In January of this year, the news of a mysterious pneumonia emanating from China, which would later come to be known as COVID-19, was initially met with a collective shrug. For Emma Kramer ‘24, then a senior in high school, the emerging threat still seemed to be a world away. She certainly didn’t think the virus would have any impact on her own life.
“I really didn’t think that it would escalate into such a big problem,” she said. “On Mar. 12, the day that school was officially canceled, my friends and I were not too concerned because we were told it would only be two weeks.”
The reality of what was happening would dawn on Kramer and her classmates, along with all of the now first-year college students, soon enough. They were unsure if, or when, they would return to school. There would be no senior barbecues or end of the year field trips. Dreams of glistening prom dresses and jam-packed graduations that they had waited their entire high school careers for were dashed just as quickly as the virus was spreading.
Instead, these soon-to-be college first-years would be forced to spend their final days of high school in relative isolation, ripped away from their friends and hobbies.
“It was just really sad,” said Lauren Flagg ‘24. “Every day you’d get more news that something got canceled.”
Caroline Murray ‘24 expressed similar sentiments. “It was really the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever been through,” she shared.
They would also begin their college careers amid the worst pandemic in over a century. Their first semester, and beyond, looked very different from those of previous first-years for their safety and the safety of others. These students simply would not be afforded the luxuries of carefree gatherings, huge parties, spirited sports games or being able to see the lower halves of other people’s faces.
Classes were also conducted differently than in years past, with many being so-called “hybrid” classes, which have both virtual and in-person components. Other classes were held entirely virtual. Virtual classes became more popular at Fairfield and other universities as the semester went on, with some classes that started out as in-person or hybrid, but changing to virtual as campus case counts rose.
“In the beginning, most of my classes were hybrid, but then when we got to halfway through the semester, all of my classes are online now,” Flagg said.
Some students, like Grace Magilligan ‘24, have had access to a more in-person academic experience.
“Almost all of my classes are hybrid. There’s not a single day where I don’t go into any classes,” she said.
Regardless of whether their classes were in-person or virtual, the vast majority of first-years said that they preferred the in-person classes to the online ones.
“While some people might enjoy being able to log into class without having to leave their bed, I personally enjoy the days when I get to attend a class in person,” shared Kramer. “I find it much easier to pay attention and learn when I am sitting in a classroom than when I am staring at a computer screen.”
But even though most first-years feel that online classes are not ideal, some said that they were appreciative of the fact that their professors were putting their best effort into teaching classes and helping students.
“It’s definitely harder to learn but I think that teachers have tried to make adjustments, and they’re really understanding,” said Flagg.
Unsurprisingly, many first-years said that their first semester had not gone much like they thought it would. But, that isn’t necessarily a negative thing, according to Peyton Perry ‘24, who said, “It hasn’t been bad. I would just say it’s been a little different.”
The first-years also said that they believe Fairfield is doing its best in trying to provide as much normalcy as possible.
“I think Fairfield did a good job of giving us as much of a first-year experience as they could,” Flagg said.
Matthew Belcher ‘24 agreed.
“I know the college is doing the best they can to give us a more normal college experience,” he said.
In terms of what they believe they’re missing out on, some first-years pointed to specific events, like the annual President’s Ball or the Fairfield University Student Association Fall Concert. Others, though, were quick to emphasize the fact that organizations like FUSA and Fairfield @ Night had done a good job of offering activities, both virtual and in-person, geared specifically towards first-years. Throughout the semester, there have been events such as movie nights, painting and craft workshops, virtual scavenger hunts, trivia nights, guest lectures and more.
Many first-years have tried to make the best of the situation by getting involved in clubs, with varying degrees of success. Nicholas Calabrese ‘24, who joined Campus Ministry, found the experience to be worthwhile.
“I took part in two first-year retreats earlier in the semester, which was a great way to just kind of reach out and meet new people,” he said.
Some, like Magilligan, weren’t as fortunate when it came to joining clubs.
“I joined the Baking Club, and that can’t really happen because you can’t use the lounges with the kitchens in dorms, so you can’t really bake or anything,” Magilligan said. “So all the clubs that I’ve joined, we don’t do anything right now.”
Indeed, many said that they wished that there were more things to do on campus. “My friends and I are always complaining that it is hard to find things to do on the weekends,” said Kramer. “As freshmen who don’t have cars and are generally discouraged from leaving campus, we always say that it is ‘dead’ on the weekends.”
It was this dearth of activities, Kramer believes, that made it more difficult to meet new people and make friends.
“I remember the first weekend after move-in, so many of the freshmen were out on the quad just trying to meet new people, but because of the COVID-19 restrictions in place, we all had to disperse back to our respective dorms,” she recalled. “Occurrences like that are what I think cause a lot of students to feel discouraged and isolated on campus.”
Kramer was far from the only first-year to express that it was hard to feel connected to their classmates and make friends on campus in the COVID-19 era.
“I feel like I would’ve been able to meet more people if the restrictions were not there,” said Belcher.
Murray agreed that social distancing requirements could be detrimental to the social experience.
“I’ve met a lot of great people, but I haven’t met nearly as many as I would have liked to,” she said.
Still, students did not place all of the blame for the lack of participation in campus life at the feet of the University. Some of it, they said, falls on the first-years themselves.
“I think that everyone is tired of Zoom at this point, so most students are unmotivated to find ways to participate in the community,” said Kramer.
Overall, many first-years believe that although they are missing out on a lot, in some ways, they are actually at an advantage, at least compared to upperclassmen, in the sense that they don’t really know any different, since college in the COVID-19 era is all they’ve ever experienced.
“I feel worse for upperclassmen than I do for our class,” Flagg admitted. “We complain about stuff, but we don’t know any different, where I feel like upperclassmen have a right to complain because they know what it’s actually like.”
Most first-years also said that they felt somewhat insulated from the crisis, since by the time they get to be juniors or seniors and start thinking about studying abroad, getting internships and entering the workforce, the pandemic will have likely ended or improved significantly.
“I do want to travel abroad. That will be in two years, so I feel like it will be a lot safer then and there will be more opportunities with work, internships,” said Magilligan.
As for how they expect their next three-and-a-half years at Fairfield to go, the first-years are hopeful that things will eventually get better.
“At this point, I think I’m just kind of looking for things to head in somewhat more of a normal direction,” said Calabrese. “I definitely look forward to what life has to bring when things are kind of settled down in terms of the COVID-19 restrictions.”
Murray, too, hopes that she can have a more typical “college experience” someday soon.
“I hope that by sophomore year we can begin to experience what college is supposed to be like, with significantly fewer restrictions, more social opportunities and better academics,” she said.
Hardly any of the first-years, however, said that they thought that everything would go completely back to “normal.”
“I honestly think it will be a very long time until we are able to go without masks or have classes at full capacity,” said Kramer. “I’m not even sure if things will ever go back to the way they were.”
And, according to some first-years, like Belcher, that’s exactly how it should be.
“Things won’t ever be normal after this, just because in a sense I think COVID-19 brought a lot of lessons on how we should be more thankful for what we have in our lives, and how health isn’t always permanent and we take a lot things for granted in life,” he said.