Opinion: Freshmen feel more disconnected from AU than ever
The University should be doing more to help freshmen feel a part of the AU community
Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's March 2021 virtual print edition.
My stomach started hurting as soon as George Washington University announced its plan for remote classes in the fall. In group chats with fellow first-year students, I touted optimism. Then, when American University announced its plan, I put my phone on ‘do not disturb’ and let the tears fall. I canceled my order from Bed Bath & Beyond and bought myself a desk for the empty corner in my room.
Following the Oct. 26 announcement for the spring semester, I immediately leased an apartment in D.C. with two other freshmen. When I was little, my mom warned me about talking to strangers on the internet. I wasn’t allowed to tell people what city I lived in or share my age. Flash forward to November as she co-signs a lease so I can move to a new city with roommates that were previously just internet strangers. Internet strangers, who started our first conversation with, “So, where are you from?” I refused to be stuck at home while the rest of my high school friends enjoyed their in-person universities in the cities of their choosing. However, now that I’m here and meeting other students, I’m realizing just how disconnected I feel from AU.
At home, it was easy to ignore the fact that I wasn’t on campus. Walking through my neighborhood in South Florida, I never felt like I was so close, yet so far away from AU. In my apartment in D.C., however, AU always feels like an arms-length away. A very long arm, albeit, but just an arm. Sitting at my desk in my room while my family was just a room over, AU felt so distant that it didn’t bother me.
My roommates feel it too: the sadness of being in the same city as your university, but not being able to attend it; the jealousy of seeing your peers attend classes in person while you sit at home; the lethargy of logging onto Zoom to join a club meeting. Despite countless online alternatives to club meetings, extracurriculars and social events, I know very few people who have the energy to attend. After hours of staring at our computer screens for class, homework and social gatherings, who wants to go to a non-mandatory affair?
Every once in a while, I muster up this required energy and will join a club meeting. Most recently, I joined a game night for a club where I did not know anyone. Upon entering the room, my eyes immediately beelined toward the participant list. Only five people had joined. Suddenly, I was alone with four upperclassmen, who all knew each other. The strangers were excited to meet me and we had a fun and awkward time learning some new online game. And eventually, when I left, they encouraged me to return next time. I haven’t. Not because I didn’t enjoy myself, but because I don’t have the energy necessary to keep meeting new people virtually.
Now, as some students are on campus and others are not, I feel more distant than ever. Hearing upperclassmen discuss their experiences on campus, the fun they had on Halloween, the beauty they witnessed during cherry blossom season and the stress they felt on Capitol Hill fills me with envy. I haven’t undergone these things for myself, and I don’t feel a part of the “AU experience.” Instead, I feel left behind.
I have not been woken up by my roommate’s alarm clock. I have not walked to an 8 a.m. in the snow. I have not eaten at TDR. I have not met new friends in a dorm lounge. I have not attended the club fair on the quad. I have not accidentally fallen asleep at the library. I have not stayed after class to chat with a professor. I have not lost my One Card and needed a replacement. I have not met the wonk cat. I have not baked banana bread for my hallmates. And I have not experienced the parts of college that only happen face-to-face.
AU needs to take greater action to create a sense of community among its freshmen. Administration should host social gatherings for students to join without admin supervision, reach out to students to make sure they are adjusting well and better promote various clubs that students can join. With a significant amount of first-year students living in D.C., AU should also hold socially-distanced events for us to meet each other. To alleviate Zoom fatigue, professors should offer more ways for students to participate asynchronously and provide more extra credit opportunities to counteract faltering grades.
These are unprecedented times. We’ve heard that phrase over and over. The state of the world calls for more creativity and more outreach from the AU administration than ever before. Don’t leave your freshmen behind.
Alexis Bernstein is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs and a staff columnist for The Eagle.