As an incoming college freshman, Itzela Tafolla imagined California State University, Long Beach would be a fun and exciting and safe place to be. She hoped that her campus community would be welcoming. And bonus: She would get away from home and spread her wings in her own way and fashion — for the first time in her tender life.
“I was looking forward to the whole campus life,” Tafolla said. “Finding where my classes were, meeting new people, getting to meet the professors and wandering around the campus.”
Due to the pandemic, her college dream has a different reality.
Unlike previous freshmen, Tafolla started her first college semester at home, staring at an unfriendly computer screen, waiting for her professor to lecture from within the pixelated confines of Zoom.
Students like Tafolla were disappointed when the pandemic forced Cal State Long Beach — along with the entire 23-campus CSU system — into distance learning.
“I think I’m missing out on actually meeting new people and having the college experience,” said Tafolla. “This is definitely not the same.”
During the summer when Tafolla committed to attending Long Beach State, the administration did not provide a definite answer whether in-person instruction would resume during the fall semester. Tafolla crossed her fingers and enrolled. Soon after, she learned that classes would be virtual.
While some of Taffola’s former classmates from high school decided to pause their college plans, the 18-year-old kinesiology major decided to pursue her higher education goals anyway.
“It’s something that’s good for me whether it’s online or face-to-face,” Tafolla said. “Regardless of the circumstances, I still want to go through with my plans of attending college.”
Tafolla says that she wants to finish her undergraduate studies within four years. After she receives her undergraduate degree, she plans to earn her master’s in physical therapy and eventually begin a career as a pediatric physical therapist.
Even though she hasn’t met anyone in person, Tafolla has still made a few virtual connections. She was able to join the CSULB First Gen Club, an organization dedicated to supporting students who are the first in their family to attend college.
She signed up with hopes of getting more familiar with the university and making new friends. It helped that the current club president is an old high school friend.
She liked the prospect of “getting to meet new people that are kinda on the same boat as you, lets you know that you aren’t alone and you have people out there who are willing to go above and beyond to make sure that you’re feeling comfortable and welcome into Cal State Long Beach.”
The club requires that members attend at least two meetings per semester and meet with an academic advisor a minimum of three times. This semester, the club has hosted workshops focusing on time management, motivation and online learning and strategies for online exams.
“Being a first-generation student, you don’t really have a mentor,” said Tafolla. “In this club, they provide you with a mentor and an advisor. It’s really great to have those. It feels really welcoming.” The advisor helped her make sure she is taking the classes needed to graduate.
In addition to club resources, Tafolla has taken advantage of virtual tutoring and library services.
As for classes, Tafolla has had her internet crash a few times resulting in her missing some of her online classes.
“Mentally, I feel like it was a struggle and it still is a struggle,” said Tafolla. “But overall, I think I’m doing pretty fine.”
— Iman Palm
Taralina Paulo has dreams of teaching young children. The 18-year-old freshman at California State University, Dominguez Hills plans on earning her bachelor’s degree in Child Development. She likes to say that her decision was “relatively easy” for her considering she’s one of nine, and she regularly babysits for her family. When Paulo is not doing homework or logged into class, she’s helping her mom around the house or watching the kids.
Add financial and technological problems to the mix and it creates a potentially unproductive environment. With her other siblings logging onto the internet at home for their middle school and high school classes at the same hours, connecting to her college courses became a problem for Paulo. As a result, Paulo missed classes and ended up behind in her coursework within several weeks.
Paulo says that her biggest challenges with online learning has been communicating effectively with her professors, dealing with long homework hours and learning to navigate the ins and outs of college.
“I actually dropped one of my classes because of the coursework, and I was having trouble with keeping up with it because I have the tendency to procrastinate,” Paulo said.
Due to the worsening pandemic in California, Paulo planned to spend the fall semester learning and studying online. But that didn’t dampen her motivation to continue her education despite the fact that some of her peers were putting college off or dropping out.
“I’m a second-gen American and I’m the first one of my siblings to go to college,” Paulo said. “So, I feel like it kind of motivates me to keep on pushing through even though it’s all online and I just want to show all my siblings still in school that even though I’m in college I’m still here and still learning, too.”
With her first semester completed, Paulo is starting to gain a better sense of how to navigate college — from registration to coursework to communicating better with her professors. Part of that is because she’s found it easier to connect with her academic advisor through Zoom.
