We’re Starting College In 2020. It Wasn’t Supposed To Be Like This

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Whatever stage of life 2020 finds you in, it’s fair to say that the pandemic has made it significantly more difficult — in fact, that statement feels like an oversimplification so vast you could safely socially distance within it. But those entering college this year are having a uniquely challenging experience, having collectively missed out on the traditional cap-and-gown fanfare in favor of tepid YouTube commencement ceremonies and sitting home with their parents. And now, it’s time to go to college. Sort of. 

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For many students, taking off for a university is their first shining moment of independence, a chance to break away from families, hometowns, and childhood selves, a time to make new friends, discover latent interests, and drink too much beer in a sticky basement. For others, it’s the first big step on a long path to a career they’ve been dreaming about since childhood. For some, it’s just one among many things — along with internships, working full- or part-time jobs, or helping out family — that they’re doing in the hopes of getting by and maybe even ahead. And then there are those for whom college is a lifeline, an essential means of escaping home lives filled with discrimination or abuse. But the coronavirus, as we’ve all observed firsthand, doesn’t care what your individual circumstances are. On campuses across the country, an array of disappointing and alarming scenarios continue to play out, with some students shipping off to school only to be sent home days later, and others paying full tuition for Zoom lectures they’re bored and confused by. While salacious tales of unmasked ragers and Greek organizations that refuse to follow the rules may dominate headlines, most students say their campuses — if they’ve made it to them — are more like ghost towns. And yet, for many, they are also still wellsprings of hope, creativity, and community.

For decades now, college has occupied a larger-than-life presence in our collective idea of what it takes to be successful in America. After all, there needs to be some justification for forking over five-figures a year or signing off on astronomical loans. And so, college comes with an astounding number of expectations. It’s where people are meant to find themselves, discover their passions, fall in love, identify lifelong friends, and make raucous memories worth talking about for decades to come. But what happens when those things are no longer possible in the same way they once were, or even at all? What fills that void, and how will it shape the future for all of us? Is there good that might come out of recalibrating the way we understand what it means to get an education? 
For a cohort raised in the shadow of 9/11, exposed to issues like the climate crisis, mass shootings, and an increasingly fraught and hateful political landscape, having their lives upended by something that feels insurmountable and out of their control is par for the course in many ways. But it’s also a bigger interruption of a generation’s formative years than we’ve seen in this country since the Vietnam War. It’s going to irrevocably shape their goals, beliefs, and worldviews, and seems poised to cement an understandable lack of trust in authority as a generational cornerstone. It’s hard for any of us, at any age, to wrap our minds around just how towering the stakes and all-encompassing our fears are right now; it’s especially difficult if you’re barely old enough to vote and will still need a fake ID to stress-drink like the rest of us on election night. Rather than try to speak for them, here’s the Class of 2024 on how their first semester is going in this new world.

Images Courtesy of Celina Asebeokhai

Celina Azebeokhai, 18

School: Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY

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Hometown: Plantation, FL

Pronouns: they/them

Instagram: @bug.milk

I wanted to be somewhere that motivated me in a creative sense and also had a community of like-minded individuals. Currently, I am remote for the fall semester and I am at home in Florida. I plan on moving to an apartment in the city for spring and doing a hybrid of in-person and online classes. When I heard Pratt wasn’t opening the dorm halls for the fall semester, I felt crushed. I wondered how I would be able to build a sense of community through my computer screen. Luckily, in an age of social media, I have been able to find a group of friends to call my own. From Instagram DMs to Snapchat group chats, I (and other Pratt students) have found ways to stay in touch with each other until we are able to meet each other safely on campus. 

This year has totally shifted my notion of the “college experience.” I have come to find this experience in places unthought of, like the silly messages between classmates in the Zoom chat or the awkward Zoom call silences after a professor asks a question. I find an odd comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone in these experiences, but rather part of something bigger that extends far past the walls of my room. 

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One thing I have gathered from this year is that health is a truly communal effort. By taking measures to keep ourselves and each other safe, we are actively building a future filled with the possibilities and opportunities we miss so dearly. When I think about the future, I worry that things will never be as they were before. As I watch everyone, myself included, do their best to navigate this “new normal”, countless thoughts fill my mind. Will I find work when I graduate? What will the world look like in four years? All I can do now is stay safe and work harder. I daydream about a future where I am able to show a world safer than today’s what I am capable of creatively.

