The nation’s 17 million college students have confronted a new and chaotic reality on campus this fall: a fast-changing legal landscape and entirely new norms in the wake of the Dobbs decision on abortion. For some, the changes are joyful, a protection of human life. For others, they are terrifying, pushing them to consider scenarios that would have been unthinkable just months ago, such as having to drop out of school if they became pregnant.
For this story, The Washington Post partnered with student journalists in Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, Indiana and D.C. to help solicit voices from across the country.
Their responses were nuanced and widely varied, reflecting the diversity of the student population and the tremendous legal uncertainty.
One of the students elated by the ruling said she wept at the prospect of so many babies’ lives being saved. Some students spoke of their intensified fears of rape. Many were furious and said they would focus their energy on protests and politics. Students in medical fields wondered how their education might shift. Some worried about the possibility of reprisals for speaking out. In those cases, The Washington Post abbreviated the last names.
Here’s what they said:
College & campus life
“Hook up culture is dead.”
— Helena Woroniecka, 24, University of Arizona
“I honestly feel like I cannot catch a break. Graduating high school in 2020 in the midst of a pandemic and trying to navigate coming of age within it was difficult enough. Now, having to worry about having my bodily autonomy taken from me and millions of other people makes me feel sad and fearful for the new school year.”
— Lindsey Gonzalez, 20, University of Central Florida
“I mean, it feels daunting. I’m lucky that I’m attending a school in a state where abortion is still accessible and will likely remain. But that’s the thing: I am lucky.”
— Lizz Murray, 18, Mt. Holyoke College, Massachusetts
“Going back to campus this year was more difficult than I anticipated. I’d known the decision that was coming, and I still felt like the ground had been ripped out from underneath my feet.”
— Molly Kaspar, 24, Boise State University, Idaho
“It sucks. I haven’t heard anyone who thinks, ‘This is awesome. This rocks.'”
— Nick Escue, 19, Collin College’s Frisco Campus, Texas
“I’m very excited to be able to go to school in a post-Roe America. No one has been able to do this for 50 years, so I am very happy about it.”
— Sara De Rosa, 19, Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Arizona
“It was extra hard coming back to school here this fall. It’s crazy how a two-hour plane ride can take you back 50 years.”
— Gwyneth Corrales, 21, Arizona State University
“I go to school in Massachusetts, but my home is Arizona. This year, going back to college means I can escape to a state where I know my reproductive rights will be upheld.”
— Piper Corey, 19, Smith College, Massachusetts
“Panic set in” after the ruling, said Rhianna San Soucie, 20, a junior at the University of New Orleans. Some students have been posting QR codes in the bathrooms with information about how to order contraceptives and how to get an abortion despite Louisiana’s ban, she said. “They keep trying to hide them in the trash cans and the stalls and stuff,” she said, but the stickers keep getting removed. She faults the government for that.
“It feels like there is a war on women,” she said, “and no one knows exactly how to fight.”
Sex & pregnancy
“I practice abstinence so this is not a concern.”
— Jacob Ferns, 20, Concordia University, Michigan
“I am lucky enough to have a strong support system to help me if I were to become pregnant. Myself and my female roommates have made a point to always have contraceptives in the home.”
— Izzy Knight, 20, University of Georgia
“I really don’t want to have sex now. It seems too dangerous; the stakes are too high for me to be in a sexually active relationship.”
— Italia Caro, 19, Arizona State University
“I am pro-life and waiting until marriage … I decided long ago that if I got my girlfriend of over 2 1/2 years pregnant, I would marry her immediately and do whatever it takes to provide for her and our child.”
— Mark P., 21, University of Texas at Austin
“As soon as Roe was overturned, I booked an appointment for an IUD (I’m writing this right now in the waiting room for my follow-up appointment!). College is stressful enough without having to worry about an unwanted pregnancy.”
— McKinley Lettre, 20, Davidson College, North Carolina
Yuri Singletery was a freshman when she became pregnant. She never considered leaving college. “I was always determined I was going to finish no matter what,” she said.
