Meet Covid-19’s Freshman Class

Lucy Naughton doesn’t mind spending a lot of time in her dorm room. She just wishes she could do it with other people.

The freshman at Hamilton College is a self-described homebody. In high school, hangouts with friends often involved curling up with blankets and pillows, lighting candles, and talking for hours.

That’s how she thought college would be, too. But thanks to Covid-19, for most of the semester, friends haven’t been allowed in her room unless they live on her floor — and even then, only masked and physically distanced. Last week, campus officials slightly relaxed the rules.

Hamilton, like many colleges that reopened for in-person learning this fall, has put in place stringent protocols to curb the spread of the virus: extensive testing; mandatory face coverings; and, if students leave the small campus in upstate New York for any reason, a negative test to return. The approach appears to be working, as Hamilton has reported just 10 cases among students since August.

Such restrictions, however, have complicated the transition to college for first-year students like Naughton. This year, freshmen are navigating a semester that’s nothing like what they expected when they started applying in the fall of 2019.

On campus, many are struggling to make friends and not finding much to do, with sizes of gatherings strictly limited and extracurriculars mostly virtual. Others are taking classes remotely, even further away from the traditional undergraduate experience, and contending with direct impacts of Covid-19: loved ones with serious bouts of the virus, and job losses due to economic fallout. Many say their mental health has taken a hit.

Because of the pandemic, “freshmen, especially, are at grave risk of dropping out, of going home, of having a mental-health crisis,” said Lee Burdette Williams, senior director of mental-health initiatives and the College Autism Network at Naspa: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Colleges are trying a range of interventions to help new students adjust: ramped-up advising, additional check-ins, virtual activities, mental-health resources.

It’s really easy to not attend events through Zoom. You just don’t open up your laptop.

But even the best support won’t change the Zoom fatigue. The isolation. The unfulfilled desire to explore their independence and identities and interests without worrying so much about the rules. The longing for a real college experience.

As of late September, freshman enrollment nationwide this fall was down 16 percent from the same time in 2019. Now, most of the way through the fall semester, some new students are so dissatisfied that they’re wondering whether college is worth it. Many first-years, though, have strengthened their resolve, determined to complete their degrees, even if college isn’t going quite like they expected.

For freshmen, this summer was marked by agonizing uncertainty. The time when they’d typically go to orientation, find out housing assignments, get to know new roommates, and pick classes was instead spent at home, attending orientation online and hitting “refresh” on their colleges’ Covid-19 websites. They saw promises of in-person learning and a robust campus experience fade.

With the start of the semester just a couple of weeks away, many freshmen still didn’t know how exactly their classes would work, or when they’d be moving to campus, or whether they’d be moving at all.

Izzy Stoneback was one of the first freshmen to take part in the fall-2020 experiment, moving into her dorm at Appalachian State University on August 10. Upon arrival, she received a packet with three university-branded face masks. She sat through a meeting with her resident advisers on the public-health rules they’d all have to heed.

She was nervous about the potential for Covid-19 to spread in close living quarters, but she tried to keep an open mind. Like many students, she strongly preferred in-person, hands-on learning.

Within a couple of days, Stoneback wondered if she’d made a mistake.

She shared a communal dorm bathroom with at least 20 other students. In the hallway and on Snapchat, she saw many of them going to parties, even though large maskless gatherings were banned.

She watched the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 160 miles east, send its students home and move classes online after many campus outbreaks. By the end of the first week of classes, active-case numbers at App State ticked over 50. It felt inevitable, she said, that Appalachian State students would be sent home, too.

So, two weeks into her freshman year, she left campus. She never got a refund for her campus housing.

The ordeal, she said, “has definitely stressed me out quite a bit and taken a toll on my mental health.”

Stoneback, who lives in Wilmington, N.C., misses seeing the mountains from her dorm-room window. She hasn’t made any new friends, and she hasn’t joined any university clubs. On social media, she sees App State’s on-campus semester happening without her. “From what I’ve heard, everyone still seems to be having a good time,” she said.

In her classes, which she tunes in to from her grandmother’s kitchen table, she misses real-time discussions about what she’s learning. Her biology lab, which involves clicking buttons on an online simulator, “is very strange,” she said.

But she doesn’t regret leaving. “I know what I’m doing is going to keep me safest,” she said. “I know if I was on campus right now, I would still be super-worried about interacting with people.” She watched from afar as the university grappled with the death of Chad Dorrill, a sophomore, from complications of Covid-19, and with a major surge in cases in October.

App State officials have repeatedly stressed that they believe the fall semester has, for the most part, gone well. At the end of October, Chancellor Sheri Everts wrote in her weekly Covid-19 update to the campus that the university had just had fewer than 30 active cases for five straight days for the first time all semester.

