When Kaelynn Kuang imagined she was in college, she didn’t just envision classrooms and lived in dormitories.
She wanted to join the Honor Society and the Asian-American Student Alliance at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
This is part of an on-going series about how freshman college students face a bumpy start to their college career.
“When you get your bearings and before that, they’ll give you an idea of clubs on campus, and I was so excited,” said Kuang, a freshman majoring in arts and psychology. “I thought there would be club fairs so I could see everything, but they didn’t, so I was disappointed. I didn’t actually join anything. “
That year’s college experience has been significantly disrupted for Kuang and the thousands of college students like her across the country. Classes have largely shifted online, as has much of student life, including sororities, fraternities, organizations, and clubs – all of these activities often help make students feel connected and connected to their colleges.
This reality has had a significant impact on freshmen, many of whom said the pandemic had limited their ability to make new college friends or join student organizations.
“There’s a kind of loneliness you’re feeling right now,” said Kuang. “Because you’ve just left high school and most of your friends and you have to start over and have this opportunity to meet more friends and build that kind of community, but that’s gone.”
What Lezette Flores envisioned as part of her freshman year is far from reality.
“I thought I was going to be a sorority,” said the polytechnic freshman at California State University. “I thought I would join the cheer team and commute.”
Many clubs and organizations in the CSU, UC, and California community colleges continued to host virtual events, activities, meetings, and mixers. Student engagement has declined, however, as the pandemic and stress of attending online college classes, often from their children’s rooms, have taken an emotional toll.
“There is a strong emphasis on ensuring that we are still delivering a quality experience to the students virtually, as we know that freshmen need to feel that connection to campus in order to feel like they belong on campus” he told Tari Hunter, director of the Office for Student Life and Cultural Centers in Cal Poly Pomona. “That helps with retention and helps academically in and out of the classroom. It’s challenging when your experiences both inside and outside the classroom are in the same place. “
The freshman year is usually difficult: 15% at CSU and 7% at UC do not return in the second year. But the pandemic has drastically reduced the number of students starting their freshman years, especially among low-income students as well as black and Latin American students. The trends worry university officials, who fear that the first year focused on pandemics could discourage students from returning and completing their studies.
Robyn Price, a liberal major at Sonoma State University, said her academic year was a disappointment.
“I thought (college) was going to meet a lot of people you knew and make friends almost every day, like just having all kinds of events,” Price said.
The number of active student organizations operating in Cal Poly Pomona, for example, has decreased by about 50 this semester. Typically the campus has around 300 registered organizations, but only around 250 continued operations this fall. What these numbers don’t tell you is whether students participate in the groups.
Freshmen are certainly not the only ones who have had difficulty getting involved in clubs and groups. Lucy Yu, a senior in the hospitality industry on the Pomona campus, said it was “stressful and initially scary” for students like her in leadership roles. Yu is president of the campus’ Associated Students Incorporated.
“Our first few years are obviously very important for clubs and organizations when it comes to recruiting,” said Yu, adding that any organization depends on the newcomers for its longevity. Perhaps that’s why Yu said that she noticed something was happening this year that she had never seen before – high school students are turning to freshmen to learn about their wellbeing and actively encourage them to participate, she said.
“I found it with my own student government team,” said Yu. “When they are in class in the first few years, turn to them on the side and ask how they are doing. I had never seen any of this in person. I’ve never seen a high school student go out of their way to help him. But now, in GroupMe and Chats, everyone is trying to help each other out. “
Student leaders have gone to great lengths to leverage social media forums like Reddit and Discord, as well as messaging apps like GroupMe, to engage people in clubs and organizations.
Many groups have been forced to get creative with the way they offer activities and events virtually. For example, Yu’s organization, Associated Students Inc., has “Speed Friending” sessions that encourage students to talk about random topics in zoom rooms.
Hunter said one of the more successful activities was a virtual Dia de los Muertos celebration hosted by the college, where students were sent kits to make sugar skulls.
Yu, who is also a member of the Zeta Tau Alpha Fraternity, an international women’s fraternity, said that recruiting this year practically took place over three days, with small groups of women moving between zoom breakout rooms to seek out potential new members to meet. The Brotherhood’s “parties” were even virtual, she said.
Most recently, many Greek organizations competed on the Pomona campus to raise money for charity. Yu’s brotherhood raised $ 10,000 by promoting breast cancer awareness donors on social media.
But many clubs have traditionally taken a “hands-on” approach, Hunter said, referring to agricultural and technical groups on campus.
“It’s hard not to get on campus, but they found creative ways to work on projects with academic advisors,” she said.
What is it like to be a freshman during a pandemic?
Imagine experiencing college for the first time in your child’s room on a computer screen. This is what 2020 newbies are going through, and they have a lot to say.
In Sacramento State, the number of registered student organizations decreased by about 100 to 232 that year. But student engagement seems to be increasing in other ways. For example, engagement for this year’s Panhellenic Sorority Council recruiting process, held through Zoom, was higher this year than last year. Ninety-eight percent of women who signed up for employment joined a sorority that year, compared with 72 percent the previous year.
“Nobody does 100% or phenomenal and that’s just the environment we’re in,” said Nicki Croly, director of student organizations and leadership at Sac State. “But the students seek community, and when they find it, it makes everything else more bearable.”
Because of this, the campus aims to find those first year students who have not joined any organization, are associated with a peer mentor, or live off campus.
“For the first few years we haven’t tapped, there will be a deliberate call in the spring semester to get them,” Croly said. The campus will check to see if these students are active and collect the data. By the end of January, they will know what first few years to aim for and help them connect with the campus.
Not all groups rely on the internet to stay engaged and active.
Ian Wong, a freshman at UC Berkeley, said he turned to outdoor activities to find his “sense of community”. He joined a climbing group to stay active.
“People want to keep to themselves, at least in the classroom,” said Wong. “So there is not much talk. And there isn’t a lot of information sharing. It just seems like people want to finish class and leave. “
Five days a week, Wong joins a small group to climb. The Environmental Science major curriculum consists of five classes and a club meeting, all of which are online. Without climbing, Wong felt that the day was “just empty”.
“I would have watched TV,” he said. “I felt like climbing was less wasteful than just sitting on my ass.”
Despite efforts, students, even those who attend clubs and groups, still have trouble connecting with their classmates.
“There’s nothing easy about that,” said Yu. “This year it is very important for us to listen to the student body with open eyes and open ears. We need to be in service more than before because they suffer in multiple ways. However, it is important to realize that the relationships are between 50 and 50. It can’t just be high school students looking for the first few years. We hope they are looking for resources and people to connect with virtually. “
The following members of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps contributed to this story: Kilmer Salinas and Joshua Letona are seniors in Cal State Los Angeles; Taylor Helmes is a senior at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Letona and Helmes are the publishers of their campus newspapers.
For more reports like this, click here to sign up for EdSource’s free daily email about the latest in education.