“I was born when my mom was 19 years old. No one encouraged her to go to school. That’s been a cycle within my family,” Singletery said.
Singletery got an abortion, an experience she said was traumatic.
“I think many people have a misconception of abortion and think people do it for selfish reasons,” she said. ” … I felt I was treated as a number and not as a person … I didn’t really feel like anybody actually cared about my mental well-being.
“Because it wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
So when she got pregnant again while still in school, she chose to give birth.
She was determined to finish her degree. She started her final semester at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University virtually this fall because she couldn’t find affordable housing or child care in Greensboro for her 1-year-old son, Midas. She and her partner have an apartment outside Charlotte, where he works and they have family support while they take care of Midas and she juggles school and a part-time job. She is on long-term birth control, but she worries about another pregnancy.
With ongoing shortages of formula, child care and affordable housing, she said, “I think that’s pretty outrageous to force women to have children, and they can’t even find formula to feed their babies.”
Safety & security
“I am terrified for the health and safety of my peers.”
— Alison Turner, 20, Drew University, New Jersey
“Honestly, I’m feeling scared. I just transferred to this school and am still getting to know my surroundings. It makes me nervous to go to social events with the risk of being sexually assaulted. I don’t want to have to sacrifice my social life because I’m scared someone will rape me and I won’t have any choice in my future.”
— Leah B., 19, University of Georgia
“I feel unsafe and unimportant. If I were choosing what university I would attend again, I would not choose a school in a place where I couldn’t get an abortion if needed.”
-Erica Kahn, 22, Emory University, Georgia
“I feel uncomfortable considering I know so many people who pay for college themselves. They don’t have the funds to even pay for doctors visits.”
— Ruby Maderafont, 21, Arizona State University
“I have very much retracted from the scene and have been having conversations with friends who are continuing about what the ‘game plan’ is — especially if one of our friends is assaulted.”
— Alex Gustafson, 19, University of Idaho
“My partner and I are pretty nervous about our sexual health. He is a transgender man without hormone replacement therapy or surgeries because he cannot afford them. Thus, we are extremely careful when it comes to our sexual health. But if something bad happens and we get pregnant, there will be little that we will be able to do.”
— Kay S., 18, Arizona State University
“Sexual assault is always a possibility no matter how careful I could be. Without the choice to make my own decision about my reproductive health, it makes me even more afraid for if something were to happen.”
— Maia Witte, 20, University of Missouri-Columbia
This summer, after the ruling, Kiana Hawley, 18, got an IUD. It was painful, she said, but it is reassuring to have it for her first year at the University of Georgia. “Hopefully it’ll keep me protected and safe.”
The ruling is constantly on her mind. It made her angry and upset — but most of all scared.
“It felt like a big takeback,” she said, one that would disproportionately harm people with fewer options. “It was definitely an attack on women of color — especially, I think, those of lower classes.”
But most of all, the ruling left her feeling much more vulnerable, especially as she moved at 18 to an unfamiliar place. “When I go out, I have mace. I also have a knife I keep on me, that my father gave me. I’m planning on getting a Taser. Whenever I go out downtown with my friends, we always go in groups, share our locations on Life360 to make us feel safe because we’re all girls. So I want to make sure everyone is OK and safe.”
“I fear they won’t stop at abortion.”
— Hannah Breslau, 19, University of Maryland, School of Public Policy
“As someone who is pro-life and thrilled that Roe was overturned, I am looking forward to having discussions with pro-choice students about this issue and how the pro-life movement helps pregnant women.”
— James George, 21, College of William & Mary, Virginia
“While living in Colorado I know my right to an abortion is protected, but I go to school in a very conservative area. I am worried about how the community will view my school and its response to this situation. I am also anxious to voice my opinions on this issue because of how conservative the area is.”
— Caitlin Loughry, 21, University of Northern Colorado
“I feel the same because at the end of the day, the states can decide. They gave us the option, they didn’t exactly rule it out.”
— Jimmy Cornette, 21, Morehead State University, Kentucky
“Pregnancies by younger mothers are common in this state, and our legislature and government do not reflect the values that young women desperately need. We need an empathetic voice to stand up for us, as we are barely adults ourselves.”
