Amid The Pandemic, First-Year College Students Embrace the Rocky Road Ahead

By: Jessica Grider, The Undivided for Howard University News Service

The challenges these students face due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been staggering since they graduated from high school in the spring. Some, however, have developed remarkable strengths that allow them to forge ahead towards an uncertain future in college and embrace the rocky road ahead.

Perla Gonzalez, an 18-year-old first-year college student from Fairfax County, Virginia, knew that she would enter a new chapter and get closer to her dream of becoming a teacher when she graduated from high school. For four years, she took Advanced Placement classes preparing for this opportunity. However, when she graduated from her public high school in May as an International Baccalaureate Diploma Program recipient, the coronavirus pandemic which roiled the world immediately swept her dream farther out of her reach.

Having a high school diploma was never something she thought about as a child, but having it in her hands to show people what she accomplished — especially as the first person in her family to go to college — gives her optimism. Today, her optimism has become her greatest tool as she grapples with the stress and challenges that the coronavirus pandemic ushered into her life. 

Gonzalez always knew that she would have to blaze her own trail. She never imagined that she would have to sacrifice the chance to go to Christopher Newport University, located in Newport News, VA, her dream school, after all of her hard work.

“The biggest plan that has changed due to the pandemic was my choice to go to [Christopher Newport University],” she said. This fall, Gonzales is attending Northern Virginia Community College instead. Her first semester transitioned completely online, and she has had difficulties connecting with her professors. Even with her continued devotion to her future career, Gonzales finds herself frustrated with the new normal she must adapt to in her virtual classrooms. “A lot of work is thrown at the students without enough information, or after [the professors] slightly talked about it,” she said.

Christopher Newport University’s psychology instructor Dr. Shelia Greenlee, who is teaching most of her online courses, agrees that the coronavirus presents new challenges that make engaging with the students difficult. Despite the setbacks, her Introduction to Psychology course retained 90 students throughout the fall semester, half of which are freshmen.

“When you’re online, you can’t interact with students in the same way,” said Dr. Greenlee. “For many of the students, it becomes easy for them to drop in and out whenever they want. Of course I take attendance and [monitor] their participation, but some students check in for attendance and go to bed.”

She continued, “One thing I’ve seen that’s really hard is students are exhibiting a lot of anxiety, but teachers are new to [virtual and hybrid learning] too… There are disadvantages, but we’re all learning from this. I had to change my teaching completely.”

While a significant number of college students transitioned to online learning this fall, some first-year students are encountering increased health risks as they attend classes in person, despite the spiking number of cases reported over the past few months.

The most comprehensive tracking system for coronavirus cases on college campuses in the U.S. conducted by the New York Times estimates that 7,830 cases appeared in 41 schools in Virginia since the pandemic began. Over 1,600 campuses across the country are reported responsible for over 250,000 cases.

According to UNESCO, first-year students, students with disabilities, and students who reported experiencing a poor transition to virtual learning in the spring that continues to impact their online performance are amongst the most affected in this unique college environment. They require specific support and teaching tools that are not always available in distance learning.

Dr. Lindsey Stone, an assistant professor from Christopher Newport University’s department of psychology — which recently ranked third best psychology program in the nation — studied clinical psychology to focus on adolescent depression, peer relationships, social networks, and stress generation. “Students have a particularly rough task ahead of them this semester,” Dr. Stone said, “And the biggest hurdle is developing a new social network.”

According to Dr. Stone, first-generation students who can find people they identify with feel welcomed and celebrated because of their increased sense of community that motivates their participation. Without the in-person gatherings that customarily provide students with vast opportunities to build relationships in a university environment, this sense of community is naturally absent from the classroom and student population. Therefore, Dr. Stone concluded, students are seen having to rely on their individual resources to succeed.

 Dr. Stone recognized, too, that minority students are facing unique challenges and obstacles that don’t necessarily impact other students to the same extent as they collectively navigate virtual learning. For this reason and many others, she said, “Expecting students to uphold a certain standard without [faculty] support during the coronavirus pandemic is complicated.” 