“This milestone is a testament to the commitment of our faculty, staff, and students to slowing the spread of this virus,” she wrote.

Alex Howard, interim assistant vice chancellor and director of wellness and prevention services, acknowledged that, for freshmen, “the presence of Covid-19 has heightened feelings of nervousness associated with the transition to college.”

The university has sought to support freshmen with programs “that promote social connections” and “a deeper connectedness to the Boone, N.C., area,” Howard said in a statement. Officials have also made sure new students are aware of resources like the counseling center, he said.

Those measures might help many freshmen, but they won’t repair Stoneback’s loss of trust in the university.

“I didn’t realize how terribly the chancellor would handle the coronavirus,” she said. Keeping students on campus “feels very financially motivated.”

Stoneback has weighed her options. She thought about community college. But for now, she is forging ahead remotely with her freshman year.

On campus at Arizona State University, Angel Palazuelos feels relatively safe — because he’s so isolated. His three suitemates are the only people he regularly sees without masks on.

He describes most of his attempts to make friends as “hi-and-bye type communications.” When he encounters another masked student on the dorm elevator, for example, their exchanges are brief: “It’s like, what’s your major? Oh, I live on this floor. OK, bye!” he said.

Even if a conversation with a peer gets going, it’s awkward. Palazuelos said he’s constantly wondering whether he’s crossing the other person’s boundaries. He knows some people are especially wary of contracting Covid-19. “I just want to be respectful at all times,” he said. The problem with that, he said, is that “no bond is ever really created.”

Early on, the university held virtual scavenger hunts, he said. Only a few students showed up. “It’s really easy to not attend events through Zoom,” he said. “You just don’t open up your laptop.”

Typically, when a freshman is feeling lonely, colleges prescribe a simple solution: “We need to get you engaged,” said Sharon Mitchell, senior director of counseling, health, and wellness at the University at Buffalo. This semester, it’s harder to give those students options, she said.

Arizona State is still creating social experiences for students, said Aaron Krasnow, associate vice president for health services and counseling services. Masked and virtual interactions, Krasnow said, can be as meaningful as in-person ones.

But on most campuses, many of the spaces where freshmen would normally meet people — classrooms, common areas in dorms, athletic events — are either off limits or subject to strict distancing requirements.

“Feeling connected to your peers is a really big part of feeling like you belong on a college campus,” said Tessa Chefalo, director of orientation and first-year programs at Hamilton College.

That sense of belonging matters. Research shows that the first six weeks are the most critical time for new students to feel engaged and connected on a campus. Those who don’t feel like they belong are less likely to graduate.

Chefalo and her staff have heeded the high demand for in-person programs and tried to play matchmaker for new students. At a recent outdoor tie-dye event, students were paired up to talk, six feet apart. Her office also held a “speed friending” event, where freshmen could meet lots of peers in virtual breakout rooms. Each student identified a few people they’d like to get to know better. The college then encouraged them to meet safely in person, handing out gift cards to the campus café.

Naughton, the Hamilton freshman, has joined a student theatre group that can’t hold in-person productions, and a knitting club that’s “not as cozy” as she’d like. She has participated in virtual programs through the campus counseling center, including one where students gathered on Zoom and wrote a song together in an hour.

Naughton, who’s interested in studying psychology, has openly talked about her mental health for years, and knows how to manage her symptoms. But many first-year students don’t know how to seek help, even as they’re experiencing “one of the biggest kinds of psychosocial transitions,” said Sarah Ketchen Lipson, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at Boston University who researches student mental health.

This year, the transition to college has been marked by a deep-seated loneliness that even the best socially distant or virtual events can’t fix.

Naughton sees a small silver lining: Unlike their older peers, freshmen don’t have anything to compare it with.

“It’s going to be weird to come to college and not have to wear masks and be able to have friends in your room,” she said, hastily adding, “I will really appreciate it.”

As Covid-19 cases surge to record levels nationwide, it’s become clear that this fall semester won’t be an aberration. College is going to be like this for a while.

Some new students won’t be able to stay motivated in this kind of environment, said Williams, of Naspa. In a moment of crisis and uncertainty, she said, “anything can tip the scales” to make freshmen want to give up.

There were times where Haylin Mujica wondered if she’d be able to handle college this semester after all.

Just a couple of months earlier, Mujica had gotten the best news possible: She’d be receiving a full ride to California State University-East Bay, through TheDream. US program. The scholarship meant her freshman year of college was a go. Her family couldn’t afford the tuition, and as an undocumented student, she couldn’t rely on federal financial aid. Plus, the university was close to home, which was important.

