Starting college during a pandemic: How the first-year experience will be different

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Leer en español: Empezando la universidad durante una pandemia: Cómo la experiencia durante el primer año será diferente

A group walks around the BYU campus. For this year’s incoming freshmen, many aspects of the first-year experience will be different, including learning to navigate the BYU campus through virtual tours rather than in-person tours. (Hannah Miner)

The first-year experience for college freshmen often includes finding one’s way around campus, cheering in the student section at athletic events, and meeting new friends at social gatherings.

Much of BYU’s incoming freshman class experienced an unexpected twist to the end of their high school careers, resulting in virtual graduations. That trend of unique life events will continue as they start their first year of college — during a pandemic.

How new students are feeling

“It’s hard just as a freshman adjusting to college life, but having it in a pandemic, and having it be totally different than what you were expecting is even harder,” said Hallie Turner, an incoming freshman from San Antonio, Texas.

The Daily Universe conducted an informal Instagram survey asking what incoming BYU students were most worried about. The responses included missing out on college experiences they were expecting to have, accessing resources traditionally available to students, grades suffering due to online learning and getting sent home due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

“I’m not even worried if I get corona, but I’m more worried that if I get it I will get far behind because I won’t be able to go on campus or things like that,” said incoming freshman Megan Clarke from Farmington, New Mexico.

Despite fears, both Clarke and Turner expressed excitement that BYU is still offering some in-person classes, so they can have a “somewhat normal college experience,” according to Turner.

“I was hoping for all in-person classes. I had this hope that everything would go back to normal,” Clarke said. “But I am excited that it’s hybrid. I’m excited to get at least a little piece of normalcy.”

Campus life is completely different

The other aspect of freshman year that may not be completely “normal” is the social aspect.

In a separate informal Instagram survey, The Daily Universe asked students if they thought the pandemic would negatively impact BYU’s social environment. The majority of respondents — 87 % of about 300 — said yes. 

Several events and gatherings that are typically held in-person have already turned or may turn virtual.

The BYU Office of First-Year Experience hosted a virtual New Student Orientation for incoming freshmen on Aug. 14. The digital event consisted of a “live virtual welcome day,” which included online meetings with various colleges’ advisement centers and a “virtual first-year fair.” Virtual campus tours are also available, and the Office of First-Year Experience provided incoming freshmen with additional virtual resources including an interactive online orientation module.

BYU posted a message from President Worthen on the day of the virtual
New Student Orientation.

Morgan Hartman, a senior studying experience design and management, has been involved with New Student Orientation for two years. This year, she hosted a breakout room on Zoom during the orientation to help around 30 freshmen learn more about volunteer opportunities within BYU Student Association (BYUSA) and BYU clubs. Hartman said the experience was very different from running a booth in-person because the students couldn’t just “run away if they don’t really care.”

“It was interesting that the students that came to visit BYUSA were the ones that actually wanted to hear about it, and because we did breakout rooms, I was talking to about one to four students at a time,” she said. “It felt really personal — it felt like I could address all their questions without any rushing or anything. So that was different but good,” she said

Though Hartman enjoyed the more personal touch of the virtual orientation, she was worried about the friendship-making aspect for the freshmen, with the orientation being online. However, despite the COVID-19 restrictions and regulations, she said clubs and other organizations on campus, including BYUSA, are still trying to plan fun events for freshmen — even if they are virtual.

“It is in the front of our minds that the freshmen’s first experiences here at BYU are so important, and so we’re really trying our best to make sure that they have opportunities to meet other students, to have some fun on campus and to develop that student experience as best we can,” she said.

Resources available for students

Another group working to help freshmen have an enjoyable experience is peer mentors. These students meet individually with freshmen throughout their first year to give support, answer questions and provide them with resources.

“We as peer mentors are able to answer questions, but also just to help them recognize that we’re students as well. And just because we’ve been at BYU a little bit longer doesn’t mean that we’re better than them or anything. We’re here to guide and we want to help,” said Darlene Lopez, a sophomore peer mentor studying Latin American Studies.

Lopez will be meeting with between 70 and 80 freshmen this fall — some that are not currently living in Utah — to help them navigate their first semester at BYU.

In previous semesters, peer mentors would typically meet with students on-campus; however, Lopez said this semester whether the meeting is in-person or virtual is up to the student and mentor.

“We have been given permission to meet with the students in-person if both parties feel comfortable — six feet apart and both parties wearing a mask,” she said. “If either party does not feel comfortable or if they’re just not in the state, we are meeting over Zoom.”

Whether it’s meeting with peer mentors six feet apart or participating in virtual events and activities, BYU’s incoming freshmen may have a challenging but unique year. But freshmen like Turner choose to have a positive attitude about their college entry.

“I think that it’ll be interesting to see how this school year goes, but I think in the end we’re gaining so many new experiences that will prepare us for something that we would have never been prepared for,” Turner said. “In the future, I think we’ll be more flexible, we’ll be more open-minded and we’ll be more like cautious and aware of things, and I think that’ll be good for us.”

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