College, COVID-19, and the teenage dream

Aleasha Hintz—Staff Writer

For many high school seniors, college is a quintessential ingredient of the American dream. It symbolizes freedom, opportunity, new friends, and learning what you love. High school students across the country fantasize about that fateful move-in day, hoping the college experience presented in their favorite chick-flick will become theirs as well. 

But, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the freshman class of 2021 left their high school graduation stage not knowing what to expect.

The students that make up Dordt’s freshmen class were fortunate enough to experience a mostly in-person year. But that year was not without challenge. The process of moving out of your childhood home and into your college dorm is a dramatic change on its own, especially for those who make long journeys to arrive at school in the first place. However, when you add mask policies, remote classes, no regular vacation days, and quarantine to the mix, you get quite an unprecedented freshman experience.

At Dordt, one of the most widespread consequences of the pandemic came from the loss of community. 

Because of precautions, building a friend group became a challenge.

“It was a lot harder to make friends at first just cause, I mean I couldn’t see their faces,” Justine Combs, a current sophomore, said. “We were sitting really far apart, also I could barely hear people.”

The decision at Dordt to enforce masks was, without a doubt, a necessary one. But the physical barriers that COVID-19 created between people only made it harder for freshman to transition to college life.

Elise Stiemsma is another student who enrolled at Dordt in the middle of the pandemic. She had a difficulty navigating the unspoken assumptions of how well her classmates followed campus COVID-19 procedures. 

“It made it harder to make friends because you were forced to notice what was different first,” Stiemsma said. 

The different opinions held by the student body regarding COVID-19 kept them on their toes. Suddenly, the act of wearing a mask became a political statement. For freshmen, such tribalism didn’t provide for a welcoming environment.

“I know there are some strong opinions,” Stiemsma said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t want to ruffle any feathers,’ you know? And it’s hard because you’re ruffling someone’s feathers either way you choose.”

When one did manage to connect and make a friend group, it usually remained small. A friend came from within your major or someone physically close to you, simply because there were not as many opportunities to socialize. The difference between those who started school pre-pandemic and post-pandemic is noticeable through merely observing friend groups. 

“I felt like upperclassmen who I met seemed to have more mixed groups from all over the place,” Stiemsma said. “They’d have people who I’d never met before and [they] had met freshman year. And then anyone who was after COVID tended to stay with people who they had gone to high school with.”

“There’s just something about masks that makes you not want to talk,” Combs said.

Another sophomore, Emma McGaughey, agreed that COVID-19 affected her social life.

“There was less student engagement than I was expecting coming to Dordt,” McGaughey said. “There was this expectation that you have stuff to do all the time and you’re with friends a lot. But with COVID and masks it’s just hard. It takes away part of your identity and I feel like it’s harder to meet people and really get to know new people unless you see them a lot.”

These differences have only become more apparent to sophomores as they watch the incoming freshman class go through WOW Week and their first few days of classes.

The explosion of social opportunity on campus left some sophomores feeling like second-year freshmen, simply because they had not experienced this before. 

However, the freshmen hold their own set of challenges, such as jumping into in-person college classes after over a year of online high school. Whether or not they rise to the challenge is completely up to them.

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