Paulo’s spring semester, however, is stacked with another 15-unit course load. That’s because she says that she remains intent on making it to graduation sooner than later.
“I thought that taking on that bigger load would help me to continue on and stay on track and push me through it,” Paulo said.
As her first semester comes to a close, Paulo has more of a sense of what college culture is, how to navigate it, but still has reservations for the next semester. To build stronger connections to her campus and keep herself motivated, Paulo said she decided to find a community or club that represents her Samoan heritage. She is considering signing up for the Oceania club.
“I’m kind of scared for next semester because that is going to be 15 units again,” Price said. “But I think I got it.”
— Taylor Helmes
Robyn Price is blunt about her college life situation and the bottom-line is she is having a less than exciting freshman year.
Price, 18, is majoring in Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University and says that she anticipated she’d be on campus, attending school events, meeting strangers who would start off as dorm roommates and eventually become lifelong friends.
“I thought it would be running into a lot of people who you’d know and making friends almost every day, like there would just be all different kinds of events going on,” Price said.
Despite attempts by the university, clubs and organizations to host virtual events and mixers, Price says her freshman year has been a real let down.
The extent of Price’s campus life involves chatting with classmates occasionally on Zoom during lectures and a few group chats with classmates to talk about classwork and assignments. One study group she found interesting was for a course called The Human Enigma, a class for her Liberal Studies program.
“There’s a girl in my class who likes to read aloud, so some people will form a reading group, and they’ll read the books together over Zoom,” Price said.
The group formed after the professor announced to the class that a student was willing to host a virtual study group to read and discuss the many books they would have to read throughout the semester.
Price says that she figured taking a 12-unit course load would allow her to spend hours outside of class reading, writing and staying up late for projects. Instead, she works from her desk in her bedroom at her parent’s house. Making her more stressed out is the fact that her full-time student status was also a requirement for Price to receive her scholarship money and CalVet Fee Waiver, which provides a tuition-free education at the CSU and the other state public post-secondary colleges and universities.
“I had to be fully enrolled for the waiver that my dad gets for being a disabled veteran,” Price said. “So I get free tuition to a CSU or UC which is really nice.”
It helps her to stay focused on her plan to graduate in four years and then go on to earn teaching credentials.
“I will graduate Spring 2024 as long as I stay on track,” Price said. “Which I really hope and plan to do.”
— Taylor Helmes
After graduating from high school this past summer, Ian Wong couldn’t wait to start his new life at the University of California, Berkeley.
As soon as he possibly could, he packed up his things and moved from South Pasadena to Berkeley with high school friends who also were accepted into Cal. They got an apartment together and Wong enrolled as an environmental science major, starting his first semester with 5 classes.
He said he tried to keep the load light with economics, environmental history and philosophy courses. He took 14 units this fall semester and is planning for 17 next semester. This hasn’t given him much time out of classes to form a group of friends or connect with classmates.
“People want to keep it to themselves, at least in the class environment. So there isn’t much conversation. And there isn’t much exchanging of information. It just seems like people kind of want to finish class and, like, leave,” Wong said.
Wong added that he missed the opportunities to have the side conversations in class where friendships typically start.
With little sense of community in classes, he turned to outdoor activities that the campus offered, joining a rock climbing group to stay active.
Five days a week, Wong would head out with a small group to climb. His schedule consisted of a couple classes and one club meeting, both online, as he ended up with way more downtime.
“The day is just empty,” Wong said. “I would have been watching TV. I felt like climbing was less wasteful than just kind of sitting on my behind.”
Wong says that the regular workouts have offered him a way to clear his mind as he remains concerned about the coronavirus. Taking advantage of the campus’ health programs, Wong took the coronavirus test multiple times and got his flu shot just to be sure of his safety.
Wong and his roommates have repeatedly tested negative.
“In the mental health department, it’s been more of a struggle,” Wong said. “I don’t know. I’m not doing too great.”
He blames his off days on his lack of structure at school and having to attend Zoom classes that tend to fuel his tendency to procrastinate since he knows he has the ability to zone out and watch recorded classes later. Wong said that taking notes in-person was easier to do. But pausing and writing things down made classes feel twice as long for him this past semester.
“It feels like I’m kind of wasting my semester. Like I had a lot in mind and then it just didn’t deliver,” Wong said.
