Whether studying at home or on campus, freshman year during a pandemic is an unprecedented experience.
By Morgan Noll
Most colleges send out their acceptance letters in March, the same month this year that the reality of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic became impossible to ignore. In between transitioning to online classes and dealing with canceled events like prom and graduation, countless high school seniors were tasked with making decisions about their educational futures—even as they were becoming increasingly unclear. For these graduates looking ahead at college, it's not a question of if the pandemic affected their plans but how.
Rising college freshmen have had to weigh the health and safety risks of attending school, alongside the typical factors like distance from home, living accommodations, and financial aid—that is, if being on-campus is even an option. Now, with the fall semester about to kick off, most students have finalized their plans, but there's still so much left unknown. (And it's safe to say that no pre-written student handbook has the answers.)
To better understand what this experience has been like for 2020's incoming freshmen, we spoke with seven students about their hopes and fears that come with starting school this fall.
For Xiye Bastida, 18, an international student from Mexico attending school in America, the college process has been filled with hurdles from the very beginning. "I've had to go through a lot more documents to kind of justify [to schools] why I'm good enough to be in their university,” Bastida tells HelloGiggles.
So when the pandemic hit, it didn't simply add a new challenge—rather, it exacerbated all the others that come with being both an immigrant and an international student. Though Bastida had been living and attending school in the U.S. for the past five years, the effects of the global crisis caused her and her family to move back to Mexico; after her parents lost their jobs and visas, they were forced to leave the U.S. to avoid being deported.
Then, a new nightmare began on July 6th, when the Trump administration announced its plans to deport and keep out international students enrolled in online-only classes. For Bastida, who was planning to live on campus at the University of Pennsylvania while taking classes online, this was devastating news. “It was already a lot to deal with immigration, but my constant was: 'I'm going to be able to go back to school and study.' And for a moment there, they took that away from me,” Bastida says. After legal pushback from universities and states, the xenophobic policy was reversed, but up until then, "It was just the worst five to six days of my life," Bastida recalls. "I've never felt so unwelcomed."
With the ICE restrictions now lifted, Bastida will be able to live on campus as planned this fall, while taking her classes online. Despite the temporary scare about her status as an international student, she has otherwise been met with open arms. Because she's a vocal climate activist (she's one of the lead organizers of the Fridays for Future youth climate strike movement in New York City), many students and faculty members have already reached out to connect with her. "I've felt welcomed to continue my activism on campus," Bastida says.
For the teen, there's one thing about the next four years that is certain: She'll be doing everything she can to push her school and the local Pennsylvania government to divest from fossil fuels.
Sejal Thapa, 17, is planning to spend her freshman year of college on campus, even though it will be quite different than she planned. Thapa will be attending the University of Kansas in her hometown and participating in the school's hybrid class model, which offers both online and limited in-person classes. Though it would be easy for her to live at home, Thapa says that she decided to live in the dorms "to try to get that college experience and still get to meet new people." However, there's a cap on the new people she'll be able to meet, since the dorms will not be allowing any visitors outside of the people who live in the buildings. On move-in day, each student will be allowed only two guests and a one-hour time slot in order to complete the process.
Thapa and her roommate—who she has yet to meet due to orientation being moved online—have been checking in with each other every time the school has sent updated rules and restrictions, making sure they're both still on board with living in the dorms. Though neither roommate has decided to give up on the on-campus living experience, Thapa says it's hard not to think about all the things she's still missing out on—especially when the price of admission hasn't gone down. (In-state tuition and fees for a year at KU are about $11,000.) “[Before the pandemic], I would have had so many more opportunities, but now I'm still paying the same price for not even half the benefits,” Thapa says.
Even the campus's meal plans will be reduced. KU students will be required to take their meals to-go, which means no opportunities to take advantage of that coveted all-you-can-eat style buffet. Thapa was also hoping to go through sorority recruitment, but she now has to wait until in-person events start again. However, she says she's still looking forward to things like going to her in-person chem lab every other week, getting to know the other students in her dorm, and "seeing what college is all about even with all these restrictions in place."
As a triplet, Bailey Bujnosek, 19, has always had her siblings by her side. College was going to be the first time that she would be experiencing life on her own, as she planned to attend a different school than her brother and sister. "I think sometimes I use [my siblings] as a bit of a crutch socially where I'm like, I just want to hang out with them and I want to eat lunch with them," Bujnosek says. "And then, [going to a different school] was going to be just me."
But now, due to the pandemic changing their collective plans, Bujnosek and her sibling trio will all be taking their college classes online, under the same roof. They got a taste of this experience when finishing out their senior years of high school online, but Bujnosek thinks it might be "more challenging" when they're all taking college courses. "We tend to share the same space to do our work, and if we have Zooms at the same time, our internet is kind of spotty because we live in a really rural mountain area," she explains. "So, we'll see how that goes."
Though this isn't the start to the college career she had imagined, Bujnosek says she's just grateful to have a plan at all for the upcoming semester. "I don't have to live in the uncertainty anymore, the way that I was feeling in June,” she says.
Bujnosek, who will be studying English literature online at the University of California San Diego, hopes to apply for housing as soon as in-person classes are safe and available. Though she's looking forward to her new classes this upcoming quarter, she's worried about being fully prepared. “I'm nervous the academic workload is going to be harder to learn online, especially for classes like science [which has] never been my strong suit,” Bujnosek admits. “It's just not possible to have the same academic experience over Zoom.”
