With nearly a quarter of Emory and Oxford College’s Class of 2024 living away from campus this semester, they have had a far from conventional start to their college experiences. Online coursework has presented its own challenges, but for those students living at home, establishing personal connections with peers has been daunting and at times impossible.

Off-campus first-years describe living in a social purgatory: they don’t belong to their hometown circles anymore and can’t fully integrate into an online Emory community. Zoom calls end with the click of a button, eliminating the natural downtime in between classes where students get to casually interact.

“I wish I could talk to my classmates more,” Maya Joseph (24C), a Brooklyn native said. “In real life, you might happen to wear something and talk about liking the same brand or liking the same shows or something like that. That’s hard to achieve online because you’re either in class or doing something [academic], so it’s hard to gauge people’s personalities.”

Some students who decided to remain at home cited the financial benefits of doing so, as Emory’s housing fee totals over $18,000 for the academic year. Shiyeon Kim (24C), from Corpus Christi, Texas, said that the University’s decision in July was the deciding factor for her, especially since the change meant a large reduction in the number of in-person classes and increased restrictions on students’ freedom to explore the campus.

“My parents weren’t sure if going all the way to Atlanta would be worth it with the tuition, room and board fees and everything, so they just decided I should stay, ” Kim said.

Joju Olojede (24C), who decided to remain at home in McKinney, Texas, echoed Kim’s sentiments. She too did not see many benefits of returning to a restricted campus environment.

“I feel like sometimes people forget about us,” Olojede said. “Everything is so limited on campus. I just thought for my safety, and since I’m not getting a full college experience, it would make sense to stay home.”

While living at home can have its perks – Olojede likes having her parents as an immediate support system, and Kim now has more time to focus on hobbies, especially cooking – connecting with others, both inside and outside of Emory, remains challenging. 

Engagement depends on interpersonal connection, which Pittsburgh resident Madison Jones (24C) feels her online classes lack.

“I miss the relationships you build with people in your classes and the dynamic a group can have together,” Jones lamented. “It’s a lot harder to replicate that online, just because we all have our mics muted and when we talk it’s just committed to the material.”

Connecting over the internet is typically the only way for stay-at-home first-years to meet their classmates, and Jones said she often lacks the motivation to initiate virtual meet-ups after spending all day on her computer. “Sometimes, at the end of the day, you just want to eat your dinner and relax.”

In an attempt to bridge the gap, she reached out to other first-years, taking advantage of social media platforms to introduce herself to people with similar interests. 

Joseph took a different approach, preferring to accept the situation and refrain from “forcing” friendships. Aside from participating in the Black Women’s Immersion Experience, which brings together a small group of students for a casual and reflective discussion once a week, she has largely put off getting socially involved until she arrives on campus.

University initiatives to integrate off-campus first-years has largely receded since its aggressive push during orientation in August. Students received emails almost daily in the weeks preceding classes containing information about asynchronous content geared toward making everyone feel like a part of the Emory community. 

The University also created videos, organized small-group meetings and promised students who completed all the required assignments an Emory “swag box” in September. Now in October, with no boxes delivered and little acknowledgement from administration, some off-campus first-years feel the enthusiasm waning.

“I appreciate Emory [trying] in the beginning, they really did try to connect us together,” Kim said. “I think as time is passing, they’re not really putting in as much effort into doing it. Maybe they think that students have found friends and their own college setup.”

Social media posts from students living on campus only increase feelings of dejection and isolation for those living off campus.

Olojede, who strongly considered transferring to a community college this summer, was frustrated while watching others explore and enjoy Atlanta. 

“I miss the social aspect of college,” Olojede explained. “I have major FOMO seeing other kids on campus going out to all the restaurants and Ponce City Market and the park.”

Despite the fall semester being disappointing for Jones, Joseph, Kim and Olojede, they agreed that they have no regrets about their decision to stay home. 

“I feel really content with how everything’s working out … In a way, it’s kind of nice to have this gradual transition to college where we are taking college classes but still in a familiar environment,” Jones said. “[But] the fact that if I don’t go next semester my whole freshman year would be online sort of deters me from staying home again.”

Kim is eager to truly “start college” before her sophomore year and is encouraged by the relatively low number of cases at Emory thus far. Olojede would be more inclined to move to Atlanta in the spring if the University hosted more in-person classes and brought upperclassmen on campus. Likewise, Joseph will almost certainly be on campus since she feels more comfortable about her ability to stay healthy. While the factors most important to each student differed, all four mentioned that finances influenced their choices, and all four wonder whether Emory’s price will accurately reflect the experience they will provide – and the experience that freshmen deserve – in the future. 

“I know it’s cliché,” Kim said with a wry smile. “But I just want the full college experience.”