in the fall ,” she said. “One of the biggest things I was excited about was getting to move out. I had been looking forward to it the entirety of my senior year in high school, but then I realized it was not happening.”
Mistry made the most of her freshman year, though, joining the Rose Float Club, Cal Poly Pomona Women in Engineering, Engineers Without Borders, as well as being a part of the Maximizing Engineering Potential and Kellogg Honors College programs. She also worked as a student assistant for the Residential Intensive Summer Education (RISE) virtual program, which is designed to help high school seniors and incoming freshmen transition to college life by fostering a sense of community, connecting them with campus resources and providing leadership development.
“Getting more involved will help me feel more comfortable on campus,” she said.
In December 2020, the California State University system announced plans in for returning to in-person instruction in 2021. This fall, Cal Poly Pomona is offering more than 5,470 classes in various forms – about 2,900 online, 2,190 hybrid with some in-person instruction and 370 fully in-person.
Abigail Trujillo, a senior studying chemistry, is taking six classes, three online and three in-person. Besides a couple of quick trips to campus to pick up a paycheck for her student assistant job with Project CAMINOS and to fill out some paperwork, Trujillo has not been to campus since the university transitioned to remote learning. She is looking forward to some face-to-face time with her professors and fellow students, she said.
“I am really excited, but I am also a little nervous, especially regarding coursework,” she said. “I felt there was a big gap, especially in our labs. We are a learn-by-doing school. Watching simulations and watching videos is not the same as doing it yourself. And as for work, I didn’t have the social interaction you usually get in a work environment.”
Rachel Flores, a lecturer in the nutrition and food science program and director of the Dietetic Internship Program, began teaching in person again on the first day of classes. The dietitian of 21 years and Cal Poly Pomona alumna (‘93, history; ’15, master’s in nutrition) regularly teaches a general education class online, but she will also have a hybrid class that meets in person about once a week.
Flores said she misses the physical activity that comes with teaching and navigating campus. Breakout rooms on Zoom can work for small group discussions, but being in the classroom allows her to hear all the groups at once and make sure they stay on track, she added.
“I feel like when we’re in person, those students who are just a little quieter are most likely to participate in discussion and ask questions,” Flores said. “With Zoom, it is so easy to be quiet and hard to see how engaged students are. And a lot of those quieter students stay behind after class and talk to you while you’re putting stuff away.”
Senior Alejandra Arevalo, a visual communication design student, also is looking forward to returning to campus. She returned in July for work as a graphic design student assistant for Project CAMINOS and recalled the joy of walking all over campus. She plans to take two in-person classes, one hybrid and one online. Last fall, she took an online painting class, a feat that gave her a great appreciation for her professor. However, even with the extraordinary efforts professors put in to make remote learning as robust and stimulating as possible, Arevalo said she feels relieved to be back on campus.
“I’m mostly excited, but a little nervous because things develop so quickly,” she said. “I hope we can keep cases down and the vaccination rates go up. I am hoping we don’t get shut down. I left as a sophomore, and I am coming back as a senior. I feel like I have missed out.”
For senior Cristian Chaidez, the transition to remote learning was more difficult, with distractions at home and no in-person connection with his professors. So, getting to return to campus at least for two hybrid classes and working as a tutor for the Reading, Advising and Mentoring Program (RAMP) are opportunities he relishes.
“I am feeling very optimistic,” said the computer engineering student. “I feel that this is a great way of returning back to the norm, sitting in a class and having professors answer your question right then and there. You don’t have to send an email. I also truly miss being able to come out of class and seeing a friend or someone you know from a class and being able to hang out with them.”