At the same time, the limited outside distractions during quarantine have given her more time to focus on her main interests. "Even though I'm kind of stuck at home all the time, since everything's still mostly shut down in my county, I've been able to put more attention on my writing and reading," Bujnosek says.
Joseph Wilkanowski, 18, planned to start school with a team by his side—he was set to play tennis at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Even with the upcoming seasons cancelled, though, Wilkanowski is grateful to "have an outlet with the tennis team," explaining that the players have still been connecting over Zoom calls. Plus, he adds, "It's great to have upperclassmen kind of explain the process. [With coronavirus], it's all new for everyone, but they help us ease into the transition."
Although Wilkanowski is still looking forward to attending Skidmore this fall and eventually playing tennis there, he reveals that his college decision process didn't come without sacrifice. Due to the pandemic and safety concerns, he had to turn down other exciting offers, like the chance to attend the London School of Economics. The teen and his parents decided it would be best for him to attend school closer to his New York City home, and since Skidmore is a smaller school, they felt that the effects of a campus coronavirus outbreak would be less drastic than in London. Still, Wilkanowski is nervous that his school year could be cut short if other students fail to take safety measures seriously.
“What [the school is] saying right now is that if 5% of the population of undergraduate students who go to Skidmore catch COVID, then the entire rest of the semester, you basically have to evacuate," he says. "So I realize that one party could turn into that 5% and that signifies the end of my semester, my first college experience—so I'm worried about people being careless.”
Sherise Pippin, 18, admits that she doesn't really like "the school part" of school. Much of her motivation to attend a four-year college, particularly California's Sacramento State, involved the social aspects, like the chance to spend time on campus, make friends, and join clubs such as choir or other musical groups. With those opportunities now mostly taken out of the equation, the primary question that guided Pippin's pandemic-times college decision was this: “Do I really need to pay all this money to just go to school online?”
Like many others across the country, Pippin's family has seen their finances take a hit during the pandemic. “Finances were a bit of a problem [before the pandemic], but then coronavirus hit and jobs were starting to disappear, unemployment rates went up," she explains. "My mom has a couple of jobs, and she lost one or two of them to the coronavirus. So we kind of got more tight on money.”
As a result, Pippin decided it made the most sense for her to take online classes at the two-year Sierra Community College instead of enrolling at Sacramento State. With California offering a free two years of community college, this decision will ease the financial strain on Pippin's family—but that doesn't mean being a remote college student will be easy. The WiFi in her home isn't always reliable, and Pippin experienced many failed Zoom calls when finishing up her senior year of high school online.
However, she says that she's staying optimistic about the future and focusing on "the good things that keep happening," like her cousin having a baby, a good friend moving back home, and even the fact that Olive Garden is still open for business. Plus, now that she's 18, Pippin is excited about her newfound independence and the opportunities that come with it. "I can get my driver's license. I can get a job wherever. I can get a tattoo," she says. "I can maybe move out—I need to get a job first, but still."
Kari R., 18, made her final college decision on August 1st. Instead of heading to the University of Utah as planned, she's now going to stay at home in Lawrence, Kansas and take online classes from Johnson County Community College. “It was a really hard decision, but I made a pros and cons list and I decided that staying home makes more sense for me," she says. "There was a possibility of getting sent home, and I just don't want to have to worry about that. I like stability and knowing what I'm doing.”
Kari was excited about a number of things that would come along with attending the University of Utah, like moving to a new state, meeting new people, and joining a sorority. But she didn't want to take the risk of moving away and getting sick, especially when the social opportunities weren't going to be possible to the extent she had hoped. "I just want a full experience. And I'm hopeful that I'll get that next year," Kari says.
She's planning to transfer to University of Utah as soon as in-person classes and activities are back up and running. For now, though, community college will give her the opportunity to knock out some general ed courses, as she's still undecided about what exactly she wants to study. For her at-home work area, Kari plans to set up a desk in her basement (next to a window for necessary lighting) and she might even incorporate some of her pre-purchased dorm decor to help deck the space out.
Jocelyn Gao, 18, has gone through many stages of grief while planning for college amidst the pandemic. "Initially, it was a lot of denial," she reveals. In April, when she committed to UC Berkeley, she remembers thinking that the upcoming school year would go on pretty much as normal. Then, "just hearing [about] the progression of the crisis as a whole, I had to come to terms with the fact that my freshman fall wouldn't [include] the things I dreamed of throughout high school,” Gao says.
Since Gao lives close to campus, in the Bay Area, she assumed for awhile that it would be easy for her to stay in the dorms and still have an in-person college experience. Yet once Berkeley moved everyone to single-occupancy rooms, she changed her mind. She will instead be taking online classes at home, and she's worried that her academic experience will be compromised. "I'm concerned about being able to have meaningful discussions and engaging in the content when all the interactive parts of the classes are through Zoom," Gao says.
However, she's comforted knowing she's not alone in these frustrations, and she's been inspired by the optimistic attitudes she's seen from her peers. "A lot of students that I've talked to have tried to make the best out of it," Gao says, "And I think that it's really great to be able to see that. I kind of feel as though I'm getting energy off of that, just trying to be more positive about it and find that unity even though it's online.”
Gao hopes the struggles from starting college during the pandemic will serve as a way to bond students together. "Hopefully, at the point when we are able to interact in person, we can connect over the experiences and use it to further our understanding of each other and ourselves," she says.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, HelloGiggles is committed to providing accurate and helpful coverage to our readers. As such, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, we encourage you to use online resources from CDC,WHO, and local public health departments, and visit our coronavirus hub.