College town, ghost town

COVID-19 changed the world, and freshman college students were forced to adapt. 

Ah, freshman year. These two words usually call up images of crowded move-in days, raucous parties and the first tastes of freedom. But a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, freshman year looks ... different. First-year college students now spend hours upon hours alone in their rooms staring into Zoom screens, often never meeting their peers or professors in person.

The pandemic has altered the physical, social and mental landscape of college for students at Stephens College, Columbia College and MU — and all across the country.

According to a BestColleges national survey, 50% of students feel increased levels of stress, anxiety and disconnect due to the pandemic.

“[I] feel a little nervous going forward,” Namratha Prasad, an MU freshman studying journalism, says. “It’s a little harder to reach out to people and get help from friends in classes, which I didn’t really expect to be so difficult, but it is.”

University support

MU Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Bill Stackman says he is saddened by the lack of engagement across campus. A regular part of his job used to be interacting with students on campus, but now he gets little to no face time with students. “One of the things I love about student affairs is that it provides students with an opportunity to connect with their university through interaction, and that’s pretty much off the table [now],” Stackman says.

Andre Thorn, the director of MU’s Center for Academic Success and Excellence, says freshmen lost opportunities to establish cohorts of support from the start of this year. Online classes require less student-to-student engagement, and many freshman summer programs were shifted online, preventing them from networking. “Students are being robbed of an undergraduate experience,” Thorn says. “COVID is limiting the depth of relationships.”

Through voluntary surveys, MU has attempted to understand how students — especially freshmen — are struggling and what can be done to help. Some students have identified academics as an area of difficulty, but isolation and disconnect have been the biggest challenges. MU has seen an increase in visits to the university counseling center during the pandemic, Stackman says. “A lot of folks are struggling,” he says. “It’s the isolation, it’s the fear of the unknown, it’s job security, it’s finances.”

The new freshman experience

Every August, MU typically welcomes its student-athletes with a pool party at Wilson’s Pool Club. In 2020, rather than at a pool party, freshman football player and psychology major Johnny Walker found himself quarantined in his room in Todd Apartments after testing positive for COVID-19. Walker had been on campus for only two days. He didn’t have any friends or family in Columbia to check on him — he didn’t even have a TV to distract him during his quarantine. “At the time I didn’t really have much,” Walker says. “It was challenging.”

MU also welcomes freshmen into its Greek Life community each year. As of 2019, nearly 30% of all undergraduates participated in Greek life. Madelyn Gamertsfelder, an MU freshman majoring in journalism and education, comes from a long line of Greek life members. After waiting for the chance to create her own lifelong memories with newfound sisters at their sorority house, Gamertsfelder instead found herself sitting alone in her bedroom on video conferences.

“My dad was in a fraternity, and it’s all he talks about,” Gamertsfelder says. “I’m in Chi Omega, but we haven’t really had events, so it’s been really hard to get to know the girls.”

Both Walker and Gamertsfelder say they had heard the stories that come along with being a Division I student-athlete and a member of a sorority.But neither has had the chance to see if these legends hold up. “A lot of older teammates tell me, ‘Boy, you’re missing out.’ So I guess [college] could be a lot more fun than it is right now,” Walker says.

One perk of attending a large state university such as MU is the ability to connect with many people. Geoffrey Dean, an MU freshman majoring in journalism and statistics, is part of a Freshman Interest Group. In the fall semester, he had all his virtual classes with only the other members of his FIG. “I didn’t have a huge diversification of my social circles,” Dean says. “It was nice at the beginning to have a solid group of friends, but at the same time you have to make a concerted effort to branch outside of that.”

Looking ahead

All five MU freshmen interviewed for this piece shared a sense of disappointment and frustration at the loss of their freshman experience. When asked how they imagined their freshman year, there was a cynical chuckle followed by a sigh of dismay. The student who writes for The Maneater sounds the same as the football player who sounds the same as the sorority member who sounds the same as the statistics major.

There’s no doubt that college freshmen don’t have it easy right now, but the challenges they face make them a uniquely resilient class.

It’s what makes them the class of 2024.

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