Images Courtesy of Clea Gunn

Clea Gunn, 18

School: Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH

Hometown: Portland, OR

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Pronouns: they/them

Instagram: @gnomegoblin

Oberlin was a last minute consideration. I had my heart set on this other school, which I knew so much about and had visited, but when it came down to it, I ended up choosing Oberlin. I think I was mainly drawn to what I had heard about the social scene — it seemed to be right up my alley in terms of being vibrantly queer and politically active. With the pandemic, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the campus, much less the state, so I was more than a little nervous coming to campus this fall. I think that my gut feeling was smart in this instance because it’s one of the only schools I applied to that is in-person and is handling the Covid situation fairly well. My classes are half online; half in-person. 

I’m really glad that we are on campus. I really struggle with online learning, and I don’t know where my semester would have gone if I was at home. I'm incredibly grateful for my school and our students in terms of staying safe in the pandemic. Everyone here is always wearing masks, our school set up dining really well, and overall, it seems that everyone on campus is trying to make the year the best it can be given the circumstances. I still don't have all of my classes in person, but I’m glad to be somewhere new and be able to use the resources on campus (I’ve been spending a lot of my downtime in the art and ceramics studios). 

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But it’s still been really tough to make friends and acclimate! Being a first year is overwhelming enough, but what surprised me that I’m missing is all the forced hangouts and icebreakers you hear about. I never thought I’d be wishing for an uncomfortable gathering of strangers, but a lot of times, we need someone to just force us to meet each other. Also, a lot of student-run smaller organizations are closed, which means that there are very few clubs, activities, etc., where you can meet people with common interests. We have an incredible co-op system here, and I’m really bummed that it’s not running this year. 

I feel incredibly lucky that I am living the closest thing to the “college experience” right now — being able to be on campus, meet new people, live away from home. But I know that a lot of other people aren't getting to experience that right now. Hell, we're all experiencing college differently, even if we're on the same campus. I think that overall, the college experience is being away from home, more than anything else. Being forced to be alone, away from all your loved ones, but having unadulterated freedom at the same time is a really wacky thing for barely legal adults to experience.

Frankly, I cannot even begin to think about the future in a plausible way right now. With what has happened just in this year, thinking more than a few months ahead gives me a headache and makes me more than a bit nervous. For now, I’m trying to take things day by day, week by week. Not stress the small stuff, you know? As overplayed as it is, I’m always in awe of how young people hold themselves right now. I think that being overexposed to media and news and the internet from way too young of an age has definitely had its negative effects, but has also created an incredibly empathetic and kind generation.

One of my favorite quirks of Gen Z is the notion of dismantling professionalism. We can dress like it’s Halloween or give ourselves a questionable tattoo, but still prove to be intelligent and well-spoken at the end of the day. I think that quarantining has really brought this out in a lot of young people. We’ve had to sit alone with our personalities for months, and I think that for a lot of us, we decided fuck it! Might as well express myself how I want to; no one’s gonna see me anyway. And because so many people came to that conclusion, it seems that everyone has sort of shifted what the status quo might look like. Thinking about future teachers with tattoo sleeves and doctors with septum piercings makes me optimistic in a weird sort of way. I hope that in the future, we won't have to conform to one image of professionalism (cis, straight, and white) in order to prove that what we are saying is important.

Images Courtesy of Violet Le
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Violet Le, 17

School: University of Arizona, Tucson AZ

Hometown: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Pronouns: she/ her

Instagram: @sfwidesign

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I chose University of Arizona because of their amazing business program. The business college, Eller College of Management, is ranked 21st for national public graduate business programs, second for national public management information systems, and third in Information Systems. They also provide students many opportunities for internships, experiences, job resources, and on-campus involvement. Everyone here is very welcoming, and the professors are very well-experienced with their subjects. I don’t live in a dorm, but I live a mile away from campus. I’m sharing a house with a new friend. Our school currently is not open for in-person class yet, but hopefully soon, in the spring. 

When I first heard about school being remote, I was furious. I was hurt, feeling like Covid-19 had taken away my true college experience. I was expecting lots of hours of long, dry lectures, no social contact, and solitude to an extent. However, it is not as bad as I was expecting. The professors have tried really hard to connect everyone virtually by frequently having breakout rooms for discussion. On weekends, there are still socially-distanced student clubs one can come to. It is definitely more challenging to make friends. However, I have tried to take as many trips as much as possible to the school library and campus to have “the experience.” 

The campus is breathtaking and marvelous, especially during golden hour with the lining of palm trees. I have joined two clubs this semester: UA in-person photography club and Tucson International Friends. I have met some amazing people there. I’m also looking forward to joining the Premier Business Club in the spring. 2020 freshmen have a unique college experience. My notion of the “college experience” has shifted from how the media painted it to be (wild, parties, get drunk, crazy things) to more chill, low-key, take-out with roommates Friday nights. Yet, one thing that remains the same for my notion of the “college experience” is the need for iced coffee every morning — that has not changed! 