Even though this past semester isn’t finished yet, Wong says that he has already begun to dread doing another semester online. Due to the lease for his apartment, he said he’d have to stay in Berkeley and finish out his first year. Wong added that he wouldn’t know what else to do if he wasn’t in school.
On the bright side, Wong says that some of his professors were very accommodating by canceling classes during exams and leaving online exams open all day for students to take at their leisure.
Wong is on track to finish in four years and is even considering taking up a second major in psychology. He said he felt fortunate in his experience with guidance counselors, unlike his roommate who emailed his counselor four times without response.
While he anticipates a harder semester, Wong said he thinks his grades should hold strong. By the end of this semester, he expects around a 3.5 GPA.
Wong said he just misses personal connections. Even reconsidering his living situation: “Maybe I should have chosen the dorm option? But it seemed really lonely as well because you’ve only got one room and you’re limited to where you can go.”
Despite his rock climbing group, he wished he had the simple things like “talking to people in class and forming study groups.”
— Joshua Letona
Like many of her friends, Lezette Flores looked forward to attending her first college semester in-person. But the fact that the pandemic derailed those initial plans didn’t stop Flores from enrolling as a freshman at California Polytechnic State University to study public affairs.
“My goal is to one day work for or develop a non-profit agency that helps guide underprivileged kids by offering tutoring, school supplies, food and counseling services,” Flores said. But as she worked toward that goal, Flores expected to take part in plenty of Cal Poly fun and spirit.
“I thought I was going to join a sorority,” she said. “I thought I was going to join the cheer team.”
Instead, she says, her first semester has been a big flop. There has been little fun, no cheer and she has found in way more difficult to keep up with her online studies than she ever expected.
“I’ve developed depression and anxiety and it’s been very difficult,” Flores said. She finds it hard to build relationships with other students or bond with professors online, adding that it’s been very hard for her to “reach through the computer” and ask for help with coursework or even navigating the university website.
Since the semester began, her mother has become sick, and she has realized that she must start working full-time soon to help the family make financial ends meet.
“But since what happened with my mom, I’m going to have to move back to take care of my brothers, which is why I may not go to school spring semester,” said Flores, who expects to work full time to save money for them.
Finishing this semester has been challenging for Flores. She believes that she is failing some of her classes, “even the ones that I really try my best on,” she said.
Her struggles with her studies have been bad enough, but the lack of campus connection deepens her despair to the point she doesn’t even want to show pride in her college by wearing a sweatshirt or putting up something in her room or on her car with the school logo. “I feel like I haven’t been as involved with my school to put the sticker on. Like a little branding sticker,” she says. “I feel like I’m not worthy of it yet.”
Flores admits that the notion of dropping out has crossed her mind more than once. “It’s beating me up,” she says about college life during the pandemic.
When asked if she will return after this semester, Flores said “Depending on my family situation. Fingers crossed, at least by next fall.”
— Kilmer Salinas
“After graduating from high school, I was expecting a whole new lifestyle rather than following a strict 5 day-a-week school schedule,” said Michael Loyola, a California State University Los Angeles freshman and nursing major.
The Cal State LA virtual orientation helped him get an idea of what to expect from college.
“Ideally, I would have wanted it to be in person, yet the information provided through the speaker and orientation leader was beneficial for my start at Cal State LA,” the freshman said.
Loyola decided to join the Cal State LA Filipino Club, Kalahi, to connect with students and the campus.
“The Filipino club has united me with other college students with the same cultural background as me,” he said.
During the virtual club meetings, the members learn about everything from current events related to the Philippines to the making of traditional dishes from the homeland. They also play online games like Among Us and Skribble.IO.
“I personally wish that these meetings were not virtual for a better engagement and connection with everyone else,” Loyola said. “But even with our current circumstances, I have enjoyed being in the Filipino Club.”
Online learning hasn’t affected Loyola’s academics. He says that he is currently a full-time student taking 15 units and plans to take 17 units next semester. He says the workload is very similar to what was assigned to him in high school.
“The time management and prioritization that came with balancing school and extra-curricular activities is what prepared me for the college workload,” he said.
He has met with guidance counselors, who have helped him pick his spring 2021 schedule and answered questions he had about the nursing program.
“Once on-campus classes resume,” Loyola said, “I will genuinely have and feel that college experience that is different from high school.
