Transition During a Pandemic: The First-Year Experience

Moving into college, even without a global pandemic, is difficult any year. Still, with colleges around the country drastically altering their reopening plans, many first year students are left to navigate two new experiences simultaneously: college and life during a pandemic. 

In August, first-year students at Oberlin began orientation remotely before arriving on campus, and continued programming remotely even after move-in. Orientation sessions, conducted on Zoom in PAL groups, consisted of ice-breaker activities, short webinars, and discussions. However, the content of these activities was less important than the relationships they formed. In times of such uncertainty, Esther Orlov-Mayer, a first-year student, explained “It was comforting to come into Oberlin with people I already knew, and with people I could reach out to with questions.” 

Still, finding friends even with the added comfort of a PAL group was difficult for others, and for the three days of quarantine before coronavirus test results came back, the College did not promote many virtual events. After students received their test results and were able to leave quarantine, it wasn’t easy to recognize people with their masks on. Often, Zoom formed connections that did not translate to real life friendships. “I would usually meet people in the bathroom” said first-year, Lanie Cheatham.“They would just be there washing their hands, because you have to wash your hands for such a long time, and I would talk to them.” This method was successful because students were friendly and open to making friends. However, during quarantine, Lanie explained that she was lonely. Those first few days, living alone in her single dorm room felt isolating. Without strong connections and a routine, she missed her family and the small, daily interactions she would have with them. Even later, after people received their test results and classes began, she said “The most physical contact you get is when your hands brush together when someone hands you something, I mean, other than that you’re isolated.”

Despite these unusual methods of making friends, many first years report that college is going well. Esther, who is a double degree student, said that Oberlin is doing a good job of reopening, but it is strange to play an instrument socially distanced. Although it is a different experience, she noted feeling unaffected, simply because this is the only college experience she knows: “I don’t really know what I’m missing. I don’t really know what the alternative is.” 

As first years continue to adjust to life at Oberlin, the pandemic is just another factor that makes the friendships formed during this time stronger. Morgan Piper Cordova explained that the pandemic has made people more vulnerable, which has eased the transition into college. “That shared experience, the one thing we all have in common is the pandemic,” Morgan said. “There’s this awful thing happening, yet it isn’t really affecting us, but it’s still there, and it’s something we can all latch onto.”