Pandemic Freshmen

When you’re a little kid, you have a general idea of what your first day in college will look like. Suitcases in hand and a backpack on your shoulders, you walk across a crowded campus, green as eager upperclassmen shove club posters in your face. You’re overwhelmed, but excited. People are everywhere. Lots and lots of people. My first day of college, however, was nothing like what those coming-of-age movies promised.

Yes, I’m a part of that group. The “pandemic freshmen:” marked by six-foot indicators, face coverings, and “unprecedented times” embedded into every official email. I’m new to living in a global health crisis, but I’m also new to being a Swarthmore student. I only know Sharples with G.E.T. app reservations and red wooden blocks. I’ve never experienced the Crumb Cafe or primal scream. I don’t even know what it feels like to sit in a lecture hall. 

Being a freshman in college is difficult enough on its own, but being one during a pandemic is a whole different beast. For me, the terror of starting completely new and having to meet a whole different set of people was only amplified by the novel conditions. After just a few days on campus in the Fall, I grew increasingly worried about my ability to meet people and make friends. Every peer I knew was just a picture of face and shoulders confined to a small box on my laptop screen. Since there wasn’t really a chance to physically meet people in class, branching out and making friends quickly became a sport of its own. Did I have to try to seem fun and exciting during the minimal time we had in breakout rooms? Did I slide into the Zoom private messages? Honestly, I met one of my now-best friends by seeing them on a Zoom call, thinking that they looked cool, and emailing (so archaic, I know) them to ask if they wanted to hang out. 

This way of communicating was all very foreign to me and my peers, but as Swat students do, we adapted. A few awkward messages later, I found myself with an awesome group of people who were living through the same COVID-induced freshman struggles as I was. As we grew closer and shared experiences with each other, we all realized how much we don’t know about this school despite living here for nearly five months. Although we’re certainly getting a college experience, we’re not getting the college experience. 

Weekends in Willets Hall are relatively quiet — nothing close to the bustle that I had been warned about. Leaving your room means masking up and risking illness, so a lot of people tend to stay inside. Lounges are operating at limited capacity, and overall, the campus seems empty. How does it feel to actually have passing periods? Are there usually masses of people walking from building to building? How popular are study spaces? Is it cramped when residence halls have actual doubles instead of dingles? For the Class of 2024, these questions and more remain unanswered. 

Having said all this, I recognize that I’ve actually been pretty fortunate in the way that I’ve spent my first semester in college. Despite being a freshman, I’ve lived on campus for both the Fall and Spring semester. I can meet new people in person while studying on Parrish Beach or in the lines at Sharples, which is a luxury that my remote peers don’t have. 

In some ways, it almost seems as though the freshmen as a class are actually lucky. We don’t know what we’re missing. Unlike the upperclassmen, we have no concept of what it is like to participate in a ‘normal’ Swat semester, and by that logic, we can’t really ‘miss’ it. A friend told me that she feels the worst for the sophomores, who were teased with one normal Swat semester before getting the rest of the year ripped from their hands. And, of course, we can’t forget the seniors, who will go down in history as being a graduating class of masks. For freshmen, the quality of our Swat experience can only go up. 

Regardless of the restrictions, one thing that is constant in this time of change is the quality of the people. A main factor that led me to choose this school was how everyone is so genuinely kind and welcoming. No matter if you are in person or remote, Swatties make an effort to ensure that other Swatties feel secure and included. Once everything is back in person, I’m sure that this kindness will carry over and make the transition into a “regular” Swarthmore experience as seamless as possible. 

Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time until we return to normalcy. But, until then, the rest of my class and I will continue to learn more and more about our school every day. 

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