Deciding where to attend college is a big decision for many, but with the unknowns of Covid-19, the class of 2020 faced yet another barrier of planning their future while dealing with a global pandemic. The students faced many uncertainties about what their freshman year of college would look like, especially with the growing concerns of the pandemic.
Even after making their decisions on where to attend college, the protocols put into place by the universities would continue to change as they learned more about the pandemic. At the start of the fall 2020 semester, a survey of nearly 3000 institutions found that 34 percent were primarily online, 23 percent were primarily in person and 21 percent were following a hybrid model. The survey also found that Covid-19 case numbers influenced the reopening trends for many schools. Each of the graduates from Maclay’s class of 2020 have had a very different freshman year of college, which can be seen by the various reopening plans. Maclay alumni Madelyn Stout has been able to attend college on campus, as the University of Notre Dame followed a primarily in-person model. In contrast, Maclay alumni Gavin Rolle has not been able to step foot on Howard University’s campus this year, as they were one of the 10 percent of schools that are fully virtual.
Move-in day is a day looked forward to by many freshmen, as it marks their first steps into leaving home, gaining independence and getting to jump into the college experience. However, this fall, universities made the decision on if they would allow students to live on campus. The protocol varied between universities, and for some, the decisions regarding housing were made last minute.
“I had concerns that my freshman year wouldn’t be what I had in mind originally, but I was still thinking it would be fine as long as I got to move to D.C.,” Rolle said. “I bought a lot of dorm supplies and decorations only for Howard to decide that we wouldn’t be on campus two weeks before the semester started.”
Some schools allowed students to live in dorms, while others were only open to select groups of students, such as athletes and students with housing insecurities. Even for those universities that had student housing, there were still regulations set for the move-in process.
“I prepared just like any other student to be quite honest. The only accommodations is that I couldn’t have my whole immediate family with me to move in – which was really hard for me,” Stout said. “I could only have two people help me move in, so it left someone sitting out.”
Once the school year started, students had to jump right into the routine of college while following Covid-19 protocols. At Notre Dame, there are strict guidelines set into place to ensure that students can have a safe on-campus experience. Dorms are restricted to only residents, masks have to be worn at all times and there are limited spaces where students can eat. The campus also has people serving as HERE ambassadors who monitor students to ensure they are following the protocols that were set into place. Students are additionally required to get a Covid-19 test once a week and typically are required to get supplemental tests one to two more times weekly. The school’s schedule for the year was also impacted, as students did not get any holidays off except for Good Friday for Easter weekend, and spring break was cancelled for the spring semester. The University started classes in August and ended before Thanksgiving, so students had a break from November through January, instead of having smaller breaks throughout fall semester.
“I do feel that the students on campus, for the most part, are following protocols. A lot of us are just grateful to be here in person. However, there is a big problem with off campus students and gatherings,” Stout said. “It’s led to a lot of privileges for on campus students to be taken away. I think the school enforces things as best they can, but there has been a lot of pushback from some students on their handling of issues pertaining to off campus students and gatherings.”
At Howard, the Covid-19 protocols apply primarily to faculty, students and other critically essential personnel on campus, which is a very limited population. The decision for the school to reopen with only virtual instruction was strongly influenced by the difficulties the school would face trying to quarantine and assign single room housing for students coming from hotspot states, which was constantly changing.
“They have not told the students whether we will be on campus or not this fall. I was upset, but not surprised that I was not on campus this year,” Rolle said. “I still plan to attend Howard in whatever way they decide is healthiest for the student body. However, I no longer have a desire to stay in a campus dorm”
The experience of attending college courses was another experience that was strongly affected by Covid-19. Despite being primarily in-person, Notre Dame still offered virtual classes, which varied between students. The ability for the university to hold in-person classes was helped by the campus having a large amount of building space compared to the student population, along with spaces that could be turned into classrooms to promote social distancing. Many classes also offer the option for students to attend classes concurrently, so students who are in Covid-19 quarantine or have to stay in their room because they are not feeling well can go to an in-person class via Zoom.
“Last semester I had two online classes while my other four were in person and this semester I’m all in person,” Stout said. “However, it varies per student as my roommate has two online and one hybrid.”
For Howard students, they have had to master online learning and find ways to have a productive learning environment, despite being at home. Some classes are offered asynchronous, while most are synchronous but do not meet some days for students to do assigned asynchronous work. The school offers a structured and well-planned online format that helps students maintain their workload, along with offering virtual office hours for students to receive additional help.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like I’m really in college. It’s more like a gap year where I am getting college credits,” Rolle said. “I still do as much work as any other college student, but a lot of school is social interaction, and I don’t really get any of that with other Howard students or staff. The upside is that it is easier to focus on just my work, so I ended up getting a 4.0 my first semester.”
The biggest effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on college have been the ability to meet other students, connect with faculty, join clubs and attend sporting events.
At Notre Dame, many clubs are not able to meet in person, and despite having a virtual club fair, it is difficult to discover extracurriculars to get involved in. Students were still able to attend football games, as football was one of the sports that adapted to Covid-19 along with volleyball and basketball.
“I really only know people in my dorm and a few other people through classes. Because of the way everything is right now, it’s a little harder than normal – you just have to put yourself out there and try to get to know people beyond the social distancing and masks,” Stout said. “I think personal growth has exceeded my expectations, but it’s been harder to figure things out since you can’t do some things in person anymore.”
Howard also is still giving students the opportunity to join clubs and organizations, but they are all offered virtually, making it harder for students to feel connected to their campus community.
“It’s much harder to feel involved because you’re not truly meeting anyone, and because of that lack of in person connection the e-boards do most of the work and collaboration and new members kind of just get to watch,” Rolle said. “I joined the American Marketing Association at Howard first semester, and I hope to join one or two more clubs/organizations this semester.”
Maclay’s class of 2020 had a college experience that no one could have predicted, but despite this, students have tried to find ways to still feel a part of their campus communities. For many, their freshman year of college felt very different than what is expected, leaving students without having a full understanding of what college is supposed to be like.
“Honestly, I still feel surprised that I almost have a year of college under my belt. I’ve talked to some upperclassmen and they’ve told me that the first years have it rough during this – mainly because we don’t know what the experience here is supposed to be like,” Stout said. “Moreover, while they knew people prior, we didn’t. It’s been hard and I do feel like my experience here isn’t what I wanted out of college. However, I am just grateful to be here in person instead of back home and on Zoom.”
The spring semester has seen colleges start to switch to more hybrid models, and looking forward, many universities are starting to release plans for the fall 2021 semester, which include finding ways to transition into having more students on campus.
“Going to college during the pandemic can make it convenient to not be social,” Rolle said. “However, you have to realize that socializing regularly is a factor in mental health, and whether it is convenient or not, it’s necessary.”
The class of 2021 will face similar challenges in not having a typical first year experience; however, there is still hope for a stronger sense of normalcy than the class of 2020 had. What is most essential for students is to get rid of expectations for freshman year and instead find what they want to get out of their college experience.
“Going to college right now can feel scary and unpredictable, but if I think that if you keep that goal – no matter how small – it can make it easier. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to people – let them see the real you because everyone is going through a process like this to an extent,” Stout said. “My class will be sophomores next year, so don’t hesitate to reach out to them, because they’ll be able to help you adjust in a way the upperclassmen can’t tell you. While it may sound weird, the one thing COVID has taught me is how to figure out what makes me me.”