College during COVID: Class of 2020 experience freshman year in university in a “multiplicity” of ways

Class+of+2020+alum+Faith+Hernandez+sits+socially+distanced+with+her+fellow+students+at+Vassar+College+in+New+York.+Vassar+has+resumed+on-campus+operations%2C+but+requires+that+students+follow+social+distancing+guidelines+at+all+times.+

Faith Hernandez

Class of 2020 alum Faith Hernandez sits socially distanced with her fellow students at Vassar College in New York. Vassar has resumed on-campus operations, but requires that students follow social distancing guidelines at all times.

By Rio Hundley, Archer School for Girls

After an unorthodox end to their senior year due to COVID-19, Archer’s class of 2020 is beginning an equally unprecedented college experience. Between gap years, going abroad and staying home on Zoom, the graduated class is spending their first year of adulthood in a multitude of ways amongst a global pandemic.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the months to come, Director of College Guidance Jee Won Lee says things seem to be “going pretty well” for the recent graduates.

“I think that [the class of 2020] has maintained an incredible amount of resilience, courage and support of one another,” Lee said. “I’ve been hearing about students very excitedly, though nervously, starting their on-campus experiences at various schools, colleges and universities around the country. I think they’re appreciating the opportunity to sort of feel that sense of independence, though it’s a very different kind of reality than they might have imagined.”

However, not everyone is beginning their journey into adulthood with freshman year of college. Archer alumnus Lena Jones made the decision to defer admission to Yale University. She is currently interning at the California Department of Justice and working to get her novel published. Our current moment in history also greatly affected her decision.

“I see college campuses as hubs of radical change, but isolated change, and they’re set apart from a sort of reality,” Jones said. “So I didn’t know how I felt about being away from the world at a time like this. [I had to think about] whether I wanted to take [my skills] away from the broader world and community and put it in a college context right now.”

Other students are experiencing new realities far from U.S. borders. Alumnus Isabella Silvers began studying at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and was “impressed” by how well locals were following social distancing measures.

“It’s so much better [in Scotland.] They have something like 20 cases a week in the whole country,” Silvers said. “I mean, it’s getting a little bit worse now, but nothing compared to even LA. What’s surprising to me is everyone follows the rules. No one even questions it.”

However, COVID regulations in the United States greatly impacted Silvers’ college process. She says the most difficult part of her college application process was obtaining a visa to study abroad.

“Because of COVID, most of the visa centers were closed, and I had to go in person. So that was a super stressful and expensive process. I was about to fly to Atlanta to get a visa done. It was chaotic,” Silvers said. “I wasn’t able to visit many of the schools I was applying to. Especially St. Andrews, because it’s out of the country. That made the process of choosing schools difficult.”

Even within the country, some schools have allowed students to return to campus under strict social distancing regulations. Faith Hernandez, a freshman at Vassar College, says the regulations change each day. She is grateful to be on campus but believes the guidelines put in place could be enforced better.

“For people who aren’t following social distance guidelines and are getting caught, [I wish they would] get a little bit more than just a slap on the wrist. I think they also, personally, should close off campus because community members still can walk on social-distanced [even though] they’re not supposed to be,” Hernandez said. “But other than that I really feel like Vassar is doing a really good job. I feel 100% safe here.”

Both Silvers and Hernandez, although in very different situations, believe that beginning the next phase of their lives in quarantine has been more challenging than leaving Archer in the same situation.

“Ending Archer — it didn’t feel real because of coronavirus. So I’d say it was a little bit less difficult, just because it wasn’t in person. Online, we feel so separated from it,” Silvers said. “It is going to be difficult [starting college], it already has. But so many people are in the same boat as me.”

Lee believes that the decision to keep campuses open or closed down is largely dependent on the geographical and financial situation of the school.

“I think the responsible and right thing to do was not to invite students back to campus [and] to give a fair warning,” Lee said. “[But] that’s a purely hypothetical answer, where I’m not managing a budget, and I’m not managing thousands of faculty and staff members who are dependent on the college [to] feed their families. It probably exposes the inequity that exists in education and even in higher education. [Some colleges] had the wealth and the affluence to be able to say, right off the bat, ‘Nope, we’re going remote.’ Whereas other colleges  felt a great deal of pressure to open the campus if at all possible.”

Lee acknowledged the difficulty of ending senior year in quarantine, and said that she and the rest of the class of 2020 team worked hard to give their students an authentic end to their time at Archer.

“We really wanted to honor and acknowledge that sense of loss, but also just work very closely with students to honor this incredible moment in their life of graduating from Archer,” Lee said. “Working with Ms. Babin, Ms. Coughlan and Ms. Dohr to just honor and make sure that they felt celebrated because they are … an amazing class. And they deserve to be celebrated.”

Archer Alum Lena Jones on a fishing trip down the California Coast. Jones deferred until 2021, and is working on cultivating “academic,” “practical” and “vocational skills during her gap year. (Photo credit: Lena Jones)

Whether they remain at home or not, Archer alums have found a new appreciation for their surroundings during this time. Jones, who is planning to remain local for her gap year, recalls a recent fishing trip with her grandfather.

“I remember going into that boat and looking at the beach and the California coast and just feeling so grateful that I still had the opportunity to experience my home state before leaving,” Jones said. “Even in this COVID environment, [being home] is something I felt really blessed to have . [These past months] have been pretty full of revelations.”

Hernandez echoed this sentiment and said she was also grateful for the beauty of her new surroundings in Poughkeepsie, New York. She mentioned bonding with new classmates in social distancing tents around campus.

“So you’re sitting outside the tent and it’s raining, just talking and hanging out and laughing. It was just a really great moment,” Hernandez said. “I’m enjoying nature more because I have to be outside all the time. Last night I settled outside by the lake with a friend to watch the sunset. There’s just moments of trying to appreciate what we have, but also we complain about it.  We have to. It’s hard not having a typical college experience.”

Although the class of 2020 took a plethora of different paths this fall, Jones emphasized that she feels it taught her and her class about patience and individuality.

“That waiting taught me that a dream deferred is not always in your control,  but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lost. Even if there’s a moment it feels somewhat out of reach,” Jones said. “[There is] a multiplicity of directions people could have taken this year. It could be the right thing for them, even if it’s not for somebody else.”

This story was originally published on The Oracle on September 7, 2020.