College freshmen having first-year experience unlike any other

WASHINGTON - As the first semester of their college experience grinds to a close, many freshmen are pondering an elementary question: Was it worth it?

The mostly virtual classes, the grab-and-go meals, the weekly coronavirus tests, the Zoom socials, the dorm restrictions, the games without fans, the . . . well, the list goes on. The first year of college is perhaps the most anticipated, yet being a freshman this year was upended in every possible way. Experiences varied from school to school, person to person, but while some students have been content with their freshman year so far, many others have found it stressful, frustrating and disappointing.

Francesca Gastaldo knew her freshman year at Rice University in Houston would be different from what she had originally anticipated when she began applying to colleges last year as a senior in the District of Columbia. Even though she knew most of her classes would be mostly online, she moved into an on-campus dorm when the semester began. She's glad she did, even though the circumstances were not ideal.

"Although it's a weird experience, I wanted more of the college experience rather than sitting at home feeling like it was High School Part 2," said Gastaldo. She has a roommate, which she is happy about, but she's found it difficult to make friends in a place where classes and activities were primarily held virtually. "The first five or six weeks I was just sitting in my room," she said, logging on for classes and doing homework. "It was difficult mentally."

In an ordinary fall, about 1.7 million students would be starting full time at four-year colleges. But the pandemic freshmen of 2020 are a scattered bunch - and hard to track. Some took gap years after high school. Many take online classes from home or in apartments with a few friends. Those lucky enough to get a room on campus may or may not have classes in person.

Gastaldo has had to adjust even her minimal expectations. She tried to sign up for gardening club sessions, but they were usually already at capacity. A lot of intramural sports were canceled.

She now knows a few people on her floor - they're not allowed to go to other floors - and is part of a group chat of students that formed to make fun of the loneliness of pandemic life. Recently some of them met up in person, she said, which was kind of strange, but nice.

Before the pandemic, Gastaldo thought she would make friends at college through a campus job and activities and parties. "Not weird group chats - that was not what I envisioned," she said.

One class, a French seminar, has just a few students, and that was her favorite, she said, because it was most like an in-person experience. But others have a few hundred students listening to a lecture. She had not struggled with classes in high school, but with virtual classes she found herself getting easily distracted and lost.

"This year has just been very, very odd," she said recently after she returned to her family's apartment in D.C. to finish the semester.

And college? "It's just quiet and empty."

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Some freshmen, especially those who attend schools that have kept their campuses closed and not allowed students to move into dorms, are not sure the experience has been worth it.

"There's a level of disconnect," said Anthony Abatemarco, 18, a first-year student at Georgetown University. He spent the term holed up at his family's house in Massapequa, N.Y., on Long Island. It's more than 250 miles away by car from the D.C. campus overlooking the Potomac River where he wanted to live. He is making academic progress, carrying a full load of rigorous courses, but that is small consolation.

"The degree is more than just a piece of paper," Abatemarco said. "It's about the relationships that you make there in person. All of that has really been taken away. All of that is really nonexistent at this point."

Abatemarco thought about taking the year off, joining the Class of 2025. But "putting everything on pause" held little appeal, he said, because the pandemic provides few other options. "To halt my studies, it's not like I could go and travel and have a new experience."

So he is plugging away at online courses: marketing, microeconomics, theology, sociology, a first-year seminar, Excel. He was grateful that professors held casual Zoom meetings outside class. One of them had an informal "dinner" with him and other students over a video link. His main human contact, outside of the family, is meeting with a few friends from Long Island. "We have a joint bond in recognizing how brutal the last three months of school have been," he said.

A few weeks ago, Abatemarco was hopeful that Georgetown might bring him and most other freshmen to campus for the spring term. But the university, citing pandemic worries, chose to open slowly. It will invite several hundred seniors to live on campus, but few from the Class of 2024. "As the days go on, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel," Abatemarco said. "It's really just, 'What are they going to cancel next?' "

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Dario Magana-Williams, 18, never imagined he'd be living at home, taking college classes in his childhood bedroom. This year was supposed to be filled with late-night group study sessions and greasy dining hall food. Instead, the semester has been an exploration in finding the motivation to complete assignments.

In some ways, taking online classes at the University of the District of Columbia is exactly what Magna-Williams needed. The pacing of the courses is manageable, which has made the transition from high school easier, he said.

"They're trying to be flexible," Magana-Williams said of his professors. "If we were in-person, I don't know if they'd be the same."

UDC was not his first choice - the D.C. native had his heart set on George Mason University in Virginia. Lack of money and the coronavirus got in the way. To this day, his dad has never fully recovered the hours at the restaurant where he works. Paying out-of-state tuition to take some classes online and some in-person at GMU did not make sense to Magana-Williams's parents, especially when UDC cost them less than $150 a semester after scholarships.

Magana-Williams is still considering transferring, but that depends on what becomes of the virus.

