The 'guinea pig' generation: How the pandemic shaped this year's college freshmen
The first year of college is hard enough on its own, as students learn their way around campus, figure out how to study and balance classes, and make new friends. It’s been much harder for this year’s freshmen, who spent more than half of their high-school careers dealing with the disruptions of the pandemic.
To get a feel for what that transition has been like, we asked first-year students from around the country one question: What is something they missed out on in high school because of the pandemic, and how did that affect their first semester in college?
These conversations — in the students’ own words — have been edited for length and clarity.
Alyssa Lanum, 18
Case Western Reserve University
Computer Science and Political Science major
Teachers didn’t challenge students, at least at my high school. I didn’t receive my full potential of knowledge from high school, other than a few classes. Shout out to my pre-calc teacher! She was the only teacher who pushed us insanely hard.
I felt like we were just kind of left to do this minute work that was really easy and meant to get through the time that we were living in, just to say we did it.
Since I was online, it was kind of like “regurgitate information and you’re done, you never see it again.” Now being here at Case, you’re expected to know things.
I’ll be in my chemistry course and the professor will bring up a topic and I’m like “I literally don’t remember ever learning that.” And then I will have to go through my notes from junior year of high school and I’m like, “Oh, I did learn that, I only remembered it for the week after and never thought about it again.”
Honestly, I feel like I’m one of the stupidest kids in the room. I understand I’m not the only person in that boat. I know many other students here that have talked about having that same experience. It makes me genuinely feel like we shouldn’t be here some days. It’s definitely tough, but I think it’s something we’re all working through.
Hector Flores, 19
University of Texas at El Paso
Media advertising major
The thing I missed out on most in high school because of the pandemic was time with my peers. I spent a lot of time at home in my room alone. I felt isolated.
I did meet with some of my high school teammates in football and baseball during COVID, but players and coaches were getting sick, so our practices were less than normal, and we traveled with fewer players than normal. Our baseball season was canceled because of COVID when I was a sophomore.
The transition to college was a little rough initially. I was trying to figure out where I fit in. It was hard mentally to transition to college. I was out of my comfort zone. I needed to rebuild myself and my identity.
I go through mood changes and my emotions are transparent. When I started at UTEP I was nervous and shy and didn’t want to talk with people and that frustrated me because I wanted to be more outgoing. I figured that if I wanted a change, it was a matter of me wanting to do it. In class, I would blurt out answers to keep classroom conversations going and the professor would ask me to elaborate on my initial answer, which helped me bring out my old personality from my younger self.
Now, I am more comfortable with my peers and professors. I’ve restarted my approach and now feel more at home in my classes and more willing to open up to my peers to make new connections. I think we all have a role, and I’m the kind of guy with positive energy who likes to make people smile and to laugh.
Sasha Martell, 18
University of South Florida
English and theater major
I was a freshman guide my senior year (of high school) and met a lot of kids who kind of skipped their middle school years during the pandemic. You can see how detrimental it was because they missed out on what I call the “embarrassment period.” They came in with the mentality of 12-year-olds, but they were supposed to be 15.
And it’s really understandable. You have to have time to do all the embarrassing stuff that you probably regret later, because it’s important to figure out who you are. But you can’t do that when you can’t socialize with your classmates.
That’s what I feel like happened to us. We came basically from middle school to college not knowing how to act or who we were. I went from 16 to 18 in a blur.
So now, I’m like: “Okay, you’re here and you need to expose yourself to as much as you can.”
And guess what? I love being around people who make art and make music. I love discovering that about myself.
Destiny Torres, 18
University of Texas at El Paso
Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering major
I think the pandemic set me back academically, socially and emotionally. I missed hanging out with my friends and classmates on academic teams such as robotics and with the JROTC Armed Drill Team, but just as important were preparation activities for the SAT. I am not a great test-taker, so I really looked forward to the in-school, face-to-face tutoring. To me, this was crucial. The online tutoring wasn’t the same. As for hanging out with friends, text messages and phone calls weren’t the same.
In my senior year I got involved with my teams and friends, but I felt like I had missed out on a part of my life.
I started at UTEP and was intimidated by the size of the campus and reverted to my pandemic self. I wasn’t as social or as talkative as I was before COVID. I felt lost and overwhelmed. It was as if I was in a hole and trying to get out of it.
What helped me was getting a job as a College of Engineering student ambassador. I learn new things about the campus every day and meet a lot of people on and off campus. I am becoming more outgoing. Now I ride my scooter around campus and have a “What do I have to lose?” attitude.
Kathryn Barto, 18
University of Pittsburgh
I missed out on an entire year of marching band. And I missed out on an entire year of seeing my friends.
School was my main way of socializing, because I still can’t drive, but I couldn’t drive back then, and so I had no real way of hanging out with them. It always felt like we were walking on eggshells, like my friends could be taken away from me at any time.
Talking over the phone and over FaceTime is good, and over text is good, but being in person, sharing space with my friends, is very important to me as a person. And so not being able to do that, and not knowing if that’s going to be taken away from me, kind of affected how I see friendships here. I tend to be a little bit more clingy. I tend to kind of jump right into friendships and be like, “OK, now we’re friends, we need to spend time together as much as we can.”
I’m glad to have found friends that hang out a lot because then I can actually spend that time with people. But it’s been hard not being able to be in contact as much with my friends back home. It’s good to see them during breaks, but that’s, what, once every month, once every two months? … Not being able to see them is really, really hard, especially.
I am very much introverted, where being around a lot of people exhausts me, but also, I enjoy it. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s tiring. If I am your friend, then I want to spend time with you, and I want to be in the same room as you. That’s very important to me. And so, yeah, that being taken away was hard.
Adam Raynard, 18
University of South Florida
College of Engineering
I feel like we were the guinea pig generation. We had no stability because everyone was figuring out how to go remote during the pandemic.
We weren’t in the classroom so the technology had to change. The curriculum had to change to accommodate that, but there were other changes too. I don’t know if it was all due to the pandemic, but everything was new. They were testing it on us for the first time.
We also forgot how to separate work from life because during the pandemic the two were the same. Rather than setting those two things apart it’s like study, study, study and then sit on your phone for a break. I’m guilty of that too and it means you can’t unwind.
Professors get that though. They want to help us make up for lost time. They want to help us relearn how to study, how to make friends and build community.
The first thing I did was join the aerospace engineering club, and it’s like “oh, these are my people!”
Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, and Ian Hodgson covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, all in partnership with Open Campus. Open Campus is a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher ed.