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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
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Resourcefulness and luck: the Class of 2024 talks finding community despite an online start

Incoming seniors completed freshman year through a screen. What are the long term effects of such a nontraditional start to college?

For most of American University’s Class of 2024, there was no dorm shopping, travel planning or packing filling the final weeks before their freshman year began. The University held its  2020-2021 academic year almost entirely online, forcing most students to complete classes from their hometowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

As this class begins its final year at AU, its members reflect on their college experiences.

“I feel like people learn a lot about themselves freshman year, like what they're actually capable of doing,” said Asia Fares, a senior in the School of Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences. She completed the entirety of her freshman year from her home in Boston. 

Fares shares this opinion with many others whose college experiences were impacted by COVID-19. With Zoom calls as the main form of interaction between students at the time, the Class of 2024 had a nontraditional experience forming bonds and finding community.

When Fares was on campus for the first time at the start of her sophomore year, she recognized only a few familiar faces from her classes. But she said there was an immediate connection between her and her new roommates simply based on the difficult shared experiences they’d had with online schooling during a pandemic. 

“It was like an unspoken trauma bonding,” she said.

Soon after this beginning to the year, Fares said she found a home in the club volleyball program. She explained that the team marked an important and intentional return to normalcy for her.

“I literally could not imagine me not playing volleyball here,” she said.

Fares still wishes she could have had a fully traditional, four-year college experience at AU, partly to get closer with club volleyball friends that have already graduated. 

“I think if I had gotten the chance, like say COVID never existed, right — I think I definitely would have had a very different experience here,” she said. 

With the perspective of someone who had a more social freshman experience, CAS senior Shira Cohen spoke to The Eagle during her stay at a Marriott Residence Inn downtown from August to February of her freshman year at AU. She then moved on campus for the remainder of the academic year, once AU began to offer limited on-campus housing options.

Cohen followed up with The Eagle as she prepared for her final year of college to reflect on her freshman experience.

“After spending my whole life living in Connecticut at my parents’ house, I really just wanted to be independent,” Cohen said. “I figured that if I can't be in the dorms, and I knew that finding a lease on my own before going to school would be very complicated, the best thing I could do was this [hotel] option, especially since it was with other students.”

Cohen lived in an extended-stay suite with a roommate. She would attend her classes online during the day and then hang out with friends one-on-one or in small groups. She recalled that her hotel friend group made a rotation where everyone would have a dedicated night to make dinner in their kitchenettes.

As for safety in the hotel, Cohen masked everywhere in public, moved any larger group gatherings outside, got vaccinated when she became eligible and even left the hotel when there was a COVID-19 outbreak there in February 2021. To her knowledge, Cohen has never had COVID-19.

With the hotel’s proximity to campus, Cohen said she was lucky to find an on-campus social life through limited, in-person social events put on by Chabad AU, a Jewish identity student organization. 

“Through that I got to meet other students,” she said. “Everyone’s graduated by now, but they’re still some of my best friends and I keep in touch with them to this day.”

When asked if she thinks it would have been possible to make friends like this if she hadn’t lived in the hotel, Cohen’s answer was simple: “Oh, definitely not.” 

Bridging the gap between Fares’ and Cohen’s experiences, SPA and CAS senior Kyra Thordsen completed the first semester of her freshman year online from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then moved into a D.C. apartment with friends for her second semester. 

Thordsen said her freshman year felt like “a shadow of a college experience.” With the time difference between California and D.C., she regularly had classes that began at 5:10 a.m. 

“I never, ever complain about 8 a.m. classes now,” she said. “I’d get out of bed and I would go over to my desk and I would try to make it through.”

Despite this difficulty, Thordsen used her outgoing nature to reach out to others in both classes and Zoom calls for the Lincoln Scholars Program. She said she felt very lucky to have found friends, and that she believes they were bonded by the “craziness” of online learning.

That spring, Thordsen signed a year-and-a-half lease on a Tenleytown apartment with three friends she met online. She formed what she called a “COVID bubble” with another set of roommates she knew through LSP, and most of them are still friends to this day.

This fall, Thordsen is coincidentally living in the same house these LSP friends leased their freshman year.

“It’s a full circle,” she said.

Missing a true on-campus experience was hard for Thordsen.

“I feel like your freshman year is just a forgiving, figuring-out time period,” she said. “When I got to campus sophomore year, it kind of felt like my freshman year, but there was none of the grace.”

Even so, Thordsen says she wouldn’t change much about her college experience, partly because she used online learning as fuel to build community in the School of Public Affairs. After finding out the SPA Undergraduate Council had fizzled out during the early stages of the pandemic, she spent two years revamping it in her position as the council’s president. 

“Something that was really cool and could have been like, this really awesome community building thing didn't exist because of COVID,” she said. “I really want to feel connected to people and, like, to do something good for the community … I don't know if I would have done any of those things [without online learning].”

Since then, the council has gotten funding back from the Center for Student Involvement and now offers a full calendar of events, leadership opportunities and support for SPA students and the AU community.

Outreach, initiative, creativity and friendliness helped these students with three very different starts to have what they described to be as the nearest to normal college experiences and social lives possible, given the outstanding circumstances they were thrust into. 

Fares says this wasn’t by chance, but by intentional choice. 

“COVID sucked, but once I … accepted like, yes, this was taken away, and now I have to do something about it, it felt a lot better.”

This article was edited by Kate Corliss, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis. 

 Hosts Sara Winick and Sydney Hsu introduce themselves and talk about their favorite TV shows. This episode includes fun facts, recommendations and personal connections. 

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