Imagine starting college during a pandemic

These brave souls told us how their first semester went.

Kutztown, PA - August 19: Johnesha Salata, of Pottstown, PA, helps her roommate's mother, Holy Jo To...
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Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the term “normal” is all but meaningless — and that’s perhaps no more true than it is for students making the transition from high school to college. While the regulations and pandemic protocols — like remote classes, vaccine mandates, masking on campus, and dorm visitor policies — vary widely among schools, it’s safe to say the college experience as we Millennials recall it is no longer, at least for the foreseeable future.

College freshmen, like all of us, are dealing with a constantly evolving pandemic and threat of contracting disease; but they’re doing so while also adjusting to a new environment, new independence, new schedules, new social lives, and new academic challenges. From the outside in, it certainly seems like A Lot. But what does it actually feel like? We checked in with four freshmen — and one sophomore — at schools across the United States to see how their first semesters went.

Edilberto, 19, Freshman at University of Missouri - Columbia

I graduated high school in 2018 [in the country of Timór-Leste, where I’m from] and I took a gap year with the expectation that I'd be leaving for college by fall of 2019 or 2020. Due to COVID and travel restrictions that were in place, and the fact that my visa was put on hold, my admission was deferred to the spring of 2021. When I arrived, [the COVID protocols in the dorms were] very strict. Before you entered, you had to bring your own thermometer, check your [temperature], and wait until someone lets you in. We couldn’t have people over, even those who lived in other dorms. It was very difficult to socialize over the screen ... you [were] so restricted to the point where you [couldn’t] socialize or make friends. That definitely [made] a lot of students feel isolated. [There were] off-campus events that the university did not endorse, but those tend to die out quickly, because [of campus and local police who were] out and about, making sure that everyone was adhering to those protocols. [Academically] it was a hybrid setting; a lot of times, [we had] discussion sessions that met every other week or had everything remotely through Zoom or other platforms.

When the Delta variant came around by mid-fall 2021, some of the restrictions [like indoor masking] were brought back. I was staying here on campus over the summer; they temporarily lifted those protocols, and then they were brought back over the fall, and then they were lifted again. It really sucks, to be completely honest, because one day you have no masks [or anything]; then, the next week, the Board of Curators comes in and they say, "New regulation. … Everyone should be masked now.” It's a bit of an inconvenience, but I think they're doing the best they can.

My experience in the fall of 2021 was definitely more complete, or [fulfilling], both academically and socially. There were more events [on] campus, and going to classes in-person feels more rewarding. Over the spring, I learned more about myself and how I should put myself out there. With this isolation, you have a lot of self-reflection that comes with it. Overall, I feel like when you transition back to that normalcy, you're just like, "Oh, okay. This is the group of people that I wanted to mingle with. These are the types of activities that I enjoy. This is what I want to do."

Jabari, 18, Freshman at Jackson State University

I’d gotten used to being at home and basically learning at home, [so] moving to another city and state in a completely open space [with] new people all around me, it was just really different. It’s really strange to go to a college when it’s more than 4,000 people with employees, students, and staff. It’s really like an “every man for himself” type thing, because you have to wear your mask, you have to make sure you sanitizer your hands or sterilize anything that someone has touched or you have touched, and that’s really scary. [At school, we had to stay] six-to-10 feet away from each other; it was mandatory to wear our masks wherever we went, especially [inside]; there were hand sanitizer stations everywhere; signs saying “Wear your masks;” and fines if you didn’t have your mask on. [You had to wear a mask] when entering the dorms, but when you were in your room you could take them off.

I feel that my first year, socially, was a success, [and] I was able to make friends. The homecoming [concert] was a blast, [but] they had a lot of guidelines [and] social distance policies we had to follow. We had to get tested two days before the performance [and] socially distance. There were probably [about] 30 people on the floor of the gym, and the rest were around the basketball court; and we really couldn’t socialize.

Academically, I was struggling in the beginning of the semester, but I got used to my schedule and courses. Most of my teachers were online, so I was in my dorm probably 24/7. I’m more of a “come sit with me,” hands-on person, and it was difficult because I would have to call my teachers and ask them, “Hey, can you help me with this problem?” [But] now that I am comfortable with my schedule and courses, I will be able to thrive in college and aim to have a 4.0 this semester.

Noa, 18, Freshman at University of Toronto

[Starting college during the pandemic] felt pretty normal in comparison to how the end of high school went for me, when I was attending class and graduation in Toronto from Miami. I also started university after Toronto had reopened, so I didn’t feel very limited — especially because it was hot outside, so we had no reason to be indoors. I think that masks are annoying because not seeing people’s facial expressions makes it harder to read and connect to them, but it feels pretty normal [compared] to how my high school experience went.

I think [the pandemic] changed the way I party — I used to be less careful about drinking (soda, obviously) things put out by people hosting. I also didn’t get to spend as much time face-to-face with people as I would have liked; I went to see professors at office hours and events they were hosting to introduce myself, and they expressed similar feelings. I must say that Zoom meetings for things like meeting with your TA or workshops are so much better than commuting to campus, because the sessions are usually short and can be recorded. [But in 2022, I’m hoping for] in-person lectures! They were all online and mostly asynchronous, which sucks.

Andrew, 19, Freshman at Ohio University

It has been a strange time to start college, as things seem unfamiliar and times are changing. I have definitely had an interesting college experience, however it has not been the one I’ve expected; [it’s] been strange with all of the COVID regulations and unexpected developments. It’s possible that it is being blown out of proportion [in the media and by older generations], however it’s been a strange time to move out and start making my own decisions. Being required to wear a mask in my dorm hall has been a bit weird, considering I’ve never needed to wear a mask at home, however most of the mask requirements [and] COVID protocols have been fairly reasonable. This semester was more successful socially than academically. I’ve made a number of friends at school, but I’ve struggled to get used to the academic side of school and increased workload. [In 2022, I hope for] a fresh start, now that I’ve better figured out how to do my best academically.

Chiselwa, 19, Sophomore at University of Missouri - Columbia

Coming from a pandemic and then starting a new chapter of my life in college was very weird. It felt like my high school chapter was never fully closed, because [the] class of 2020 didn’t get a graduation. Surprisingly, I still had a good freshman year — I made new friendships, opportunities, and I matured. Going into this year [with] looser restrictions, it felt like my actual first year of college. It was weird seeing so many people on campus, and especially taking exams in person was uncomfortable because we’ve been accustomed to online exams for the past two years. Having to train yourself to take an in-person exam was tough. A lot of my peers felt the exact same way.

I live off campus, but my freshman year I stayed on campus. We couldn’t have visitors in our dorms, [we had to wear] masks in and out of public areas — even to the community showers — [and had to practice] social distancing around campus, as well as in class. For example, I had a Spanish class that had 20 people, so they split us up by last name. Half of the class came in Monday [and] Wednesday, [and the] other [half came in] Tuesday and Thursday. This year, we started with the same precautions, but then it started to ease up. By October, you had the choice to wear your mask in class or not.

This has to be one of the weirdest 1.5 semesters I’ve ever experienced. I’ve found myself being able to connect with more people this year more than last year, [and] having more events on campus has helped me feel that I’m actually a college student. I do think it’s been strange; we’ve all had to readjust [from] being away from people [to] being surrounded by people. I would also say my motivation to get work done was slower last year and has slowly improved this year but isn’t near the same as it was before the pandemic. We’ve had to [work] hard, but our generation is resilient in everything we do. [In 2022], I am hoping to gain resilience and have more motivation to get my school work done. I really felt like I lost that part of myself throughout the pandemic.