This story is part of the series “2020 Lessons.” This fall, WBEZ education reporters are following students and teachers from the Chicago area as they make their way through an education world turned upside down by the coronavirus.

For the past seven weeks, University of Southern California freshman Karen Rodriguez has spent most days in her windowless bedroom in Chicago’s Archer Heights neighborhood, staring at a computer screen for Zoom classes.

Occasionally, she’ll join Zoom meetings for a biology club where she gets to “geek out” over articles they read or group discussions.

“I’m like, ‘Yes! Evolution! Darwin!’ ” Rodriguez said. “It takes my mind off school and home.”

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University of Southern California freshman Karen Rodriguez does her school work remotely from her home on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Rodriquez decided to take classes from home this fall to help out her family and save money on housing. But as she spends every day in front of her computer, she continues to ask herself if online classes are worth the money.

As the first semester continues, some students who aren’t getting an on-campus experience are questioning what they’re paying for, even if scholarships and financial aid have helped reduce out-of-pocket costs. Students across the Chicago area and the country have petitioned universities for tuition reductions. They’re arguing online and remote learning isn’t the same as in-person classes and they don’t have access to on campus facilities like the library or gym. Multiple students also filed lawsuits against colleges for tuition reimbursements from the spring semester.

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Korzeniowski redid her childhood bedroom to help her make a fresh start. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“You’re paying for what seems like glorified YouTube videos,” said Julia Korzeniowski, a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who is taking classes from her family home in suburban Hoffman Estates. “There’s only really two classes where I regularly meet with my professor or a [teaching assistant], and [with] pretty much everything else, I have little communication or I haven’t talked to them at all.”

Many universities have offered minimal fee reimbursements but have largely refused to reduce tuition, arguing students are still getting a commensurate education in a different form. Plus, salaries and maintenance costs haven’t changed. Universities are already facing financial pressures after they reimbursed housing and meal plans last spring and have fewer students on campus this fall.

Rodriguez said she’s contemplated transferring to a local school, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but she isn’t actively pursuing that option. She has friends there who are living on-campus.

Recently, she had questions about how to read her financial aid package at USC and found herself reaching out to her high school counselor for advice rather than staff at USC.

“That connection, that communication is not there [at USC],” she said.

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A white COVID-19 testing site is now part of the landscape on the quad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Freshmen Elizabeth LeBeau, who is walking across the quad, has enjoyed eating meals on the quad with other freshmen Darrell Hoemann / WBEZ

U of I is one of the few schools nationally that regularly tests students for COVID-19, and officials said they anticipated students like Rodriguez would yearn to be on campus and possibly transfer. This spring, they’re allowing all schools within the university to accept transfers, which they don’t usually allow.

Still, that doesn’t mean she would get a “normal” college experience. Most classes at U of I are still online. Elizabeth LeBeau is a freshman there, and she only has one in-person class this fall. She says she often zones out watching recorded videos in her dorm, and it’s easy to procrastinate on social media apps like TikTok.

“I feel I’d be more motivated if I got up and walked to class every single day,” LeBeau said.

She also feels disconnected from her professors and said it’s intimidating to email them, especially when tone and questions can be misconstrued.

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Freshman Elizabeth LeBeau has one in-person class this semester at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s grateful it gives her an opportunity to leave her dorm. Caden Chamness / WBEZ

But Ismael Beltran, a freshman at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, still thinks this fall is worth every penny. The 18-year-old from Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood is loving the new freedom, meeting new friends and living in his dorm, even though COVID-19 procedures and social distancing measures. He’s still relishing the novelty of his newfound freedom, and enjoys going to 7-11 to get slushies and late night movie parties in the dorm lobby. He didn’t even mind quarantining in his dorm room for two weeks in September.

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Freshman Ismael Beltran walks across campus with his friends at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Jerilee Bennett / WBEZ

Still, he knows he’d have a wider circle of friends and connections if classes were in-person. Colorado College students attend classes one at a time in a block schedule. Beltran says he’s only spoken to two of his 14 classmates since school started. A few weeks ago, he started talking to a classmate because he saw the student’s cat walk across his Zoom camera.

“I just texted him and said, ‘Your cat is cute,’ and I started having a conversation with him,” Beltran said.

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Beltran picked Colorado College after falling in love with the campus on a visit during high school Jerilee Bennett

Those living on campus have six weeks left until Thanksgiving, when most colleges are sending students home for the remainder of the semester. Beltran might even stay in Colorado through Thanksgiving to avoid exposing his multi-generational family in Chicago. As this unusual fall continues, returning home safely is another issue all students are thinking about as they prepare for the second half of the fall semester.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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