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St. Ed’s graduates facing strange freshman college year

STORY BY STEPHANIE LABAFF (Week of August 27, 2020)
Photo: Left: Kylie Oakes at the Vero Beach Rowing club dock. Oakes is preparing for her freshman year at Stanford. Right: Soon-to-be Harvard freshman Fiona Zimmerman.

Students who graduated from St. Edward’s School this year are facing a freshman college year unlike any before.

Frustration, uncertainty, disappointment – and resilience – are reoccurring themes as colleges and universities continually change their fall schedules, trying to adapt to pandemic conditions, leaving students with a set of questions different than their older siblings and parents had at this stage of their lives.

Instead of wondering, Will I make new friends? Will my classes be too hard? Will the cafeteria food be good? students are asking themselves, Am I going away to college at all? Will I be learning online and not in a classroom? How will I meet new people? Will it be safe? Where will I live?

Vero Beach 32963 talked with six St. Ed’s graduates – a mix of college freshmen and sophomores – about their COVID college experience so far, and discovered that no two of them were venturing into the realm of higher learning in the same way this fall.

The hardest part of the whole strange experience has been not knowing, students said. Information has changed from one day to the next with colleges and universities rolling out and then revising their COVID plans.

Kylie Oakes was ready to pack her bags and head to Stanford University to take her place as a freshman on the rowing team but held off because she wasn’t sure if the university was going to allow in-person classes at the campus.

When the news finally came that freshmen and sophomores would be welcomed to campus, she began to make travel plans. But those plans came to a screeching halt as Stanford shifted gears in the face of rising COVID-19 cases in California this summer. Due to the increased spread, the university has now decided most undergraduate instruction will take place remotely.

Currently, the university plans to “invite frosh, sophomores, and new transfer students to be in residence on campus for the winter quarter, and juniors and seniors for the spring quarter,” if public health conditions allow.

As an athlete, it’s crucial for Oakes to continue training and she was disappointed she would be missing out on building her skills and developing relationships with her teammates at Stanford. But she has decided on a plan that will allow her to be with some of her fellow student athletes. She is heading to Sarasota, where she will take her classes remotely while training with several other members of the Stanford rowing team.

It’s not how Oakes imagined her first semester in college. “I had so many expectations for my freshman year. Especially being able to be on a team. It’s been a pretty weird process, but at this point, I’m just excited for whatever comes next,” she said.

Siblings Ivor and Fiona Zimmerman should have been crossing paths on the Quad at Harvard University this fall. Instead, they will be separated by more than 1,300 miles.

Harvard has invited only freshmen to live on-campus for the first semester and seniors for the second semester. So, Fiona will be heading to Cambridge soon while her brother Ivor, a returning sophomore, isn’t slated to return to the campus this academic year.

According to Fiona, even though she will attend all of her classes virtually from her dorm room, she will be subject to COVID testing every three days; she cannot leave the Boston area while living on campus; she must wear a mask, practice social distancing and not gather with others in the dorm rooms.

Fiona had the option to take classes from her Vero Beach home, but said “I’ve been looking forward to going away to college for so long.” So, when she was notified that she could attend, there was no way she was going to pass up the opportunity.

She admits that she’s on pins and needles as her departure date looms and one college after another cancels on-campus classes and living.

Ivor completed his first semester at Harvard and was forced to return home when the campus shut down in the spring. He finished the semester virtually from Vero Beach, where he will continue to participate in classes for his sophomore year.

“It’s not ideal. It’s definitely not what I had in mind,” said Ivor, who adds the caveat that he’s happy to be with his family. “This is sort of like a last bonus year. I get to see my grandparents two or three times a week.”

Having already completed a semester virtually, Ivor said what he’d miss the most in the coming year is extracurricular activities. “I’m in a choir and it’s basically impossible for my choir to continue virtually in a functional way.”

Looking ahead to his junior year, Ivor added philosophically, “If the situation hasn’t improved any by then, we’ll have bigger problems than me going back to college.”

Caitlin Regan had big plans for her sophomore year at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, honing her skills and exploring different media as she pursues a double major in art education and fiber art.

Instead, she’ll be staying in Vero Beach as well. MassArt opted for what they’re calling a hybrid model, inviting students to attend on-campus or remote classes based on their field of study.

Regan said she would have had one class this semester that was conducted partly in-person and partly online. “I didn’t see the point in paying for the room and board if I was only attending half of one class. I would be in my dorm all day.

“I would have preferred to go but Boston is a potential hotspot. But, whatever I’m missing out on, everybody else is missing out on too,” added Regan.

What Regan will miss the most, she said, is the studio space and interactions with her peers and professors. Undaunted, she noted that Vero Beach has a surprising number of opportunities for her to pursue her artistic interests.

Elise Mallon is the only student Vero Beach 32963 spoke with who is currently on-campus. The Duke University freshman has just finished her first week of classes from her dorm in Durham, N.C.

Freshman and sophomores are on campus this semester, but the campus is not quite the bustling community Mallon expected. She has one class that is a virtual/in-person hybrid, while the rest are all virtual.

Mallon noted the shared COVID experience has profoundly altered the dynamics of college life. “I was very nervous about making this big transition, especially in a time that adds a lot more anxiety.”

She said mask-wearing can create a sense of distance and social difficulty among new students. “You’re missing all of the social cues that you catch from watching someone’s facial expressions. I find myself trying to fill in the gaps of people’s faces. I’ve been completely off every single time.”

Nevertheless, after two weeks of campus life, including one week of classes, Mallon added this positive assessment of her experience: “No matter what, you’re going to find your people, and you’re going to find a way to make the most of what’s given to you.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Dartmouth College sophomore David Gambee has opted to take a gap year because of the school’s plan to bring on one cohort of students at a time. Having finished the 2020 spring term virtually, Gambee knew that format wasn’t optimal for him.

“It was difficult to feel engaged. It was difficult to feel a sense of communal learning,” he recalled. “When you’re taking a class, a big part of learning is the discussions that happen in class and the connections you make with your classmates. You lose that in an online medium.

“You spend a lot of money to go to a college like this. I reasoned that struggling through online classes, I wouldn’t get the most out of college. So, I decided to take a gap year and get some real-world working experience and develop other skills,” Gambee said.