Navigating WU as a freshman during the pandemic

Ryan Ricks | Contributing Writer

When I fantasized about my first few weeks of college, I thought of what many of us were probably looking forward to: the new freedom, the new ways to make friends, the new foods and the new city to explore. Even then, I always understood that the reality would look different than the fantasy. For one thing, there was no way I was going to transform from a shy person to an extremely social one in the span of a few months. But I never could’ve expected it to be like this.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

A group of students walk past Olin Library before classes begin. Due to COVID-19 protocol, freshman experience has been marked by lots of masks, social distancing and long hours in dorm rooms.

Back in February, when people were becoming worried about COVID-19, I had hope. Hope that this wouldn’t become an issue. Even in March, as we were sent home, told that we’d be doing online school for at least two weeks, I had hope that this would end soon and that my last few weeks of high school would go as expected. Even after we were told in April that we would be online for the rest of the school year, I had hope that my summer would be normal. That I could enjoy my last summer of freedom before moving to college. Up until that fateful moment in May, when Washington University announced that the fall semester would be delayed, I had pictured my first few months in college being normal.

Maybe it was optimism, maybe it was denial. Either way, here I am, a freshman in college in the middle of the pandemic.

If I could only use one word to describe these past few weeks, I’d go with “difficult.” Because that’s what everything has been—difficult. Making friends, socializing in general, going to classes, getting involved in extracurriculars, all of these were things I knew I would at least somewhat struggle with during my transition to college. But the pandemic has made everything so much harder. And what I think a lot of people don’t consider is that these things are harder for reasons that go beyond wearing masks, social distancing and communicating over Zoom calls.

Classes, for example, are difficult not just because I have to do some of them over Zoom, but because they’re all so varied. I have a class that’s asynchronous, one that’s online and synchronous and two that are mixes of those two options. I have a couple of in-person classes, except one of them has online components while the other does not. These classes feel regimented in a way that I didn’t expect from college. All of our seats are turned towards the front of the room like we’re taking a test, and I can’t lean over to talk to any of my classmates because our seats are so far away from each other. Whenever I am able to talk in class, I pretty much have to shout because of both the masks and the distance. The new classroom environment has taken a lot of getting used to, and I’m still not all the way there yet.

It’s hard to keep track of everything when no class is the same. Some classes have their Zoom link posted on Canvas, others send it out right before class starts. Some classes record their lectures, others don’t. It’s hard to know what to expect, and that has made the transition even harder, because I already had nothing to compare my college classes to, and now I can’t even compare them to each other.

When I’m not in class, I’m doing everything except relaxing and enjoying some free time. I’m not going to blame all of this on the pandemic; I already had workaholic tendencies stemming from even before high school. But the pandemic has definitely made it worse. I’m in my dorm room all the time, so I have nothing better to do than to work. Every night since Sept. 14, I’ve refused to stop working until I’ve done every bit of work that I can do. Even when it’s an assignment that’s not due for over a week, it’s hard to stop myself from trying to finish it because there’s nothing else for me to do.

If I’m not doing school work, then I’m probably in a meeting for one of the many, many clubs I signed up for. During the virtual activities fair in August, I signed up for way too many clubs, ranging from Active Minds to Bears Care to the Anime Exploration Team, partly because I’m a workaholic, and partly because I’m socially starved. These clubs have helped a little bit with my lack of socialization, because I get to talk to people that I have at least one thing in common with, but having every meeting over Zoom kind of puts a damper on that.

Speaking of socializing, it’s safe to say that my social life is severely lacking. I’d say that during the last few weeks I’ve spent a good 90% of my time in my dorm room. Why? Well, there’s no reason for me to go anywhere. Most of my classes are online now, and when I do go out I usually get everything I need to do done (like getting lunch and dinner) in one trip. In the classes I do have in-person, it’s hard to approach anyone with our seats being six feet apart. And unfortunately for me, I’m not the type of person who can randomly walk up to someone and introduce themselves.

Not that the University hasn’t tried to give us opportunities to socialize though. While we have been asked to remain in our dorms and stay distanced, there have been a couple of opportunities to meet new people. Every Friday, there’s been an event called BEAR-idise, where we play bingo to try to win prizes and then we go into what are essentially breakout rooms to play different games, like the newly popular Among Us. For the most part though, every social gathering has been put together by students, and I haven’t been in much of a mental position to take advantage of any of them.

Don’t get me wrong, I have managed to connect with some people, like my suitemates, or a couple people from class or some people from group chats made over the summer. Though I’m not sure if I can give myself much credit here. Most of these impromptu meet-ups happen because someone recognizes me on one of my rare trips outside my dorm, and we end up having a conversation for a little bit. But none of these connections feel real yet because I haven’t been able to spend much time with anyone.

Another thing that has really hurt my friend-making prospects is anxiety. I must admit that I’m probably on the extreme end of the spectrum in terms of spending time in my dorm, but what else can I do? Being close to other people right now, even when it’s just two of us, feels dangerous. The University’s positive testing rate may be low, but who knows if or when that may change? Not to mention that the self-screening form that we’re supposed to fill out every day is based on symptoms. Asymptomatic cases are well-known by now, so how am I supposed to know if anyone has the virus based on that?

There’s an uncertainty surrounding the entire situation, and it makes it so that the only place I can feel safe, or feel that I am keeping others safe, is in my dorm. And as new groups of people are reported on the Covidiots page every other day, I can’t help but grow more and more confident in my decision to stay in here, even as I feel lonelier and lonelier.

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