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First Year Voices #1

Bikes and a London bus at UC Davis. There are around 40,000 bikes in Davis. Image by Shea at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

Student reactions to starting college in a pandemic

For incoming college freshmen—myself included—this summer is particularly confusing. Soon-to-be college students are anxiously awaiting email updates to their brand new .edu emails about everything from virtual orientations to hybrid learning. Meanwhile, parents are reading as many news articles as they can find about colleges’ responses to the pandemic.

To shed light on the situation, we will be sharing the perspectives of college-bound freshmen through a new blog series, “First-Year Voices.” We will hear directly from students about the personal side of starting college during the pandemic—how students are thinking about gap years, preparing to start college, getting ready for athletic seasons, and more.

In today’s blog, we look at what students think about entering college during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some students like Gaby, a Westridge graduate heading to Lehigh, are feeling something of the typical anticipation about going to college, even during the pandemic. Referring to Lehigh’s plans, Gaby said, “We’ve gotten some emails saying they’re hopeful to have some version of [an] on-campus [experience]... [which] has made me more excited and a little hopeful that I’ll get to have as close to a normal year as possible.”

After graduating from Marlborough School, Nell is looking forward to an on-campus college experience at Notre Dame, but she recognizes that others don’t have this opportunity. “I’m honestly just glad that I’ll be able to be on campus and go to college,” Nell said. “I feel pretty fortunate.” She also appreciates Notre Dame’s location in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. “It will be nice to be in a more rural setting where there might be a lesser chance of an outbreak,” she said.

Dylan, who recently graduated from South Pasadena High School, is also feeling lucky, as a spring-season athlete going to Cal Lutheran, which plans to open with a hybrid model. “I wouldn’t be surprised if things will kind of slightly go back to normal by the time that my sport comes around,” Dylan said.  “I’m trying to be optimistic, but I know that there’s a strong chance that things might not change.”

Cal State students like Olivia already know that most of their classes will be online. Olivia graduated from Newbury Park High School and committed to San Diego State University (SDSU), only to hear that the Cal State system planned to close its campuses. But just a few days ago, SDSU announced that some students like Olivia may be able to live on campus. “It would still be worth going, even if I had to take mostly online classes, because it’s a vital year,” Olivia said. “I just really want everybody to take the right precautions so I can just go out through my freshman year without any speed bumps.”

Not everyone is as eager for an on-campus start.

Julia, who attended Marlborough, is waiting to hear whether she will be on campus at Oxford College of Emory University. Although she understands why others prefer an on-campus start, Julia said, “part of me is kind of happy to think about staying home,” because she thinks that might reduce stress and inconvenience. “The back and forth, if I were to be in an in-person session right now, is just going to be a big hassle,” Julia explained, imagining what it might be like if a mid-semester outbreak forced her to move back home. Moreover, “when you start thinking about leaving, that’s when you start seeing the beauties of where you live,” Julia said.

Phoebe, a Burbank High School graduate deciding between UC Riverside and the University of Edinburgh, is also wondering if her college experience will start from home. Phoebe feels ready for college -- “I want to get started on my future,” she said -- and would wholeheartedly prefer to be on campus. “If I’m going to have to do online education, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to handle that for another semester or another year,” Phoebe commented. “I’m trying not to get too hopeful,” she said, speaking about the coming year. Rather, she’s “trying to go with the flow.”

Of course, not everyone is going straight to college. Because of her concerns about distance learning and the virus’ prevalence in New York City, Ava decided to take a gap year between graduating from San Marino High School and attending Columbia. “I got into my dream college, which I’m so excited about,” she explained, “but I really want to have more of a first-year experience that is closer to what I always dreamed of.” It wasn’t an easy decision, but Ava stands by it. “I would say that overall I have more concerns about this gap year,” she said, “but I still do think it’s the right choice for me.”

Indeed, all the students I talked to considered how their personal reactions and decisions were deeply influenced by their specific situation, like family finances or school location and size. In the midst of the crisis, these students are trying to maintain optimism while reckoning with the pandemic’s effects on their education—a difficult balancing act.

In the end, we hope that hearing the perspectives of these college-bound students will help others see that we are all tackling similar questions, even as we navigate different situations.

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