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As a senior at her D.C. high school, Melina Spatharis would wake up early, eat breakfast, brush her teeth, get dressed and walk to school, getting there before 9 a.m.

As a college freshman at Temple University during the pandemic, Spatharis fell into a pattern this fall: Wake up, log on.

"I had a 9 a.m. and a 9:30 a.m. class, and I was just doing those classes from my bed. . . . You can turn your cameras off, they don't really need to know where you are, what you look like in the morning," she said. "That sums up the experience for somebody going to college during covid."

Everyone has those days, she said, when they think, " 'You know what? I just don't want to get out of bed.' "

This fall, there were a lot of those days - and none of the normal structure that would spur her to jump up and walk to class.

Starting at college, being on your own, making your own decisions and taking on more rigorous classes is challenging for anyone, she said. "But it's unbelievably more emotionally and academically challenging when you're in covid trying to do these things. You're worried about the grades you can pull off. You're worried about some next assignment. And you have to just stay in your dorm."

She lived in a quad with two other women, choosing to stay on campus after many left following a rise in cases because she wanted some semblance of the first-year college experience. It was a hard decision, she said. "You need to take into consideration that you're cooped up in a dorm. Temple is in a major city. But all the things you would do in Philadelphia you can't, because of covid. Being close but yet so far was a struggle. You have to wake up every morning, sign onto a computer and hope you get something out of it. Not ideal."

Still, she was learning to spend her money wisely, she said, not eat junk food, live with other people.

At the beginning of the year, before the rise in cases, there were kids outside playing spike ball on the lawns, eating outside with their friends. She told her mom, " 'One of my worst fears is that all these people will be gone.'

"Then they just disappeared," she said. "It was hard and it was sad."

Everyone is ready for the end of the year, and a vaccine, she said.

"I think the bottom line is that, I think everybody's just trying. I can tell the professors are trying, the kids are trying, the university is trying, but sometimes it's just - we're all just very tired."

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When Emma Dabelko began applying to colleges, a little more than a year ago, she envisioned a freshman year filled with possibility. She would immerse herself in academics, engage with professors, join clubs, make lasting friendships, attend plays and concerts and root for the football team.

The pandemic had other plans.

Like most students who began their first year of college this fall, Dabelko, an international studies major at Indiana University, has seen the coronavirus turn almost every aspect of the freshman experience upside down. All but one of her classes are remote, dining halls allow takeout meals only, students cannot visit friends in other dorms, and most clubs are virtual. With almost everyone wearing masks, spotting familiar faces on campus is often a guessing game.

Dabelko does not feel sorry for herself and said she's more concerned about the hardships and tragedy the pandemic has brought to so many others in the country and around the world. But she has occasionally wondered whether she might have been better taking a year off school and postponing her freshman experience. There have been many days when she only left her dorm to get dinner - or to get tested.

"It's really difficult for students to have a focused and motivated mind-set when a lot of their classes are online," Dabelko said in an interview from her parents' home in Athens, Ohio, where she returned when IU closed down much of campus just before Thanksgiving for the remainder of the semester. "There's stress about getting covid or infecting someone in your family. A lot of people are having a hard time mustering up the strength or energy to leave their room."

Still, Dabelko is glad for the classes she's taken and friends she has made. Despite the health restrictions and somber circumstances, she thinks she made the right choice to begin school when she did.

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Aaeshah Siddiqui, 18, also had her hopes set on joining campus clubs and getting to really know her classmates at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. But making those connections, the kind that happen outside the classroom, has been difficult.

There are plenty of organizations, but remote meetings, much like remote learning, have their limitations. And sitting six feet away from classmates in her only in-person course is not exactly the easiest way to make friends.

"No one really talks to each other unless they already knew each other," said Siddiqui, who is living at home in Rochester Hills, Mich., while pursuing a degree in social work. "In one of my classes, they focused on fostering connections, with group chats and icebreakers to get to know each other. But I wouldn't say I've made many friends this semester."

Siddiqui has found solace in her part-time job as an organizer for the student advocacy group Rise. In the run-up to the presidential election, the meetings and planning sessions provided the interaction she had craved on campus.

"I've definitely gotten close with my co-workers; sometimes we call just to talk to each other, check in," she said. "It helps."

Siddiqui appreciates that most of her professors are sympathetic to the emotional strain of trying to learn amid the disruptions of a pandemic. Sharing a space with two younger siblings who are navigating remote learning themselves can be distracting, but also a motivating reminder to jump on her own work.

The respite of heading to campus for her in-person class ended a few days ago when Oakland switched all courses online after coronavirus case numbers began climbing in Michigan. The uncertainty of what the next semester will look like is disconcerting, but that's just the way things are, for now, Siddiqui said.

"I have those times where I'm like, 'Man, this sucks and I don't know when it's going to end. This might be the reality of my entire first year, even a part of my sophomore year,' " she said. "But this experience shows that people can adapt and make do. I've had some struggles this semester but managed to make it through."

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