— Hannah Crouch, 22, University of Georgia
“I think the original Roe v. Wade decision was a gross misinterpretation of the Constitution that has led to an organized genocide of literally tens of millions of humans.”
— Kara Moran, 18, University of Alabama
Noah Slayter’s parents hosted about 10 foster kids over several years at their home in Manassas, Va. “There’s a lot of people that will say, ‘Oh, we should just abort the kids because they might end up in foster care,'” he said. “And I always say, ‘You’re talking about the people that I saw that slept in the room across the hall from me that, you know, I woke up and went to school with, and all of those things — those are real people. And you’re saying that their life should be ended because they could end up in the situation they’re in?’ I don’t see that as correct.”
The 20-year-old started with Students for Life of America at his high school, and he is a student spokesperson with the organization as a sophomore at Catholic University.
He felt a lot of energy from other students on campus this fall. “There’s definitely a different attitude … a higher rate of engagement … One of our clubs at school prays weekly at the local Planned Parenthood. And they’ve had an uptick in people who have gone to pray with them.” People keep asking him, “How can I help? How can I do something?”
He hopes that is the start of a real change in awareness of the options for people during and after pregnancy. “That would be huge. We have all these states now that are banning abortion, and that will definitely leave people feeling like they’re in the depths. They feel like they’re left alone,” he said. “But we really need to make sure that they know they are not alone and that they have resources.”
“If I have sex and mess up, there is no plan C.”
— Mattheus Wardle, 18, Utah State University
“I am in the process of applying to graduate schools, and I feel like my options are increasingly limited due to my unwillingness to move to a state where my reproductive rights are not protected.”
— Alexis Hogan, 23, California State University at Los Angeles
“It’s changing how I think about graduate school. I don’t want to move to a state where my rights are restricted. This isn’t a factor I ever thought I’d have to consider.”
— Isabel Long, 21, University of Colorado at Boulder
“My partner and I have a plan. We will do a surprise trip to California on the down low and get an abortion. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s what we gotta do to stay in school and continue the path we both want.”
— Emily Radics, 20, Arizona State University
“In my field, I’ll need to pursue graduate degrees. Not only do I intend to leave the deep red state my school is located in, I plan to leave the entire country.”
— Antares Brown, 27, Weber State University, Utah
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When she was deciding which law school to go to this spring, Maggie Crain was convinced by the child care available at the University of Mississippi for her three-year-old son, Munro.
But she was also nervous about the idea of moving to Mississippi, because she had seen the leaked draft opinion of the landmark Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
“I was scared,” she said. “Very scared.”
At 28, her thinking on abortion had changed dramatically from her evangelical Baptist childhood in Pensacola, Fla., where a doctor who provided abortions was fatally shot in the 1990s and protesters carried signs plastered with gruesome images. As she got older, she came to think of abortion as essential health care, not violence.
She didn’t know how she could get through law school if she got pregnant again. “If I have another kid, it would completely derail what I could possibly do in my legal career,” she said.
She hopes to become a federal public defender, and perhaps a judge someday.
And she wondered how abortion bans could change criminal defense — especially for low-income women who would be more likely to rely on a public defender and might have fewer options with an unexpected pregnancy. In her University of Mississippi School of Law classes, law-review journals and the news, she planned to watch whether women who miscarried would be accused of illegal abortions. “As a woman who wants to do that kind of law, I’m paying close attention.”
Before they moved from Florida, she got a 10-year IUD inserted.
She told her husband, “I don’t feel comfortable going to Mississippi without one.”
To garner responses from students, The Washington Post partnered with several college newspapers across the country. They include: the Red & Black, University of Georgia; the State Press, Arizona State University; the Hilltop, Howard University; the Diamondback, University of Maryland; the Daily Texan, University of Texas at Austin; the A&T Register, North Carolina A&T State University; and Ball State Daily News, Ball State University.
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The Washington Post’s Lizzy Raben contributed to this report.