As incoming first-year students navigate a college campus that was unimaginable only months ago — one defined by virtual courses, distanced campus guidelines and a limited calendar — many moved onto Emory’s Atlanta and Oxford campuses feeling excited yet uncertain.
“It’s really hard to know what to expect, and I think that’s the major anxiety with a lot of students right now,” said Asher Choi (24C), who recently moved into Smith Hall in Complex. “It’s not that we think things aren’t going to go well, it’s more so that we don’t know what’s going to happen.
According to Campus Life Senior Director for Communications Tomika DePriest, 1,560 Atlanta and 400 Oxford students returned to campus this fall. Around 900 of those students are first-years, less than half of the 1,871 total first-years currently enrolled.
The University announced on July 17 that on-campus housing would be limited to first-years and new transfers, international students, undergraduates receiving scholarships and students with special circumstances in response to growing COVID-19 cases in Georgia.
Move-in took place over five days, from Aug. 13 to 17, a process that Sophomore Advisor Praneeth Kolli (23C) said was less “lively” compared to his first year move-in experience. Residence Life and Housing Operations implemented safety measures during move-in, such as placing acrylic dividers between students and staff during ID and key handout, and only allowing one parent per student in the dorms.
“It was a challenge to keep the atmosphere upbeat,” Kolli said. “The staggering of students also left halls feeling empty for people arriving the first few days. It got better as more people came in, but my first day here, almost everyone was on campus and it was easier and less intimidating to meet others.”
Kolli noted that while COVID-19 safety regulations have “somewhat impacted” student social life, he doesn’t see this being a long-term issue.
“We already see students adapting and finding new ways to meet safely, like eating at tents outside the DCT or throwing a frisbee on the freshman quad,” he said.
This quick adaptation is just one of many for Emory’s incoming class, the majority of whom graduated high school during a pandemic. Given a taste of online education during their last semester of high school, some students like incoming Oxford student Michelle Dai (22Ox) were particularly encouraged to move to campus due to negative experiences with learning from home during her senior year.
“I think I was always going to go in person no matter the circumstance,” Dai said. “I also don’t learn very well at home because I just don’t feel that motivated.”
However, many hope the additional resources and summer preparation at Emory will resolve these issues and make online courses more engaging. Sydney Hott (24C) accredited her online senior year success to synchronous class periods, an instruction format she thinks will also make her Emory schedule “as close to a regular learning experience as possible.”
In deciding whether to begin college life virtually or opt for a gap year, first-year students echoed upperclassmen concerned about tuition adjustment and were underwhelmed by the University’s decision not to implement a previously-planned tuition increase. “They could have done a little more because everyone is struggling here,” said MaKenzie Jones (22Ox) said.
Nevertheless, the cost of attendance did not ultimately outweigh the benefit for many.
“I don’t think [tuition] is necessarily fair,” Hott said. “But I still know I’ll be getting a great education, so I try to keep it in the back of my mind and move forward.”
However, Choi and Jones, both of whom have in-person first-year seminars, noted that if the University had gone fully remote, they may have taken a gap year.
For others, the momentum of transitioning from high school to college was strong. Dai told the Wheel, “I was really excited for the freshman year of college, so I was always going to go,” noting that leaving her small, suburban town in upstate New York for the diversity of Emory was important to her.
Hott echoed Dai’s thoughts, saying that in her 60 person graduating class, it seemed like all of her friends were on the tract to go straight to college. “It just felt really weird to not go on that path,” she said.
Once the decision to come to campus was made, there came another: how to get there. With transportation safety critical during the pandemic, on-campus students’ choices hinged on the choice to fly or drive.
While Dai and Jones drove, Choi chose to fly from Boston, renting a car to run dorm errands once in Atlanta. Hott and her family, including her immunocompromised mother, also flew from Arizona, a decision that she said they were “kind of on edge about.”
Regarding the possibility of infecting COVID-19 on campus, Choi remarked that while he knows a campus outbreak is “very possible,” he’s “trying not to think about it” and trusts that the University has plans for if one were to occur. Currently, the University does not have a specific threshold of on-campus cases that would trigger a campus evacuation, University President Greg Fenves previously told the Wheel
In the past week, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University Notre Dame (Ind.) and North Carolina State University have halted in-person instruction and moved all courses online. Such reversals were prompted by clusters of COVID-19 cases on campus, with the spread predominantly fueled by Greek life and off-campus parties.
Jones, whose mother is an emergency room nurse, said the idea of catching the virus is a “normalized thought” for her, saying, “I have that concern living at home more than I do living on campus, so I feel like it’s safer for me to be on campus.”
Trust in the campus safety guidelines outlined in the required community compact seems to be widespread but contingent on student commitment.
“If people are responsible, then I think we will do well, but I think that all depends on the students and how we check on each other,” Dai said.
Confident in Emory’s precautions, Hott said, “I feel like I’m in the safest place I could possibly be. I think [the University] is doing everything they possibly can.”
As a class with many missed in-person milestones behind them, first-years are uniquely suited for a distanced semester. Hott remarked that while she’ll miss social traditions like Songfest, she remains optimistic.
“[T]his is normal for me because I don’t have any experience to compare it to, so I’m going into it with the mindset to make the most of it and take every opportunity that’s put in front of me,” she said.
For Hott, those opportunities include getting involved with student-organized online outreach through Ignite Leadership and Hillel. She appreciated their outreach efforts, stating that it helped “assimilate us and help us feel connected.”
Overall, first-years are ready to adapt and largely believe Emory administration is too.
“Even though [administration] is trying their best … no matter what, [the semester] is not going to be the same,” Jones said. “Emory bringing us on campus was the best thing that they could have done.”