Current students help families and incoming students move into their dorm rooms on Aug. 27, during Dominican University’s move-in day at Coughlin and Murray Halls on the River Forest campus. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

On a sweltering Thursday morning, Olivia Hitz paced from the parking lot to her room on the first floor of a campus residence hall. Hitz, an incoming freshman at Concordia University Chicago, and her mother, Jill, capped off their nearly 15-hour drive from their home state of Texas by unloading their car, bursting with Hitz’s belongings. 

Like most families on move-in day, the two emptied out the trunk and piled Hitz’s bags, one of which was labeled “winter clothes,” by the entrance of Kohn Hall. 

“I was kind of nervous, but it’s been fun so far,” said Hitz Aug. 26, carrying an armful of items to her new room. A team of upperclassmen followed behind Hitz, muscling the rest of her things, including her lamp and a couple storage units. 

Up on the third floor, Aniyah Jackson’s family tried to squeeze into her dorm room. Her parents, grandparents, aunt and two younger siblings were inside the small bedroom, surrounded by garbage bags and bins stuffed with Jackson’s clothes, cleaning supplies, toiletries and more. Gina Davis, Jackson’s mother, just climbed up flights of stairs, her daughter’s laptop and Tide detergent in hand. 

“It’s great,” said Jackson, a college freshman from Chicago. Jackson, who briefly stepped out from her room to the hallway, smiled, as she heard loved ones’ voices. “It’s the support,” she said. 

Hitz and Jackson were just two of hundreds of students who moved to Concordia’s campus between Aug. 26 and 27, which kicked off the university’s Welcome Weekend, a two-day event packed with activities for new and returning undergraduates. The pair were excited to experience their first weekend away from home, which according to the Welcome Weekend itinerary, included orientation, DIY crafts, karaoke and late-night snacks. 

The two were ready to start a new chapter of their lives – and hoping the COVID-19 pandemic wouldn’t hinder them from reaching any more milestones. 

Last year, the River Forest university canceled Welcome Weekend because of the pandemic, said Eric Matanyi, associate vice president of communications and marketing. Students who lived on campus last year were only allowed to have single rooms. 

“Now, we’re back to roommates,” Matanyi said. 

Dominican University, which is also in River Forest, had similar restrictions. Mark Carbonara, director of advising and first-year experience, said resident students also lived in single rooms and had specific move-in times during the 2020-21 school year. Like Concordia, DU also held its move-in days and welcome celebration for new students over the same weekend, from Aug. 26 to Aug. 29.  

“You couldn’t just show up, get your key and move in whenever,” Carbonara said, adding last fall, resident students could only bring one person to help them settle in.

Like most schools across the county, Concordia and Dominican were left with no choice last year but to move their courses and social events online to help protect staff and students and slow the spread of COVID-19. There were so many students learning remotely inside their dorm rooms, said Matanyi. 

In another effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a vaccine mandate for all public and private school and university employees, as well as college students and health care workers. Employees and college students must get the single-dose vaccine or the first dose of the two-dose vaccine by Sept. 5, according to the new guidelines. 

Those who do not get the COVID-19 shot or opt out because of religious or medical reasons must be subject to weekly testing at their respective schools or healthcare facilities. Pritzker has also brought back a mask mandate, which requires all individuals over the age of 2 to wear masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. 

The vaccine mandate is a changeup for CUC, which previously encouraged – but did not require – staff and students to get vaccinated before returning to campus for the 2021 fall semester. Dominican officials, however, imposed their own vaccination requirement for students and employees. Students and staff were required to be fully vaccinated and show proof of their vaccination status before returning to campus this fall. 

Concordia is offering the two-dose Moderna vaccine and three vaccination clinic dates for staff and employees, starting Sept. 3, from 1 to 3 p.m. Appointments are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and pre-registration is required. For more information, visit www.cuchicago.edu/general-information/covid-19-information

As both universities open back up, some students worry about readjusting to another routine but have come away with lessons while living on their own during the pandemic. 

Tyler Kara and Mack Gonzalez, both of whom are seniors at Dominican, have spent roughly a year and a half – since the second semester of their sophomore year – studying online. With in-person classes having begun on Aug. 30, Kara and Gonzalez said they’re excited and nervous about getting back into a routine and finishing out their final year. 

“I just got so used to waking up 10 minutes before class, rolling out of bed and getting on my laptop,” Kara said, adding he is looking forward to going to class and being around other students. “I know I’m going to get a better education.”

Kara, a Las Vegas, Nevada native, said he was unable to fly home and be around his family when the pandemic first started. Gonzalez, who lives in nearby Berwyn, said he chose to stay back and live apart from family to limit any exposure to the novel coronavirus. For Kara and Gonzalez, their college years are widely different from what they imagined, but they claim the experience has allowed them to grow and come out of their shell.  

On Aug. 27, Kara and Gonzalez were part of a crew of upperclassmen who pushed and pulled trolly cars, helping incoming students move into their dorm rooms. Underneath a blistering sun, they lugged personal belongings up and down a campus residence hall. 

As Gonzalez looked around the parking lot lined up with new students and their families, he spoke about a lesson he learned as a college student during the pandemic. 

“I can do it on my own,” Gonzalez said, adding it’s a lesson that comes in time and experience. “I don’t need the help of anyone else. The fact that I can trust myself to take care of myself.”

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