Noah Berger for The Chronicle

Haylin Mujica, a freshman at Cal State-East Bay: “The scholarship is the only thing that’s motivating me to keep going on in college.”

Then, just before her first week of classes, both of her parents came down with Covid-19.

Suddenly Mujica and her sister, who’s in high school, had to spend much of the day taking care of them. And because their parents couldn’t go to work, no money was coming in, other than a small unemployment check Mujica received because she’d been laid off from her job at a summer camp.

“I remember my parents saying, ‘You know what, the hospital bills are coming, and I don’t think we can actually pay for Wi-Fi,” Mujica said. Without internet access, she wouldn’t be able to attend online classes.

Family members lent them enough for the Wi-Fi bill. But that wasn’t the only obstacle. Each day, Mujica had to make a schedule with her sister for cooking, running errands, and tending to their parents, working around academic obligations as best they could. She couldn’t stay up late doing homework because she had to wake up early to get through everything.

During class, “all I could think of was, after this, I have to go to the store and buy this, or I have to order food for my sister, or I have to make my parents tea,” she said. “I wasn’t 100-percent focused.”

Essays were due the first week, and she didn’t even have all of her textbooks yet. She struggled to keep up with the material in a virtual format.

She cried a lot. She thought: “I should probably drop this for right now and get a stable job.”

For Mujica, perhaps the biggest motivation to persevere was her full ride. “Right now,” she said in September, “the scholarship is the only thing that’s motivating me to keep going on in college.”

Her freshman adviser helped, too. The adviser connected her with community food programs that didn’t require a car for pickup, as Mujica doesn’t have a driver’s license, and helped her drop a course.

At Cal State-East Bay, where 60 percent of students are, like Mujica, the first in their families to go to college, wraparound advising is a key part of keeping freshmen on track.

Marissa Baumann, coordinator of the peer-academic-coaching program, described the system with a health-care analogy: Every freshmen has a dedicated adviser, who’s like the primary-care doctor. If a student’s doing well, Baumann said, that’s probably the only help they’ll need.

If first-year students need more academic help, they can connect with peer coaches, who embed in classrooms, act as a bridge between students and professors, and meet with students one on one. The peer coaches are like physical therapists, Baumann said. And for those who are struggling the most academically, there’s a freshman “pioneer success” coach, who’s like a medical specialist, drilling down into a specific issue the student is having.


Nancy L. Ford

Chloe Maldonado and Alexa Bollnow take part in a Hamilton College program to bring students together outdoors. The college is in Clinton, N.Y.

With an all-virtual semester, advising has actually become more flexible and easier to access for first-year students, with less red tape, said Maureen Scharberg, dean of academic programs. The university has seen a 300-percent increase in advisers’ reaching out to students since the pandemic began.

This spring, Cal State-East Bay will stay virtual. Mujica, who wants to become a teacher, worries about having to take more challenging courses online. She has to keep her grades up to keep her scholarship.

But for now, she’s back on track. Her parents have recovered from Covid-19 and returned to work. She’s doing well in her classes and secured a part-time campus job.

So maybe, freshmen will find strength in this bizarre experience.

“You could probably make the argument that, while this is a really difficult way to start college, these students are going to learn a resilience and a set of coping experiences that none of the students in the last 50 years have had,” said Ben Locke, senior director of counseling and psychological services at Pennsylvania State University.

Angel Palazuelos, the Arizona State freshman, has found a few ways to cope. To de-stress, he goes for a walk or run and reflects: What did I do wrong? How can I prevent it next time? Oh, and he got a puppy.

Her name’s Sirius, after the popular character from the Harry Potter books. She’s an emotional-support animal, so she’s allowed to live in the dorm. She wanders freely through the four rooms in the suite.

For Palazuelos, an undocumented student who’s the first in his family to pursue a degree, college would have been hard enough without the pandemic.

His mom questioned why he would go: You have a home right here. Students who live on campus do better academically, he told her.

So far, being in Tempe hasn’t really helped Palazuelos, who’s studying engineering. In his online classes, few students turn their cameras on. When class is over, everyone logs off. No one lingers or asks questions of the professor about course material. He knows some students who have gone weeks without even tuning in to live lectures, saying they’ll just watch the recordings later. He’s tried to join virtual study groups, but they feel superficial.

One of his first virtual exams was a nightmare: He struggled to submit the test while using a “lockdown browser,” designed to prevent cheating, and lost points for being late.

But as an undocumented student, Palazuelos said he learned a long time ago that nothing would be handed to him, and he needed to take control of his future — by acing his high-school classes and getting scholarships.

He knows he’ll make it through college. Somehow.

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