Mostly empty, the halls of collegiate academia look a little different during a pandemic.
Local college administrators and freshmen said, without mingling, sports and clubs, orientation events and classroom experience, the scope of longed-for college experience has been drastically reduced.
Paula Lee Hobson, vice president of college advancement at Hartwick College, said the pandemic has required administrators to get creative.
“The first big change was move-in,” Hobson said, noting that Hartwick students moved in between Aug. 22 and 31. Of the college’s 399 freshmen, 58 opted for remote learning and, following the SUNY Oneonta outbreak of positive COVID-19 cases, Hartwick announced a two-week switch to all-remote learning on Sept. 2.
“We normally would’ve brought in large groups, with the football players and student-athletes helping (freshmen) move in,” Hobson said. “It’s a very celebratory, lighthearted, fun experience. Parents … sometimes bring extended family members and younger siblings, but this time we had to say, ‘No. One student gets one helper.’ It was a very different experience from the moment they were on campus. I’ve been (in higher education) since 1998, and I’ve never experienced a move-in like this one.”
Similarly, Hobson said, all orientation activities had to be reconsidered.
“We’re trying to do some outside-the-box things, because we know (students) want to be here and that this is precious to them,” she said. “We have to find some ways to normalize what is a very un-normal experience for them and, frankly, for us.
“First-year students all have orientation, called Wick Week,” Hobson said. “But this time of familiarizing yourself with the campus, getting to know people in residence halls and being introduced to the bookstore or Frisbee Field, that all had to be done virtually. And every first-year is invited to convocation, with all the faculty and the president in academic regalia and bagpipers leading us in to this huge gathering. All the freshmen would have their Hartwick T-shirts on, and the president makes a very heartfelt welcome. It’s a solemn but also very warm celebration and we, of course, could not do it. We did it virtually … and we taped what each of us would normally say and the videographer stitched it together, so we’ve tried to hold on to some of those entering-college traditions.”
Oneonta native Christian Holoquist, 18, is a Hartwick freshman majoring in business administration.
“Given the climate of our country, (Hartwick) allowed me to be close to home, which made me feel more comfortable with what’s going on,” he said. “But honestly, the whole experience is completely different. Even though I kind of knew it would be different already, it’s just more different than I ever would’ve imagined.
“Hartwick policies are very strict; they don’t take anything lightly, which is understandable,” Holoquist said, “but it also makes being a new student on a new campus hard. No one who’s not our roommate can come into our rooms, and we can’t go into other residence halls. I think a main aspect of college is the social part … so that initial, ‘I’m new here, let me try to make friends’ piece is just hard.”
Lizzy Pearson, 18, a SUNY Oneonta freshman from Clifton Park, said she, too, is coping with shifting expectations. Pearson, a childhood education major, moved off campus on Sept. 3, following her roommate’s positive COVID-19 test results.
“Senior year was obviously kind of ruined,” she said. “Then the summer was a waiting game, wondering what it was going to be like (at college). We knew it was going to be different … but we got to campus and thought, ‘This isn’t too bad,’ then Oneonta had their outbreaks.”
Leah Hamm, 18, of Otego, said worry pushed her to switch to SUNY Oneonta, where she could take classes remotely as a commuter. Hamm is majoring in childhood education.
“I was actually committed to (SUNY) Cortland, then this whole virus hit and I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t want to go away and spend all that; I want to go to Oneonta and save my money,’” she said. “I haven’t gotten a chance to go on campus. Being online is definitely different from what we did my last semester of high school; it’s more put-together, because they figured out how to do it … but there are some online technical issues … and it can be a little frustrating.”
Hobson and students said the lack of socialization in what would typically be a formative time takes a toll.
“Normally, you would get up with your roommate … head to the coffee shop, hang out, wander back to your room, go to your first class, swing by the student union for lunch, maybe pull some tables together … and they’re just not able to gather,” Hobson said. “I think that’s the hardest thing, because college is all about finding your tribe and finding people with similar interests, values and goals and getting to know people from all over the world.”