One thing about starting college in 2020 that makes me feel optimistic for the future is all the metamorphosis everyone is experiencing. There is lots of growth and realization taking place. I’m certain that Covid-19 will drastically change the way we do things. Each of us is part of a defining moment in the history book, and it is exciting. Covid-19 has taught me to appreciate life more and live it to the fullest. Life is short. Do what you love when it’s possible.

Images Courtesy of Olina Mohamed
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Olina Mohamed, 18

School: Brown University

Hometown: Atlanta, GA

Pronouns: she/her

Instagram: @olinuh

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I chose Brown for myriad reasons including but not limited to: its open curriculum, the scholarship it gave me, its prestige as a world-renowned research university, and the overall sense of welcome and acceptance I felt through the admission process. Before researching Brown, I’d never heard of anything like its open curriculum educational system. The idea of having that much flexibility in my education was a profound one because at so many other schools there is a strict pathway for each student to follow that rarely allows room for choice and individuality. Brown’s open curriculum proves to me how, even more than a place of higher learning, Brown is a place of sharing perspective and exploring by your own rules and design. 

In order to reduce population density on campus, Brown is adopting a three semester school year, where depending on your grade, you will go to school during two of the three seasons of school (fall, spring, and summer). Freshman will be on campus during the spring and summer semesters, so until January, I’m stuck at home doing remote learning, which consists of taking one ‘bonus’ class that Brown is paying for. I also picked up a part-time job working at H&M to kill time and make some pocket change. 

Initially, I hated the idea of starting school in January and staying through the summer. It felt like I was the only person starting late and that I’d be the only one going to school in the summer. On top of that, the idea of not having a summer break and basically going to school for two years in a row sounded horrifying to me. However, I’m now thankful that Brown chose the safest option for its students. Although going to school in the summer doesn’t sound fun, the precautions that Brown is taking to ensure our health and safety is a constant reminder that I made the right choice in choosing Brown. 

To be super shallow, I’m excited that I may or may not get my own dorm room! Besides that, I’m excited that I get to start a new chapter in my life with the only 1,664 people on Earth that can really relate to how confused, excited, and nervous I feel about getting on campus and actually starting school. This pandemic really puts into perspective that although we all come from different backgrounds, countries, beliefs, and what sometimes can feel like different worlds, we all have more commonalities than we think. 

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A big concern I have is obviously about the safety, health, and well-being of not only my loved ones, but our country as a whole. To be more specific to myself, I’m worried that I won’t have the same drive as I did back when I was in high school. I’m worried that my college experience won’t be as fulfilling because I’ll have to be worried about enforcing a six feet radius around myself. I’m worried that I won’t be able to make the same connections and get the same opportunities I would have had if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic. I’m worried that I’ll look back at my time in college and keep asking myself, what if you’d done this differently? 

The biggest takeaway that I’ve had from this whole experience of transitioning into adulthood is that we can never take the little things for granted. Although I can’t be with my class right now, I appreciate all of our late night Zooms, our virtual game nights, our group chat debates, and everything that helps me feel connected to my future classmates. These little moments are the closest thing that I have to build a foundation for the relationships I’ll build in college. As disheartening as it can feel to have to do everything virtually, I keep telling myself that we’re all going through the same thing and this experience can only strengthen our bond as a class. 

Before starting college, I always thought of the idealistic “college experience” being measured by how many people you met, how many numbers you saved, how many friend groups you could hop around between, how many names you knew, and how many experiences you shared with those people. Obviously remote learning hasn’t made it easy to do all this, so my notion of the college experience circles back to something I mentioned earlier: appreciating the little things. Now, I realize that I can’t base the connections and friendships I make off of how many people I know, but rather the substance of the relationships.

Special thanks to Jane Pryzant and Sarah Filippi.

It's a cliché, but this year was supposed to be our year — full of independence, opportunity, or at least a few weekend afternoons spent with more than 10 friends with fewer than six feet between us. But with COVID-necessary social distancing, a shitty job market, and closed campuses, 2020 hasn't given us much to work with. Past generations have had to deal with a recession, social upheaval, and changing norms: We've had to deal with all of it at once.

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So, what now? What do we do with our careers, our relationships, and our lives? How do we move forward when we're still stuck in our high school bedrooms? These stories are for us — filled with the resources, blueprints, and people who are finding ways to turn all this garbage into something like lemonade.

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