The Freshman Disconnect: During COVID-19, transitioning to college is challenging

This year, first-year students entered college in a global pandemic, which made it challenging to make connections with their classmates and professors and to adjust to campus.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, FSU Fall 2020 first-time freshman enrollment has declined by 20.9% from the fall 2019 semester. While 776 first-time freshman students entered FSU for the fall 2019 semester, only 614 students enrolled for the fall 2020 semester. 

This spring semester, only 17 first-year students entered the University. Overall, there are 497 first-year students enrolled in the University currently, 117 students decided to take a leave of absence or withdraw from the University, according to Framingham State’s Institutional Research provided by Ben Trapanick, director of new student and family programs.

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Trapanick said there were “a lot” of challenges with first-year students that came up because of the pandemic. One reason is that most students have never experienced any on-campus involvement.

“The number of in-person classes is very low,” he said. “As a result of that, many students decided to not live on campus, so they are taking classes remotely and never experiencing anything about the campus.”

Trapanick acknowledged how difficult attending class on Zoom is. “It is hard to engage in a virtual classroom, regardless of how much effort the instructor puts into making it a safe and engaging environment,” he added. 

“I am sure that it’s very lonely, regardless of the efforts made by Residence Life and other offices. You walk around and see barely anyone,” he said.

According to Trapanick, opportunities to get involved do exist, but not nearly as many as in previous years.

“Many students didn’t get the opportunity to connect in their Foundations and Rams 101 courses, so their desire to apply for leadership positions is going to be down because they didn’t get the full experience,” he added.

Trapanick said students have tried to attend class while they are working, something that they have never been able to do in the past. 

“There are a lot of students who didn’t want to be part of this [experience] from the start or realized that this current situation wasn’t something that they wanted to be part of anymore. They made a decision that was best for them. And I hope that they return this fall when things are better.

“It is impressive the perseverance we have seen, even through incredibly challenging times,” he added.

Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego praised the freshman class for choosing to enter college despite the pandemic.

“I am amazed by the resiliency of the first-year class,” she said. “The experiences they likely had as they closed out their senior year of high school were changed due to the pandemic, and their first year of college at FSU is unlike any other student has had due to all the changes put in place here.

“I hope they find each year gets better at FSU,” she added. 

Not only has there been a decrease in full-time degree-seeking students, but some students said they don’t feel like a college student because of remote learning, Trapanick said. 

Zoë Ryan-Williams, a freshman political science major, said, “I feel like I am in college academically, but socially not as much. I wish I was able to make professional connections with professors and classmates in my major because it’s easier that way.”

Trevor Stenberg, undeclared freshman said, “Being a freshman here at FSU during COVID was the last expectation I had for my freshman year. The cancellation of my first college hockey season was a huge let down but it’s also given me a full year to get fully adjusted to college and focus on my classes.” 

Brooke Phelps, a freshman environmental science and policy major, said, “Having all online classes and playing lacrosse makes me feel like a high school student, but being on campus makes me feel more like I am a college student.”

Ana Clara Francisco, a freshman biology major, said, “I still kind of feel like I’m in high school sometimes, but overall, I feel like a college student.”

Haley Chase, senior sociology major, said, “I’ve observed freshmen adjusting to college with COVID restrictions and I admire their dedication to their studies while still trying to have the college experience.”

It was a hard decision for some students to come to college in the first place.

Ryan Mikelis, a freshman history major said, “I discussed the pros and cons of staying home or going to college over and over with my family. Eventually, I decided to attend college this year, and overall, I am glad that I did.”

Diego Cardenas, a freshman pre-engineering major, said he wasn’t sure if he would get the same level of education online compared to in-person classes.

“I tend to focus more if it’s in person, but ultimately I decided to attend during the pandemic because I feared I would lose motivation if I didn’t,” he added. 

Cardenas said that being a first-generation student gives him the motivation to get a degree. “It keeps me hungry to keep going,” he added.

Kayla Barboza, a freshman American Sign Language major, said, “It was hard to decide whether or not I wanted to be on campus, but I knew I wanted to continue my education. 

“I decided to live on campus, because after finishing my senior year of high school online, I felt like I needed a change of scenery and I needed to have time to find myself,” she added.

Barboza said, “With everything going on, I feel like I am a part of the FSU community.”

Regan Fein, a freshman health and wellness major, said, “It’s a time to meet new people and spark new friendships. I think that is what I am lacking the most.

“It feels like far less of a community and more like a workplace. Instead of feeling liberation from high-school life, it just kind of feels like a constant cycle of work, eat, work, practice, eat, work,” she added. 

Madison Herries, a freshman early childhood education major, said that college is meant to be challenging. “We can acknowledge that somedays are harder than others, but I just remind myself of the end goal and that tomorrow will be a better day,” she said.

Emma Howes, senior management major, said, “If it were me, I probably would’ve taken a gap year. It must be so hard to meet people, if you don’t have a roommate, can’t go to social events, there’s not even a point to living on campus if you don’t have classes in person.”

Some students said they were worried they were missing out on the “college experience.”

Hannah Stearns, a freshman communication, media, and performance major, said she feels like she is missing out when upperclassmen tell her about their freshman year experiences.

Stearns added that being on the lacrosse team helps her feel more connected to the university because she will “always have people” around her.

Timothy Reed, a freshman history major, said, “In my opinion getting my degree faster and being able to graduate on time is more important than the year of college experience.”

Julia Taliaferro, a freshman political science major said, “I thought that in college I’d be living on campus, be able to continue cheerleading, and I was really excited to have a roommate. Canceling my housing application over the summer really hammered home the fact that this year won’t be a normal year. There’s always hope for next year!”

Ali Palladino, a senior Earth Science major, said, “Without having constant interactions on campus, it makes it difficult to make friends or get involved on campus. Without freshman year I would have never met the friends that I have now because with reduced occupancy, I might have commuted.”

Jordan Wild, senior marketing major said, “Freshman year sets the foundation for the rest of your college career. I feel like freshmen are being robbed of the full college experience.”