“The hardest part is definitely meeting new people,” Pearson said. “I had some friends in (other SUNY Oneonta buildings), but you just couldn’t see them. (Orientation) was cut down, but we met in one of the buildings and … you could sit next to your roommate, but everyone else had to sit apart. The rest was all virtual and we just watched videos. There were no real activities.
“We were all just trying to make best of it,” Pearson said. “We’d leave our doors open and (my roommate and me) met two friends through writing on white boards … and sometimes we’d sit in the lounge with masks, six feet apart.”
“It definitely would be better in person and we could get to know people better,” Hamm said. “I’m glad that social media is a thing.”
The difficulties of entering higher education during a pandemic, Hobson said, may prove fortifying.
“Part of college is teaching students resiliency,” she said. “Times are tough, but part of becoming an adult is learning how you handle stuff … and that’s a life skill we’re all going to need.”
Mallory Frazier, an 18-year-old SUNY Cortland freshman from Unadilla, majoring in education, said she’s on campus for one in-person class.
“It was kind of hard for my decision, because (Cortland) is 60 miles away, but the commuter radius is 50 (miles), but I have an in-person class I have to go to,” she said. “My advisers said it’s not a good class to take online, but if I had that class online, I’d probably be home right now. The others are all online and I just do them from my dorm.” The in-person class, Frazier said, is designed to help freshmen cope with college during a pandemic.
Frazier said, though Cortland’s county infection rates remain low, college students there are taking things seriously.
“Before school, I had online orientation, which was just videos on YouTube,” she said. “Once here, I tried to do some socially distanced stuff, but no one really showed up because it’s the middle of a pandemic. I’ve pretty much only talked to three people my whole time being here: my roommate and the two people across the hall.
“It’s just the whole social aspect,” Frazier continued. “Not exactly parties, but I was going to join clubs and that’s not happening. And sporting events — I wanted to go to football games. I haven’t even sat in the dining hall, because you have to sit alone, by yourself and six feet apart from other people.”
Holoquist said he was hoping to join clubs, too.
“I’ve been a dancer since middle school,” he said, “so I wanted to try to continue dancing, but I haven’t heard anything from the Orchesis Dance Club, so I don’t know.”
“I’m a big skier, so I was really looking forward to joining ski club and meeting the people on that team,” Pearson echoed. “And, for first-year (education) students, they put you into a classroom right away for student teaching, so I was really excited about that.”
“I was looking forward to joining some clubs and doing club soccer and that’s a bummer, because I can’t do that,” Hamm said. “And I was actually really looking forward to the tradition of walking through the pillars. (Freshmen) wear some type of Oneonta shirt and they video you walking through (the pillars) with your roommates and, in your senior year, before you graduate, you take the other half of the video of you walking out. That would’ve been fun to do.”
Administrative dealings during the pandemic, freshmen said, have varied.
“There were some parties at the beginning,” Frazier said, “but our president seems very strict and emailed us a lot, saying, ‘Don’t party or you will be kicked out’ and I think seeing Oneonta, Cortland has been like, ‘Oh, crap. It’s bad.’
“I really do think that’s the reason why Cortland doesn’t have more cases,” she continued, “because they see cases at SUNY Oneonta and hope, ‘Oh, my God. That can’t be us.’ We had a meeting and they said, ‘Watch Oneonta.’”
“I personally think the administration was well prepared for what was to come,” Holoquist said of Hartwick. “When we only had two positive cases, we already went remote and students are very well informed and we’re getting multiple emails a day.”
“I didn’t find out about the two-week pause (at SUNY Oneonta) until about three hours after it had been on the news,” Pearson said.
“I think that before we went to school, maybe they should’ve taken more caution testing us,” Hamm said, “but at the same time, I think they’re doing the best they can. I’ve seen a lot of things from students saying bad things about food and how the president was handling things … but I think people should realize there’s a lot more going on.”
A representative from SUNY Oneonta did not respond to requests for comment.