At first, virtual school seemed like a dream come true for many students. In the comfort of your home, you could attend class in bed and even become invisible to your instructor magically switching your computer camera off. Well, that dream was short-lived, especially for college freshmen arriving to a campus and new lifestyle effectively incomparable to what they had imagined.
For JP, who is approaching his sophomore year at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, the first year experience was a little less than glorious.
“I missed the intramurals,” he said when asked about what he had been excitedly awaiting before starting college. JP, who enjoys playing volleyball, was hoping to hit some spikes on the intramural team. Unfortunately, intramural sports were not offered in the fall. His disappointment was prolonged when sport activity opened up in the spring; increased limitations for spots made it difficult for most, including him, to get on a team.
Predictably, JP is not the only one who missed out on the social activity of campus life. Rachel, who recently completed her freshman year at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, found that the mask coverings frustrated her ability to connect with fellow students. “Seeing and hearing is a big part of human interaction,” she reflected. To her, the masks were not only a barrier to recognizing her peers but also to hearing what they were saying: perhaps not the most ideal circumstance for forming close friendships.
As for clubs and other opportunities for interaction, understandably, there wasn’t much activity there either. Rachel commented that “the clubs were lacking” at her school. She explained that many student clubs were inactive and events that were traditionally held were not allowed.
According to Danny, a recent freshman at North Carolina State University, there were, in fact, no active clubs on campus. He remarked, “The social life was rather non-existent, and I only met people who lived in the same dorm as me. There were very little opportunities to meet people.” Evidently, Zoom does not count for really meeting people. And speaking of Zoom…
While universities and colleges quelled social activity to keep a watchful eye on the number of COVID-19 cases among their communities, these recent college freshmen believe that academics could also have been more ideal.
While some courses at North Carolina State could be taken in person, Danny noted that all of his classes were online without an in-person option.
“Would you have preferred it to be different?” I asked regarding his classroom setup. The answer was an adamant affirmative. He specifically noted that learning online was a struggle for his STEM classes. “I struggled in math and physics more than I usually do because I could not engage as much, and it is harder learning through a screen,” he explained.
Nevertheless, Danny acknowledged that some classes were more compatible with virtual learning. He said that in his graphics class, for instance, he liked being able to work at his own pace.
Rachel agreed that, for those of her classes that were online with pre-recorded lectures, she enjoyed being at liberty to complete the coursework at her own leisure. Additionally, she found that online classes allowed her to “ease into the first year of college” since she was not anxious about physically arriving at her next class on time.
However, Rachel also noted a negative side to virtual learning: “It’s hard to be engaged and care about it.” Without a classroom and live professor, maintaining the motivation to actively learn is difficult.
When I asked JP about how he would have preferred his learning modality, he did not hesitate to say that he would have liked his classes to be in person. “I think I would have benefited more because being online makes me want to slack off. Laying in bed doesn’t help me focus.”
Across the board, virtual learning and a sleepy town for a campus did not seem to be popular among the first-time college students. Many of us dreamed of spreading our wings and enjoying the fun and friends that make college a thrilling experience.
And, of course, several students admit that there were challenges with learning and being an engaged student due to a screen barrier between them and their classmates and instructor. Yet, if nothing else, we, college students, have received something that’s good for life: persistence with a heavy dose of gratitude.
We persisted in pursuing a mission in spite of the most unexpected of the unexpected. Most of us may not have been grateful in the sense that we were glad for the pandemic, but we missed things and became grateful for them when we might have taken them for granted. When we get those things back, we will be more grateful for them than ever.
I asked Danny about how his first-year experience was different from his pre-pandemic anticipations. Representing how just about all recent college freshmen feel, he simply responded: “Just hope things can get back to normal soon.” The first impression: a bit exhausting and perhaps underwhelming in some respects, but such that we are now grateful for “normal.”