There’s the adventure of going off to college for the first time, that big, nerve-wracking step toward adulthood that some students have been preparing for their entire high school careers. And then there’s going off to college for the first time in 2020.
That is, if this year’s freshman class of students are even going off somewhere at all.
As universities in the Chicago area and around the country scramble to resume classes during the COVID-19 pandemic — be that with online coursework, students in class or a hybrid of both — they acknowledge they must plan in particular for this year’s freshman class, and figure out how to welcome new students with orientations that in past years would have included weeklong receptions, dorm move-in shindigs and get-to-know-you social events with fellow students.
A number of universities have not yet announced their plans for resuming. Recently, about 24% of American universities said they would have classes fully or primarily in person, 30% online and 15% a hybrid — with 27% still undecided, according to a study of 3,000 institutions published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
What’s more, all this first-year uncertainty affects the same kids who saw the end of their high school senior years upended and graduation ceremonies canceled.
“I just think, like, with the virus, the transition was already going to be hard,” said Isabel Kochanek, a recent graduate of Lyons Township High School in La Grange. She’s planning to head to Purdue University Northwest soon for her freshman year, where she’ll study biology and health science and play soccer. “Now it’s going to be even harder.”
Her sister, Sophie Kochanek, is headed off to college for the first time as well, albeit virtually; she’ll be a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, though for the fall semester she’ll stay home and take all classes online. In the spring, according to the current thinking, she’ll get to be on campus. Online college will feel different than online high school, Sophie said, but mostly for the academics. “I have so much more control over what classes I’m taking, and when I’m taking them,” she said. “But it’s also definitely not what I expected from college. It’s going to be so hard to make friends, get to know my professors.”
She chose on-campus in the spring in the hopes there will be a vaccine by then, she said. “Or at least more time to figure out how to do college safely.”
Purdue University Northwest, with campuses in Hammond and Westville, Indiana, is going with a hybrid of online and in-person, so Isabel said she’ll be taking about two-thirds of her classes online, one-third in person, particularly those with labs.
Like most campuses with students live and in-person this fall, everyone at Purdue Northwest will be required to wear masks, practice social distancing and screen themselves daily for coronavirus symptoms. Isabel doesn’t yet know for sure if there will be a soccer season, but the plan is to pair her with a junior-year player in a “big sister-little sister” match-up and be tested for coronavirus 72 hours before games.
Gone are the usually freshman student orientations and dorm move-in parties of years past, said Purdue Northwest spokesperson Kris Falzone. Instead the university has devised a drive-in orientation experience for freshmen and other incoming new students. They’re assigned a day to come to campus and drive through different stations to collect their IDs, a “Flag Bag” of student swag, and get briefings on academics and campus life. The Welcome Week of rallies and socializing will be virtual and dorm move-ins will be stretched over 15 days.
Isabel will be living on campus in a dorm, in a suite with four roommates in two rooms. She had roommates picked out, then was told women soccer players were to live together, then that rule was changed again.
“I don’t know, it’s just been really confusing and frustrating,” Isabel said. She’s had moments when she’s been excited about going off to school, like when she was shopping with her mom for stuff for her dorm, and other days she has anxiety and wishes she were just staying home with her family. “I just hope everything works out.”
Anna Rios, of Chicago, will be a freshman at Columbia College in Chicago this fall, where she’s planning on majoring in musical theater. She’ll be living at home with her family in the Brighton Park neighborhood, at least initially, and will be taking some classes online, some in-person, with a 30-minute commute to campus about four times a week.
“I do plan on dorming later,” she said. “Maybe next semester.”
She knows some people, particularly her age, haven’t been careful about the coronavirus, but she has; she has an elderly grandmother living at home and a sibling with a weakened immune system. “I know a lot of people were upset by the cancellation of prom and other big events,” she said “I say precautions are the important thing. And to not be so egocentric.”
Rios is looking forward to Columbia; she had been planning on a more affordable community-college education and then Columbia unexpectedly came through with a scholarship, she said. “It was like a miracle.”
The school has been clear with students about the COVID-19 safety procedure it’s been putting in place, Rios said. “They’re keeping everyone as informed as they can.”
Daniel Roberts, a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, is headed off to New York University to live in a dorm, where he’ll take some of his classes online, some in-person. As of the moment, it seems likely that he’ll have to head to New York soon to quarantine for 14 days before school starts, which will mean the expense of staying at an Airbnb or hotel with his family.
He said he’s a little worried about being alone in his single dorm room (in a two-room, two-person suite) and taking classes online.
“At the end of high school, I didn’t have a lot of drive to do my classes, to tell the truth,” he said. “I’m hoping, to be in a New York dorm room situation with other students with the same obligations, it’ll help me stay focused. It’s my biggest concern right now.”
Universities know life and academics will be different for all students, especially freshmen. Some say they are factoring in extra attention to counseling and students’ mental health. What if the anxiety of heading off to school for the first time, plus added anxieties about pandemic health and safety, become overwhelming? What if first-year students just seem to be drifting away from online coursework at a school they’ve never experienced in person?
Northwestern University in Evanston, which is doing classes primarily online, will have a support system that will include a network of 210 peer advisers, or current students who are each assigned a handful in the freshman class to connect with regularly, said Josh McKenzie, interim director of New Student and Family Programs. If new students need additional academic resources, if they need counseling, or if they seem to be disengaging from their schoolwork, he said, “we want to have our on-the-ground contacts.”
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the school wants to ramp up its counseling services and make students more aware of them, says Danita Brown Young, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.
“I think all our students, particularly our new students and first-generation students, are going to need additional support this fall,” she said. The university will be operating with a hybrid online and in-person class schedule. “How do you connect with your instructor even if you’re not face-to-face?” she said. “Not everyone is equally successful with online learning.”
The university has a new telehealth service that will offer counseling. A network of wellness ambassadors will be out and about on campus.
“They’re there to both remind people about PPE and remind people to take care of themselves, including mentally and emotionally. It’s a tough situation.” Young said. “We want to remind our students that we are a community of care.”
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