By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Yara Slaton and Ximena Velázquez-Arenas forged a super-tight friendship as first-year law students. They bonded at orientation, shared classes and social activities, and worked so well together as the Student Association at Berkeley Law’s 1L representatives that they won the chance to be this year’s co-presidents.
What they hadn’t done until a few days ago was meet in person: The COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to conduct their entire 1L year virtually. Slaton spent the year in Boise, with her mother and 18-year-old daughter. Velázquez-Arenas was in Mexico City with her family.
When the moment finally happened — on a street in the real-life Berkeley, punctuated by an ebullient hug — it was epic.
“Look at you!” Slaton exclaimed. “Your eyes are real!”
It was a thrilling ritual performed countless times during the first days of fall classes, as students, faculty, and staff filled the school’s halls, silent and still for so many months, with activity. Things that were once mundane — settling into lecture halls, grabbing a coffee at Café Zeb, even snagging a free burrito from the Public Interest Working Group — crackled with a mixture of glee and relief.
“It was so emotional and just unreal,” Slaton says of meeting virtual friends in person for the first time. “My heart felt like it was going to burst with joy. How do you miss people you’ve never even met in person so much that it brings you to tears to see them?”
“Oddly, it felt very familiar to see people I have never actually seen in person,” says Tiara Brown ’22, who was SABL co-president last year and returned to Berkeley at the end of June. “Sure, there’s the initial ‘OMG it’s you!’ but these are also the people we’ve spent hours and hours talking to. It’s like seeing an old friend.”
The exhilaration was shared by the school’s faculty and staff, who trickled back into the building starting in July.
“As I begin my forty-second year as a law professor today, I can say without hesitation that I never have been more excited to be in the classroom and to start a new school year,” Dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote in a welcome email to the community as classes began August 16, exactly 17 months after the school was forced to go virtual.
“It is wonderful to welcome back to the Law School building our 3L students and to welcome to the building for the first time almost all of our other students, as well as our faculty and staff who have joined us since March 16, 2020,” he wrote.
Professor Khiara M. Bridges says she’d forgotten how much she enjoyed standing in front of a class and seeing her students until she had the chance to do it, and feel their energy as they explored concepts and doctrines.
“Many of my students from classes that I taught online last year have enrolled in my classes this semester. And it was really emotional for me to see them in person for the first time,” she says. “It’s like we had been through a fairly traumatic experience together — this pandemic has been traumatic on so many levels — but now we are going to try to heal together. In person. It’s really meaningful for me.”
To be sure, this is still no ordinary semester: While vaccination is required for the entire UC Berkeley community, the emergence of the delta variant shifted public health advisories, and the university changed its guidelines accordingly. Masks are required at all times indoors (unless faculty or staff are alone in their office), and social distancing is advised, even outdoors. Eating is prohibited and everyone is asked to shift, not remove, their mask if taking a sip of a drink.
That makes for a challenging, and somewhat anxious, scenario that tempered the general enthusiasm for being back in person a bit. Slaton says it’s a nagging fear that a surge in COVID cases will snatch the experience away again. Tiffany Deguzman ’22 feels the same way.
“I’m worried that students will feel the need to come to school even if they aren’t feeling well and then a lot of students will get sick,” she says. “I know people are excited to come back and/or are worried about missing material in class, but I hope professors will record classes so we can stay home if we get sick. Being back in person is unsustainable if we aren’t considerate of everyone around us.”
In-person learning got a trial run over the summer, when some LL.M. classes were taught in a hybrid format, with some students physically there and some on Zoom. But a full-on fall semester will be a test of the safety policies, and everyone in the law school.
In his welcome to the school community, Chemerinsky urged everyone to be sensitive to the needs of others in many ways, including the potential obligation to quarantine or stay home because of ill or exposed family members or other contacts. No matter what happens, he wrote, he’s confident Berkeley Law will deliver excellent legal education, produce pathbreaking legal research, and fulfill the school’s public mission.
“Our community is characterized by its warmth and caring, its commitment to equity and inclusion, and its rich intellectual environment with countless speakers and programs,” Chemerinsky says. “I know without a doubt that all will define the 2021-22 academic year.”
Two-thirds of the J.D. students were coming into the physical building for the first time, and the 3Ls had less than a full academic year in person. All descended on a faculty, staff, and administration eagerly awaiting them.
“It felt like I was in a dream,” Slaton says of her first time walking into the school. “I didn’t know what to expect, but everything is so nice, and catered to students.”
Aaron Altman J.D./MBA ’24 and Alex Bogdon ’23 also said they were impressed after finally getting the chance to sit in an in-person class.
“There’s definitely more of an energy to it that doesn’t come through via Zoom and on video,” Altman says. “It’s crazy — it feels like the first real law school class, even though we already finished 1L year.”
Deguzman, who is originally from North Carolina but stayed in Berkeley once classes went virtual, says it wasn’t as strange as she expected it to be to meet people in real life for the first time. And while she admits she’ll miss the chance to sneak in a nap during the school day — one of the little luxuries of Zoom classes — the benefits of face-to-face camaraderie are more than worth it.
“My favorite part about Berkeley Law is the community, and I think our student body’s community-mindedness carried over into virtual instruction, at least to a certain extent, which helps make meeting in person feel familiar,” she says. “I’m most excited about the little moments that make law school fun, like being able to study with my friends throughout the day and gathering a crew to grab boba during the lunch hour.
“I’m looking forward to in-person interactions being natural again.”
After so many months building relationships virtually, Slaton is more than ready to pack everything she can into the rest of law school.
“My biggest ambition for this year is to meet everyone in the law building,” she says. “And do meaningful pro bono work that makes a difference.”
Brown is also looking forward to doing all the traditional activities that were canceled or virtual over the past 17 months, from the Barristers’ Ball to commencement, and even experiencing the affinity of sitting next to friends during a difficult cold call. For her, rebuilding the sense of community at the law school that she and her classmates experienced as 1Ls is a priority.
“I want everyone to feel connected and like they are truly supported by their peers,” she says.