The First Semester of College Has Never Been Stranger

Elle Fleenor didn’t know a soul when she first set foot on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis — wearing a mask, of course — and hunkered down for two weeks of quarantine.

She attended orientation and lectures on Zoom, picked up food from the dining hall to eat in her room, and barely interacted with anyone beyond her dorm building’s walls.

Ms. Fleenor, a first-year student from Scottsburg, Ind., knew college wouldn’t be what she had imagined. But she wasn’t prepared for how the precautions her school was taking to slow the spread of the coronavirus would complicate her efforts to make friends, and how isolated that would make her feel.

Sometimes, she said, she would meet someone in an online class but wouldn’t recognize the person later wearing a mask around campus.

“In terms of the actual freshman experience, we don’t really have one,” she said.

They were assured that they would make up first-year traditions that had been skipped during orientation, like walking to the spot where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Online classes do little to disrupt the monotony, students say. Some are recorded lectures that students watch on their own schedule. Others are live on Zoom, a format that Ms. Habach and others said can feel equally impersonal, with hundreds of students filling tiny squares on a screen.

Harry Zhou, a finance major at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., attends most of his classes online. Sometimes, he said, professors aim their camera at a worksheet or present their screen so students can’t see their faces. It is easy, he said, for instructors to miss raised hands when students want to ask questions.

Credit…Harry Zhou

In-person classes are not much better. Van An Trinh, a freshman at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said one of her classes is held in a large chapel where masked students sit at assigned desks that are spread far apart.

She has found ways of meeting people, she said, such as small gatherings at the student-run garden. She attends club meetings over Zoom, but that can feel like school. “There’s no difference in the mind-set when you enter a Zoom call for a discussion class or a club meeting,” she said.

Danny Waltrich, a freshman at Temple University in Philadelphia, looks forward to elevator rides to his 13th-floor dorm room. “It’s really the only time I get a chance to talk to people,” he said.

Dining halls, once bustling hubs, have been reduced to long lines of students, their heads down, staring at their phones, standing six feet apart, he said. Most days he eats in his room.

At Emory University in Atlanta, students live in singles, and the library is closed, said Rachel Osband, a freshman from San Jose, Calif. Classes and office hours are “kind of awkward over Zoom,” she said, and trying to make friends with classmates “feels a little stalker-ish.”

Majesty Wooden, who attends Florida Atlantic University, said she has made friends by reaching out to people through her class Instagram page, but noted that approaching new people on campus while maintaining distance can be awkward.

And then there’s dating. Ms. Wooden said she and her friends have found it difficult to know if they find someone attractive while everyone on campus is wearing a mask. “It’s kind of hard with the six feet and everything,” she said.

Jeremy Nobel, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the Campus UnLonely Project, which seeks to decrease the stigma of loneliness, said the pandemic offers an opportunity.

“We can take advantage of the fact that we’re lonely because we’re being faced by a common enemy, Covid-19,” he said. “Why don’t we embrace that as something to talk about?”

Dr. Stephanie Waitt, a licensed therapist who treats young adults in Texas, said she has seen more cases of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicide attempts as her clients struggle to cope with a college experience that is very different from the one they imagined.

Despite the challenges, many students said they had no regrets. “Yeah, we’re not getting a typical college experience,” Ms. Rabenold said, “but then again, who can say in a few years from now, ‘I started my freshman year of college in a pandemic’?”

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