North Campus lawn at the University of Georgia is a hot spot on a warm April afternoon. Numerous patrons are sprawled across the greenery and others mosey across the quad.
Signs of the latest admission event canvas the area. Voices of chipper orientation leaders boom as they engage small groups hovering around them. Their enthusiasm exudes the confines of their masks, as their eyes gleam and their hands move with them in excitement. Doe-eyed prospective students wonder at the historic buildings of North Lawn while parents take on the responsibility of soaking up as much information as they can during their brief visit. After all, this trip could determine their next four years.
Many look forward to exploration of university life. That luxury was not offered to the class of 2024, as the pandemic had already altered the first year experience. Students could rely on orientation, campus tours, and other in-person activities to get a feel of the campus, but instead they were met with lackluster experiences, forcing themselves to acclimate to an unknown place on their own. Once arriving, students had to try and make a home with little assistance.
“Yeah, I definitely had to do most things by myself,” said first year student Chiqui Benton. “I’m not really used to like, doing everything by myself. So it’s okay, it’s not ideal but I just kind of got used to it.”
There have been struggles adjusting to a virtual educational space, on top transitioning into college. First year students have been presented with unprecedented challenges welcoming them to university life, and were met with little assistance. Unsatisfied with the conditions presented to them, they took matters into their own hands to create the experience that they wanted.
Navigating University Life On Their Own
After losing their final moments in the familiar halls of their high school, students spent much time at home socially distancing themselves well into the summer months. By August, they were itching to get away though knowing they were about to encounter an altered experience.
“I was in like serious lockdown mode,” said Uchenna Ugonwa, first-year English major,“So I was really excited.”
Most could prepare for the transition into college through events like orientation. But because of the pandemic, campus tours ceased as the university closed, and those welcoming activities were modified. The usual two day in-person orientation adjusted its operations to presentations over Zoom, causing the overall experience to lose its personal touch.
“I think the hard thing was orientation. I had a 20-minute Zoom Room,” said Fiona Roche, first-year Criminal Justice major,” and they were just like ‘did you have any questions’ and it was kind of quiet.”
Still no stable footing into the university, Roche took it upon herself to learn the campus where she is about to spend the next four years.
“I committed myself one day to learn the bus system, and I did get lost, I got stuck at Park and Ride, waiting for 20 minutes. But I committed myself to learning the bus system. I walked around to all my classes, yeah it was just a lot of independence, that you had to take, that you had to do and figure out,” said Roche.
Like most, Ugonwa had been waiting for the moment to enter college.
She looked forward to participating in typical university-living milestones: attending classes, participating in clubs and organizations, and indulging in college night-life. She had watched the stories of her friends from her hometown through social media attending cookouts, block parties, and attending events like G-Day. But she was unaware that most of her time would be spent in doors.
“I guess I had like this false idea of what it was going to be like when I got here,” said Ugonwa six feet away in a socially distanced Tate Center.
Tate Student Center, which used to be a bustling social hub for all patrons on the UGA campus, had turned into a quiet study space for students.
Numerous COVID-19 signage filled the building with filling the floor designating six-feet in all sitting areas. Luckily, students still fill the building, but it has now turned into another class room as many are seen attending zoom lectures.
Once on campus, first-year students plan to participate in extracurriculars to further connect with the university. This year proved challenging as clubs and organizations were encouraged to meet virtually as a response to the pandemic.
“You know, you have things like the involvement fair in person, but I’m not gonna go another two hours on Zoom,” said Roche.
UGA’s Involvement Fair, a pivotal connection in first-year engagement, was held on Zoom, disconnecting the personal experience.
``It’s just very hard to get involved with things,” said Roche.
Benton faced similar issues as being a Spring transfer to the university during a pandemic.
“It’s like so many things I haven’t really had the time to research,” said Benton.
Transfer students already face the challenge of acclimating to a new place in the middle of the school year, but in a pandemic those obstacles are compounded as they try to connect to their campus.
Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands
Resources provided by the university during the pandemic proved inadequate as first year students were left to learn their campus on their own. But that did not discourage them from still trying to create a positive experience for themselves. As university operations shifted online, so did the methods students used to try and engage with their new community. Taking it upon themselves, the class of 2024 used social media to bridge gaps created by the pandemic.
The “UGA’24” Group Me is where students began to foster relationships over the summer with their future classmates.
“Since we were in the pandemic, we just like text every day because everyone was at home,” said Ugonwa.
Its usage continued into the school year, being an integral piece of communication between the class, responsible for a mass meetup of first-year students exploring the campus together their first night in Athens.
“We all met at Bolton, we walked from there to Downtown and we just walked the square talking, laughing and then we split up. From there, we would plan another Hangout,”said Ugonwa.
By sending a message in the groupchat, a solo trip anywhere on campus could turn into the next social gathering. After spending most of their day alone, laboring at their dorm room desk, they at least knew they had one avenue to flex their social muscles, if they wanted to.
Since then many friendships have blossomed from those spontaneous outings. The unpredictable nature of the pandemic has led to students using what they already have to get around COVID’s setbacks.
“I don’t even know if I’ll consider us like second year sophomores,”said Roche when discussing what the next school year could be like.
Now, over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, life is returning back to normalcy. Vaccines are rolling out and the university has already made plans to resume its regular operations in the Fall.
Current first year students are burdened with transitioning back into the university for the following school year. Though resuming regular operations would be easy for upperclassmen to readjust to, current first year students will have to acclimate themselves to a full-time in person class schedule and the temptation of a non restricted college life. But, they are hopeful as this year felt like a test run to the normal college experience.
“So I think it was good to just get in the hang of it, especially for next year,” said Benton.``I don’t want the hassle of trying to find my classes and getting lost. I’m definitely way more comfortable than the first week I got here.”
Now, their first year of college is under their belt. They have faced the harsh realities COVID-19 has presented to them, forcing them to enter college at a rather inconvenient time, and to figure it out by themselves. They have prevailed, not letting the pandemic take away all the joys of being a college student.
“I’m ready to learn more, so that I can actually join something I’m passionate about,” Benton said,” rather than just sit on the sidelines.”
They are ready to immerse themselves in the college experience next semester, hopefully free of the COVID-19’s restrictions.