From watching fictional TV shows and movies to searching for real clips of life as a college student on YouTube, first-years have held visions of what they expect college to be like since childhood. This semester, however, the college experience has been nothing like they envisioned.
“I had this picture of college in my head where you just walk out of your room and everybody’s partying in a dorm,” Rebecca Schwartz (24C) said. “The door’s open, and you can just go in and meet everybody. Obviously that’s not the case right now.”
Concerns over rising COVID-19 cases in Georgia prompted the University to significantly alter on-campus student experiences by moving the majority of courses online and enacting a litany of social distancing guidelines. With University restrictions of no more than three people in a room and social distancing protocols, many freshmen have experienced senses of isolation and frustration from a lack of social activities.
“There is really not a lot you can do to meet people when you are on a Zoom webinar,” Isabel Patton (24C) said. “As much as online events are trying to connect people, they also really distance people because you can’t get a connection with others.”
Todd Levan (24C) said feelings of isolation can also result from taking many courses in a dorm room. To combat this, he tries to vary where he attends class from, whether it be in a lounge, in his dorm or in the Emory Student Center.
Not only have freshmen confronted unprecedented obstacles in getting acquainted with an online social scene, they habitually face anxieties about COVID-19 spreading on campus.
The University recently reported its highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases since school began when five new cases were confirmed on Sept. 11. As of Sept. 20, the COVID-19 dashboard reported 14 COVID-19 cases on campus, including one at Raoul Hall and one at Hamilton Holmes Hall.
Despite residing in Raoul Hall, Jojo Liu (24C) said he was relatively unfazed by someone from his dorm building testing positive.
“At first I was scared, but then I realized that all the people around me were testing negative and are being careful by wearing masks and being socially distant,” Liu said.
Following the news, Liu said Resident Advisors (RA) in his dorm reminded students to wear a mask, keep social distance and avoid large gatherings.
Although reminders about COVID-19 safety protocols are prevalent throughout campus, Patton knows many students who disregard the Emory Community Compact. She witnessed these violations through social media and cited an instance in which students took off their masks for group photos at Ponce City Market.
“I just don’t think that’s smart,” Patton said. “Even if you weren’t in college where you share a communal bathroom, if you were at home, I don’t think your parents would be happy with you going out and being so careless when there’s literally a pandemic that can send us all home.”
Schwartz also noted that she sees people in large gatherings without masks on social media.
“My first gut reaction is being frustrated with people for not taking it seriously,” Schwartz said. “But then I also feel empathy because I know what it’s like to feel trapped in my room and not being able to interact with people.”
Although Liu said his anxiety level did not significantly increase after hearing that someone in his dorm tested positive for COVID-19, worries of the spread of COVID-19 are still pervasive throughout first-years’ minds.
“There’s always this feeling of having your mental bag packed, like you might have to go and quarantine tomorrow,” Schwartz said. “You’re always on your feet and prepare for things to go wrong.”
On top of the altered social scene and dread of COVID-19 students encountered this year, the shift to mostly online classes has also impaired freshmen’s ability to adjust to college.
For Liu, online classes are a greater challenge because he gets easily distracted when learning through technology, resulting in a diminished attention level in classes. Similarly, Patton noted that online classes pose an additional strain on her ability to interact intellectually with peers, saying, “I feel like it’s hard to understand and have a connection with someone over Zoom.”
To counter this complication, Patton said she formed small study groups with people she can meet with in person, allowing her to feel like she’s actually in a class.
Notwithstanding the more technical and social difficulties of online classes, the academic adjustment to college was easier than expected for Schwartz. She attributed this ease to classes being conducted through an online format.
“I expected college classes to be a little bit more difficult than they are,” Schwartz said. “I think that has to do with them being taught over Zoom because professors could only test you so much when most of your learning is on an online platform.”
The minimal social interaction for first-years has only increased the significance of RAs and Sophomore Advisors (SA) in alleviating the college transition.
“Even though some things might be cut off like going to the gym and large school spirit activities, I’ve been impressed with there being many ways to meet people in my dorm,” Liu said.
Levan believes RAs and SAs in Complex have effectively created events where students can make new friends while participating in engaging activities. His residence hall hosts “Teatime Tuesdays,” where residents can drink tea and socialize in a lounge.
Despite increased cases, students like Liu and Patton are optimistic about staying on campus. Patton accredited this hope to the University’s decision to test students weekly to help guarantee that COVID-19 cases at Emory remain minimal. On Sept. 18, the University lifted its moratorium on campus events, allowing limited gatherings with 10 people or less and a faculty or staff member present.
“Us getting tested weekly is a great idea because it makes people scared to go out and party,” Patton said. “You can’t hide the fact that you might have COVID-19 if you have to get tested every week.”
As challenging as the social adjustment to college in normal conditions is, Liu noted that it is important for the Emory community to be cognizant that for shy people, this year poses even greater hurdles.
“The Emory community should … look out for those around them,” Liu said. “If there’s a kid who is eating alone, reach out to them and invite them to lunch or dinner. At least on my floor, we really have taken that into account.”
While the fate of this semester remains in the balance, Schwartz offered insight to help ensure students remain on campus and freshmen can have the most normal experience possible.
“We’re adults,” Schwartz zaid. “We’re 18 years old by now, most of us, and it’s our job to look at the world and realize that there are people dying because of this and that we need to take this seriously.”