Commentary: COVID-19 transformed my freshman year college experience

Commentary: COVID-19 transformed the traditional freshman college experience

Freshman Megan Cooper reflects on how a tumultuous year upended her first semester at Syracuse University.
Published: December 29, 2020
Megan Cooper at Syracuse University

I still remember the day I first visited Syracuse University. It was cloudy, rainy and in that terrible time between fall and winter where the leaves have fallen off the trees but there isn’t any snow yet. Still, I loved it.

As far as expectations go, mine had already been shattered. Graduating high school in a pandemic had pretty much destroyed every hope I had for a “normal” transition. Regardless, the move from home was far from simple.

I cannot emphasize enough the challenge of making friends as a freshman during COVID-19. Leaving home, no matter how far away you are going, uproots all of the support networks you’ve had for years. I felt a sense of grief leaving home. I was grieving the loss of my childhood relationship with my family and friends, grappling with what it means to grow up. Normally, students are free to meet one another naturally, through class or through mutual friends. But right now, that’s just not a possibility. Essentially, the pool of people I could establish real connections with and hang out with after dark or in bad weather shrank from the school to my dorm.

Of course, some of us bent the rules — can you blame us? How are we supposed to make friends with only four people? Or hang out in a tiny dorm room six feet apart? Physical safety is absolutely essential, and I don’t condone the violation of university policies, but it’s important to recognize how unnatural the flow of connecting is within these constraints.

Picture this: you’re limited to friends that live close to you. If you meet friends outside of that, you are not allowed to hang out with them. For the friends that live in your dorm, you aren’t supposed to be close to one another, trying to form a friendship within a six-foot gap. And then, when you grow apart, as freshmen floormates often do, there are no other options. Despite being surrounded by others, there were moments that felt so incredibly isolating and lonely, in a different way from the normal home-sick loneliness.

Megan Cooper and friend
Megan and her friends still tried to enjoy their first semester on campus despite the ongoing pandemic.

We had been on campus for about five weeks when two of my closest friends decided to go home for the semester. They loved Syracuse and planned to come back, but they were misled. When their schedules became available, they had a good split of classes in-person and online, enough to make it worth it to pay for room and board and stay on campus. Following move-in week, suddenly a number of their classes switched to online only. Each of them ended up with only one class in person a week. No one comes to college to be cooped up in their dorm room. We felt completely detached from the rest of the university. Almost every freshman knows someone in a similar circumstance, whether they ended up going home or not.

After they left, it was like starting over again — trying to make a new group of friends when everyone had already created their group. If you’ve been a freshman in college before you know the feeling of everyone having a group of friends, except for you. In reality, most people are faking having it all figured out. How would anyone have themselves figured out as a freshman, especially in times like this?

The freshman class is struggling. We are making the most of our time, but we are struggling. We are also mourning. In early October, my floormate Trevor Pierce lost his life in a tragic accident on campus. Just over 24 hours later, another freshman, Jack Lundin, passed as well. We mourned publicly, and then we got lost. What do you do when two of your classmates die so unexpectedly? We moved on. At least we acted as if we did. Because it’s hard to deal with such painful, personal emotions when you are trying to act cool, make friends, and just get by.

What else was there to do? Our vulnerability is powerful, but it’s also scary. The week Trevor and Jack died I sat in many silent circles, trying to figure out how to feel and how to express these feelings around people I had just met. We spent evenings in Hendricks, praying to our own gods, attempting to come to terms with this devastating loss. And then we began again, living like we thought we were supposed to, paused occasionally by memories and photos of our lost neighbor.

It’s important to note that I do not blame SU, for these issues. I recognize that decisions had to be made to bring us back to campus and I know that. Things are just different this year. And they certainly are not easy. I do not hate this school, in fact, I love it.

I love my floor and my hall and my friends. I even loved this painful, traumatic semester. To experience moving out, a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, a historical election, the loss of classmates, and all of the personal challenges that accompany those in your first semester is beyond unique. Even on the dreariest, darkest days, Syracuse feels like home.