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The usual colorful flags hang over a sparse crowd of students along the main row of the Commons first floor. Photo by Jack Basmaci.

As students return, UMBC campus culture readjusts

There is a sense of bewilderment when one steps through the halls of UMBC this semester. The campus staples in the Commons, once empty, are now back to having lines that stretch halfway across Commons. Salsarita’s is back dishing out their overstuffed burritos, and provided anybody wants it, Wild Greens has the exact same “power bowl” special they offer every Fall semester — but the pervading mood, a strange combination of discomfort and hesitant optimism, is unmistakable.

Students rush a little more through Masala, Pollo, and Student Choice as a year and a half of isolation leave them with an elevated sense of social anxiety. They awkwardly lean closer to the glass panes that separate them, shouting through their masks so that the people taking their order can hear them over the now bustling sounds of the Commons. 

But is it really bustling? Compared to the noon to 1 p.m. lunch rush of pre-COVID times, Commons seems quiet and empty. You can easily find a table inside, even on a day when Hurricane Ida was scheduled to hit the Baltimore area. The “Sports Zone,” situated just next to Hissho, while never particularly brimming with students before, now sits vacant most days, save your occasional curious freshman, peeking their head in. The Game Room pool tables are unadorned and covered, and without anybody to operate them, the CRT television monitors further back are dusty and dark. 

It is unmistakably a little dour, and this mood is not limited to just the most crowded of places, nor simply to campus aesthetics. Dining hours, once mostly uniform, have now been arbitrarily scattered, including the utterly inexplicable decision to delay the opening of Einstein Bros Bagels (a breakfast spot) to no earlier than 3PM on most weekdays.

AOK itself, while thankfully left mostly unscathed by the quarantine, offers slightly reduced hours from years prior. Elsewhere, in spite of some much-needed and much-welcomed updates to the RAC layout, club sports are in disarray, with any and all competitions cancelled for at least a whole year. 

All of these odd inconsistencies — combined with the recent news of President Hrabowski’s imminent retirement from UMBC, as well as the myriad of mask mandates and hybrid courses that students have to wade through — contribute to an overall sense of something amiss, as though the campus itself, just like the rest of the country, is still catching up with the damages of 2020. 

Yet it is not all doom and gloom, and in fact, several strides have been made to make this semester as easy a transition as possible. OCA Mocha, the Arbutus-based, UMBC-oriented coffee shop, now offers a “Sunday Study Hall” from 12:00-4:00PM, where students might refuel with a cup of coffee.

Even the newly-built Retriever Burger Co., located where Mondo Subs used to be, offers the hope of something brand new, a future beyond the semi-stasis in which the campus currently seems to be operating. 

“Brand new” is perhaps the best term for the current status of campus life. UMBC’s student culture faces a unique blend of factors that will shape it over the coming months and semesters. With President Hrabowski retiring come June 2022, things seem a little uncertain for the future of UMBC, and it would be a lie to say that everything on campus feels just as it did some three years ago.

With that said, RBC., the return of (seb) events and the ever-growing extension of UMBC culture off-campus all seem to anticipate an eventual return to UMBC campus culture as it was known pre-pandemic. With the largest incoming class ever seen at UMBC thus far, perhaps the latter half of 2021 will prove to be a fruitful, regenerative time for both staff and students.