— Catherine Valdez
“I was looking forward to making new friends and starting fresh at a new environment, especially since I didn’t like my high school experience,” said Sammy Lemus, a freshman and pre-child development major at California State University Los Angeles (pictured above with her younger sibling whom she helps with homework).
Lemus describes her high school experience as chaotic because of the personal drama among classmates and the physical fights that broke out during lunch or after school all too often.
Making friends during distance learning has been difficult, Lemus says, but Zoom breakout rooms and group projects have helped offer opportunities meet new classmates if you are open to it.
“I have found new friends,” she said. “At first it was hard to make them, but with assigned groups in some of my courses I got chances to bond with my peers.”
Lemus has also met new friends through a college-based app called Loopchat.
She does say that there have been times when she felt like dropping out because of how difficult online learning has been. Plus, Lemus had to learn to focus on her six online courses while helping her little brother, who is in kindergarten.
For now, Lemus figures the best way for her to bond with her campus and classmates will be through social media. She has begun following Instagram pages like the Child Development Association and a Latino student organization called MEChA CSULA.
However, Lemus is quick to say that she is considering taking a gap year if her college experience remains remote.
The only time she got to see the Cal State LA campus was when she went to pick up her student ID.
Her sister, who is a fellow CSULA student, showed her around the empty campus.
“She showed me the major buildings,” Lemus said, “but we couldn’t go into the buildings on account of everything is locked.”
— Catherine Valdez
As long as she stuck to her recipe of studying hard and playing hard, Gladys Ocampo, an 18-year-old freshman studying Marine Biology at California State University, Northridge, expected her foray into college life would even surpass the stellar time she had in high school.
Less than a year ago, Ocampo attended high school at Sotomayor Learning Academy in Los Angeles, where she was president of the Associated Student Body and an active member of various clubs and social justice organizations like Roots for Peace. She says that being heavily involved in high school life is what made her experience memorable.
“The best parts were interacting with the student body,” Ocampo said, “by attending school events, meeting new people and making the school better.”
Ocampo was initially excited to attend CSUN because her older sister graduated from the same university in 2019, and a lot of her family were proud alumni of the university, as well.
But nobody could prepare her for the bizarre freshman year she went on to experience this past semester due to Covid-19.
“When it comes to the transition from high school to college, I always knew it would be a different environment,” Ocampo said. “But with online learning it is more distant and it’s made it harder to get in touch with professors.”
Another big reason that Ocampo decided to attend CSUN was because of the tuition cost was lower compared to other California state universities. However, she says now that she may have made the wrong choice. “If I would’ve known about the pandemic, I probably would’ve gone to community college for my general education courses,” Ocampo said.
Proper time management has become Ocampo’s biggest struggle during her first semester online, she said.
“Most of my classes are online. No professor. No Zoom meetings. So, it’s just weekly assignments and learning on my own.” Ocampo said. “But I am able to get things done.”
Still, Ocampo says that motivation is a big issue and has had a lot of “up-and-downs” since the semester started.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re just repeating the whole day over and over again,” Ocampo said. But as her semester is almost over, she has tried and been successful at finding the positive side of things.
“Virtual learning can give you time to look into yourself,” she said. “Find new hobbies and figure yourself out.”
Ocampo had dreams of living in the dorms and hanging out with classmates. Instead she remains stuck at her parent’s home. “There’s a lot of distractions here. You have to juggle family, school work, pets and other things,” she said. “I had plans to join a sorority and the Environmental Club, but now since we are online. It put my plans on hold a bit.”
Like many students, Ocampo wants to enjoy the campus life she dreamed about while she was in high school but also deals with feeling nervous about having to physically return to campus someday. “I don’t know how to go on from this because my first year was online, my sophomore year will now be more like my actual freshman year.”
Ocampo said that CSUN has been consistent about sending out email announcements about opportunities to connect to others on campus via online activities. She appreciates the effort but so far the experience has been underwhelming compared to high school. Nonetheless, Ocampo says it’s her responsibility to at least try.
“If you don’t take those resources and don’t reach out you’ll most likely won’t meet new people,” she said.
Ocampo holds onto her plans of possibly making a run for student government when campus life returns. Yet, she finds herself increasingly contemplating the idea of taking time off from college.
“I want to take a gap year if we still can’t return to campus,” Ocampo said. “Because it’s not really the same learning, so I may use that time to focus on myself.”
— Brenda Verano
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