by Karin Kirn
As humans, we endure a multitude of life stages; whether they are individual or shared, the experiences that we collect from each of these stages are meant to challenge us, help us learn and grow, and ultimately build our character. With the constant shifting of our environment - be it social circles, work, routine, et cetera - comes the need for support from our fellow humans. This can be in the form of a family member, friend, or therapist; even just the knowledge that you have access to a helpful ear when you need it, of itself, is an incredibly comforting feeling.
One of the most difficult stages in my life was one that hundreds of millions of people have experienced before me, alongside me, or will experience in the future: the transition from high school to college. It’s not something you can ever truly prepare for. You just have to bite the bullet, buy your textbooks, and pack your bags. Those first few months at college away from home were stressful, to say the very least. I had struggled with depression and anxiety for the majority of my life, and living hours away from the home where I’d spent the first 17 years of my life only exacerbated these issues.
My first year at college was a challenging one, but it is still what you would call “normal” by today’s standards; I lived in a dorm, had in-person classes, and could easily hang out with friends in group settings. I was able to develop a support system of friends, and yet I still went to therapy once a week through the college’s counseling and psychology services.
The Class of 2024 was not as fortunate. They had to endure one of the most transformative and challenging phases of their life during a global pandemic. What they’ve experienced, especially during the fall 2020 semester and the beginning of spring, could barely be described as college. Sure, many of them got to live in a dorm - but all of their classes were held virtually. They had to wear masks whenever they went out, and were not permitted in groups larger than 5. There was no orientation, no activities fairs, no parties (at least none that were allowed), no dining halls - none of the things that usually define a freshman’s first year of college. They had to deal with the isolation of quarantine, the threat of a virus, and the lack of engagement in Zoom classes, all the while being away from their homes and families for the first time.
It’s no wonder that college students’ mental health is at an all-time low; according to a nationwide survey by Boston University, ½ of students screened positive for anxiety or depression in the fall, and around ⅔ of them struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Since it’s harder to make friends, it’s also harder for students to develop the support system they need during their freshman year of college.
I’ve spoken to a multitude of first year students, many of whom have lamented that they “should have stayed home” and taken virtual classes from the comfort of their own room, or even taken a gap year in the hopes that by next year things will have returned to some semblance of normal. They’ve told me that it’s been one of, if not the most, mentally taxing times of their lives - it’s not hard at all to believe. When me and a couple of upperclassman friends hung out with a small group of first years outdoors, one of them approached me afterward and excitedly informed me that it was the highlight of their entire semester, and that it was the closest thing to a party they’d been to so far.
Residential advisors have also gotten the short end of the stick this year, having to manage dorm life (which is by itself a difficult job) while also being under the added stress of living in close quarters with restless freshmen during a pandemic. They had to receive extra training for handling a COVID-19 school year, which they were not compensated or even thanked for. My RA friends would tell me stories about life in dorms during the 2020-2021 school year - some of them are to be expected, such as resolving a spat between roommates or helping a particularly drunk resident to the bathroom. Others are much darker; they’ve seen firsthand the damaging effects of coronavirus on the mental health of freshmen, and it has negatively impacted them in turn. Several RA’s that I know began experiencing panic attacks or severe depression, and said that UVA did not provide them with extra resources to help themselves.
As I’m writing this, things have gotten much, much better in terms of COVID, but freshmen are only starting to get a glimpse into what “normal” college life looks like. I wish that UVA and other schools had provided students with more resources to help them cope during these strange times, because again, a helping hand goes such a long way. First years shouldn’t have even been brought back in the fall in the first place - but I digress. Universities should have done better in terms of helping their students feel more at home.