Annenberg Radio

The freshman COVID experience

Attending a school you’ve never physically been to

People’s plans came to a screeching halt when COVID hit, but who had to miss their prom, their graduation, and then their first semester of college life? That’s right, the class of 2024. Jeffrey Lee takes a look at what this year’s college freshmen thought their first semester of college life was going to be like, and how it really turned out.

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This year’s college freshmen have a unique perspective. College is typically a student’s first opportunity to truly be away from home and independent. It’s a crucial milestone in life. But because of COVID, and due to limited social interactions and difficulty making college friends, there is a loss of what was supposed to be a big step in their growing up experience, and the uncertainty of attending a school online they may have never even visited is all too pervasive. I asked students what their freshman COVID experience was like, and one student, Jadon Gaertner, cracked me up with one word.

“Do you have any highlights from first semester? No. (laughter)”

But a deeper dive told a more serious side of the story.

To untangle the ball of emotions freshman feel during this time, I spoke with Dr. Kelly Greco, who is a psychologist, as well as the assistant director of Outreach and Prevention at Counseling and mental health services, AND an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine.

“It’s grief and its loss. And so we’re constantly going in and out of these different stages of grief and loss of denial, feeling really surreal anger, depression of I had this expectation of what my first semester, my first year would be.”

Some of these emotions were conveyed by Jadon when we talked. Jadon is a freshman at USC. He has a dry sense of humor, a witty smile, and likes to hide his dark hair under a USC baseball cap that he says he uses to hide his bedhair while on camera. Like many freshmen, he had his hopes and expectations.

“I thought I was going to be on campus. I thought I was going to be joining lots of clubs that I was interested in. I thought that I was going to be meeting people, partying a little bit, studying a lot..I thought I was gonna be playing a lot of ultimate Frisbee. I was training a lot for that, like physically to get into the groove, get into the grind and just get fit. That was a year ago. I am now incredibly unfit and now I just realize I have to train again this summer.”

Another freshman, Sophia Ma, added onto that about what she and other freshmen had planned.

“Like the dorm experience or outdoor or social activities and like really try to be more independent. So I guess that’s kind of what I was expecting to happen, but didn’t really turn out that way.”

Along with the lost potential of an in-person freshman year, there is the struggle of just staying on track with even the most basic things in life.

“All my days start at 10:59 a.m. for my 11 a.m. class, depending on kind of the subject of the day, maybe I’ll emerge a little bit tired or maybe I’ll emerge a little bit like more awake, depending if it’s interesting.”

It may be hard to know when to eat.

“My food clock has been moved three hours later, so I’ll eat breakfast at like 12:00 p.m. I mean, lunch. I don’t even know when that happens. I think it just doesn’t. Dinner happens really late and then inevitably I’ll wake up three. I’m really, really hungry, which will then tide you over until breakfast the next day at 12:00 p.m.”

Dr. Greco attributes this with losing our natural breaks in our daily routines.

“So driving in your car, walking down Truesdale, running to get coffee or lunch in student union, all of those are transitions that help us connect, take a breath, get a break in between classes or our studies. And so those breaks aren’t naturally happening, so students need to schedule the transitions that just don’t naturally exist anymore.”

But most importantly, one can feel disconnected during this time. Jadon wants to feel like a Trojan, but he’s more alone.

“I haven’t really met anyone new from USC except for like five or six people, it’s just I haven’t met that many people and it’s hard to feel like a Trojan if you don’t have a lot of Trojans kind of around you. If you don’t have the Trojan network, you don’t like feel that Trojan connection.”

That feeling, in turn, can lead students to feel unmotivated.

“My biggest challenge in the first semester was dealing with motivation issues, because ultimately all of the grades that I worked hard for and earned or just kind of numbers on a screen. Ultimately, I just didn’t really feel that they mattered.”

The class of 2020 was put in an unenviable position.

“We really didn’t get a chance to transition like we missed out our whole high school graduation and prom experience. And now we’re also missing our first year of college because it’s supposed to be the funnest time where you can really get to know a lot of new people. And at the same time, it’s also important to be grateful.”

Being grateful. Every freshman I talked to noted that is how much of a privilege it is to still be able to attend college during this time, and they’ve kept looking forward, despite all the challenges. Things are looking up, and in a few months, the class of 2020 is looking forward to finally experiencing their proper welcome to college life.