First day of classes draws huge crush of students to UC San Diego

UC San Diego students listen during an engineering class
UC San Diego students listen during an engineering class taught by Lelli Van Den Einde in an open-sided tent on the first day of the fall quarter Sept. 23.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s possible that the university’s fall enrollment will surpass 41,000 for the first time.


UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla held out his hands and said: “Look. I have goosebumps. This is what it’s supposed to be.”

Sept. 23 was the first day of the university’s fall quarter, and Khosla was standing in a sea of students — possibly the largest gathering of its kind in the 61-year history of the La Jolla campus.

Final numbers won’t be available until late October. But the university says it could end up with a record 41,000 students this fall, which didn’t seem likely earlier this year.

Barely half of UCSD’s dorm beds were filled during the spring due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost the campus $323 million in expenses and lost revenue.

San Diego County’s largest university pressed on with strict coronavirus testing and social distancing, which has helped minimize the spread of the virus. For the fall semester, all students, faculty and staff are required to be vaccinated in order to be on campus.

Of the 11,857 undergraduates who had moved into campus housing in recent days, only 13 tested positive for the virus, UCSD said. The infected students went into quarantine.

“As recently as July, I was concerned that [a surge in the virus] could come back,” said Khosla, who has been chancellor for nearly a decade. “I’m so glad it is under control.”

There was a sense of giddiness in the air as the quarter began. Students chatted in the midday sun, waiting in a long line to get into the school’s Target store. Pedestrians and skateboarders seemed to give one another room, a courtesy not always extended at UCSD.

UC San Diego students crowd Library Walk on the first day of the fall quarter.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

But concern about the virus has not faded.

Nearly everyone on campus Sept. 23 wore masks, whether inside or out. Many students patiently lined up at hand sanitizer dispensers. The school’s large, outdoor tent classrooms were in heavy use. And many students paused to grab free, self-administered coronavirus test kits from 20 vending machines spread around campus.

Students said they were hoping for the best.

“I’m excited to be part of something after being in isolation for so long,” said Angel Nieves, a transfer student from Pasadena. “I want to seek new opportunities.”

Faculty members also seemed eager for things to return to normal after having spent the past year and a half teaching most of their classes online.

Most UCSD classes are being taught in person this fall. But for health reasons, the school is still holding many classes in the outdoor tents.

Lelli Van Den Einde, a structural engineering professor, took advantage of the space, expanding the size of one of her introductory courses from 145 students to 210. She was trying to accommodate students who couldn’t make it to campus last year or chose to defer taking the class for a while.

Van Den Einde had been teaching from her home in Carmel Valley via Zoom, which wasn’t ideal, she said.

“You would pose a question and there would be silence,” she said. “Their [facial images] were turned off. It was very hard as an instructor to see how engaged they were, whereas in person you can tell whether they’re falling asleep or paying attention. They’re nodding at you. There’s so much non-verbal communication that makes a huge difference.”

Van Den Einde’s three high school-age children were home at the time, taking online classes.

“The kids always complained, ‘You’re so loud when you lecture,’” she said.

Her colleague, engineering professor Karcher Morris, also was feeling a sense of relief.

“I was just on Library Walk, where there were so many people rubbing shoulders,” Morris said. “There’s just so much positive energy.

“All of us have no idea of what it’s going to be like in a week or two. We’ll do the best we can. I think everyone’s on board here” with COVID-19 safety measures.

In a faculty survey released over the summer, 44 percent of the respondents said undergraduates had a “lower” understanding of course material online compared with their experience in a traditional classroom, and 10 percent had a “much lower” grasp. The survey also indicated that 28 percent of the respondents felt that cheating in online classes was “much higher” than in person, while 32 percent said it was “higher.” ◆