1:41:33 William T. Young Library

Fallen leaves collect under a row of trees outside of William T. Young Library on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

The fall 2021 semester has not passed without its challenges, but the feelings associated with it are vastly different — and far better — than the last.

Following three semesters that were radically changed by COVID-19, this semester could be deemed a representation of the new normal.

Although our smiles in the classroom are masked, we are beginning to reach a point where we can recognize the remnants of what life was before COVID and the joys that came with it. We have learned not to take those simple things for granted because we now know they could be gone tomorrow.

We have had in-person classes and exams, gotten to meet individuals in our classes face-to-face and been able to work on group projects in an actual room, rather than in a Zoom breakout room.

This was the first semester in which students had a true college experience since the beginning of the spring 2020 semester, meaning that many students currently enrolled at UK had their first in-person semester of their entire college experience.

For many sophomores, this was their first encounter with classes that were not held over Zoom or asynchronously online.

Incoming freshmen were able to experience a relatively normal first semester of college.

UK’s decision to return to in-person classes made students feel like a relatively normal college semester was possible once again. We wished for a semester that felt like college did before the pandemic, and for the most part, we were given just that.

Online classes came with the challenges of a lack of communication between students and professors, less interaction between students and more forced screen time. We have found that being able to do classes from bed does not necessarily outweigh the positives of having class in-person.

The ability to speak with professors beyond just Zoom office hours and the opportunity to immerse ourselves in in-person lectures have helped many students’ grades and mental health exponentially.

There is no doubt that being in the classroom and being able to see one another face-to-face has helped this semester to be more productive than the two prior, although it still brought its own unique set of challenges.

Not all staff, faculty and students were excited to return in-person because of the impending threat of COVID, especially with the emergence of the Omicron variant outside of the U.S., but UK did implement measures to protect everyone starting at the beginning of the semester.

UK offered incentives for students and faculty to be vaccinated, such as free tuition, tickets to sporting events, free parking and more. As of Nov. 19, the vaccination rate on campus was 89.7%.

Those who are not vaccinated are required to be tested once a week and complete their daily screening. Mask mandates are also enforced in classrooms for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

Many things returned to normal this year — in-person classes, sporting events at full capacity and regular organization meetings and gatherings — but COVID outbreaks were much less common compared to previous semesters.

We saw the UK community come together and protect one another, whether it be through getting vaccinated, getting tested regularly or being sure to stay home when not feeling well.

As a result of the virus, we have had a first semester of the 2021-2022 academic year that we cherish just a bit more because we remember what it was like to only know each other through a screen.