The pandemic took a particularly heavy toll on Gonzalez’s family. A study conducted by The Commonwealth Fund estimated that between February and June 2020, the number of unemployed individuals across the United States increased from 2 million to 17.9 million. Ten percent of all pre-pandemic working individuals are now out of work. Gonzalez’s parents were both put on leave from their jobs in the spring and — despite searching — have been unable to find reliable work ever since.

With her little brother still a junior in high school and her parents still searching for work, Gonzalez is currently working two jobs at a restaurant and a children’s consignment store. At the same time, she juggles being a full-time virtual college student. 

“I have noticed that my time management and organizational skills have become better due to trying to juggle work and achieve good grades in school,” she said. “The emotions I have felt during these times are [mostly] serene but also a bit of stress. I am staying calm, although sometimes the whole mask thing gets annoying.”

Gonzalez is actively helping her brother prepare for his own higher education journey.

Eighteen year old Keiry Yessenia also graduated from high school from Fairfax County in the spring of 2020 and is now attending a university in Virginia with a full tuition scholarship. She became the first in her family to pursue higher education, just like Gonzalez. She describes herself as a strong and beautiful Latinx woman who hopes to graduate from college with honors and become a lawyer in the future. Her mental health became an issue for her after the last few months of being indoors. She says a massive chunk of her time has been spent with her family, regularly watching news updates about the worsening coronavirus spread and related deaths.

“I don’t feel happy… I feel that I could be in a better state of mind,” Yessina said. “School and my job take most of my time so it is hard to find time for myself to just relax and or exercise and worry about my fitness and mental health like I used to in high school.”

Yessina is currently working her first job as an academic mentor for the early identification program from which she graduated. She tutors, and engages with middle and high school students at three public schools. She has weekly meetings with the younger students and provides them with extra support via one-on-one meetings whenever they reach out to her for guidance.

Although she says she feels like she is maturing and learning to value the important things in her life, she also noted that she feels like her self-worth and self-care have decreased since she began school in the fall.

In October, Yessina filmed a “transformation/glow up” video that documented her progress with getting back in touch with herself physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

According to Tracy Kennedy, a personal development expert, results-driven life coach, and consultant, Yessina’s process is a wonderful way to practice healthy self-reflection that allows her to respond to the changing factors in her life rather than react.

“Many studies share the common conclusion that self-reflection facilitates a deeper level of learning and understanding. It’s a critical part of the education process,” Kennedy wrote in a Lifehack article published at the start of the United States lockdown in March that discussed finding happiness and success through self-reflection practices. “I’ve found this to be true in my own work as a facilitator and trainer.” 

In an interview, Kennedy discussed the application of the article’s suggestions in young people’s lives during these particular times of widespread uncertainty. She added, “When all we see is negativity and trauma, that’s what our minds believe, but hope is the only force stronger than fear… and feeling hopeful is a choice.”

For her young clients, Kennedy encourages them to honor and acknowledge their positive and negative feelings. She noted that the societal pressure put on younger generations to think positively doesn’t always work. She has seen the suppressed negative emotions emerging in her clients’ lives in other ways, such as poor health, a lack of motivation, and a particularly harmful loss of will to seek help when needed.

The pandemic has not been a wholly negative experience, as students like 18 year old Stephanie Delgadillo are taking the downtime to reflect on themselves and their careers. Stephanie, a first-generation college student of Bolivian heritage attending the University of Virginia, hopes to be a physician’s assistant and specialize in dermatology. Before the pandemic, she wanted to pursue a pre-medical track. After reflecting throughout quarantine and exploring her options, she realized that she was more interested in the pre-physician assistant track instead. 

Delgadillo, Gonzales, and Yessenia will all continue their virtual learning for the remainder of the fall semester, but like many other students, their spring semesters remain uncertain. In looking to the future, they are eager to build real relationships with students on campus, explore their academic and personal interests through new organizations, and experience full college experiences before they advance in their careers.

“I can’t help but imagine what the end of my senior year and first year of college would’ve been like if COVID wasn’t a thing,” Delgadillo said, “But a part of me feels grateful for the pandemic. It has really allowed me to reflect on my life and my mental health. I hate to say it because COVID has definitely changed our lives forever and impacted people negatively, but the time alone has given me time to reflect on what I want.”