A typical freshman at the University of Michigan arrives to campus eager to enjoy all the factors that make “The Michigan Difference” so special: they attend their first of many parties during Welcome Week, cheer on the football team in a packed Big House, socialize with their new hallmates in the dining hall, attend large lectures taught by esteemed professors and study in the UgLi with peers at unspeakable hours during finals week, just to name a few.
The class of 2024, however, experienced a freshman year far from this. Between resident advisor and graduate student instructor strikes and getting kicked off campus in light of surging COVID-19 cases, their freshman year did not contain much normalcy.
But as the University adjusts its plans for the Fall semester and the number of U-M community COVID-19 vaccinations continue to increase, rising sophomores have hope for a more traditional freshman year experience.
Engineering sophomore Kaylee Johnson lived in a West Quad dorm the whole academic year. She described the fall semester as “alright” and somewhat easy to make friends during, but the winter semester as “depressing.” There were only three other people in her entire hall as COVID-19 restrictions remained in place.
“In the second semester, nobody left their dorm rooms, nobody talked to one another and everyone was just in their dorm rooms alone all the time, and it was very lonely,” Johsnon said. “Second semester was cold — you can’t really eat outside and there was nowhere inside the dining hall to go, or get dinner with your friends because all the shops were closed as well. So it was really hard to make friends, and the University made it harder by not allowing people to be in your room.”
Despite the precautions that made making friends and exploring Ann Arbor increasingly difficult, LSA sophomore Brody Mayoras said he liked living in the West Quad dorm given its Central Campus location and social scene. In the winter semester, Mayoras moved to a Kerrytown duplex with two friends, which he described as still enjoyable but “weird” and “different,” as he had to adjust to living on his own as an adult.
“It was a transition from living at home for 18 years of my life to living in the dorms for three months or so, and then having a whole new experience directly after that living with two roommates off campus,” Mayoras said. “It introduced things like having to cook and clean for yourself, where I didn’t really have to do that in the dorms. I had to figure out how to pay utilities earlier than I expected. It was just very different from how I expected my winter to go.”
Another oddity of Mayoras’ second semester experience was how all of his friends who returned to live in Ann Arbor were sporadically located throughout the city.
“In the dorms, you are spread around campus to a certain extent,” Mayoras said. “But in the winter semester, everyone was super spread out: I was living way far on one side of Ann Arbor in Kerrytown, and I had friends living basically on the other extreme, on the athletic campus. And if I wanted to hang out with them, I would have to walk like 30 minutes to their place.”
Engineering sophomore Guillermo Suels lived in a dorm his first semester but spent the winter semester at home. Suels found socializing and creating “meaningful connections” with peers and professors to be almost impossible. Therefore, Suels is looking forward to finally engaging in the activities such as sporting events, clubs, intramural sports and more.
“I feel like there are so many things that make the Michigan experience so special,” Suels said. “Sports games, going to Crisler and going to the Big House — although they might seem like smaller things — those are some of the things that drove me to go to Michigan in the first place. So I’m really excited to meet people, getting to know Ann Arbor better and the state of Michigan, and just looking forward to meeting new people and having experiences.”
Similar to Suels, Mayoras hopes to take advantage of all the in-person activities offered and engage in in-person classes — as long as the pandemic does not alter the University’s current plans for the fall — as he experienced difficulty motivating himself to pay attention and study for Zoom classes last year.
“I think it’s gonna be surreal,” Mayoras said. “It’s just going to be very different seeing people face to face versus on little boxes on Zoom. It’ll be really nice to be able to meet people and actually have personal, engaging conversations rather than just typing in the Zoom chat or private messaging someone if they say something funny.”
LSA sophomore Pranav Balachander — who completed his freshman year from his bedroom in New Jersey — is also excited to witness firsthand a holistic, in-person college experience in addition to “cultivating real bonds” with professors and peers in the classroom.
“On Zoom, things tend to become monotonous and repetitive, and tend to become dry after a point,” Balachander said. “Because you don’t know what to talk about because you’re seeing the same screen and the same people in the same setting over and over. But in an in-person university life, I’ll be able to see the same people in different settings, which will really help us get to know each other better and develop our bond as a whole.”
LSA sophomore Kyleigh Moll and a couple of fellow student emergency medical technicians founded the Emergency Medical Services Club last October. Moll found co-creating a club and hosting meetings over Zoom to be especially challenging.
“All of the events that we wanted to do required in-person meetings, and obviously we couldn’t do that with COVID restrictions,” Moll said. “We were not able to accomplish many of our goals. And it was also really hard to spread the word to people because a lot of people didn’t want to go to one more Zoom meeting after their full day of classes.”
But as the fall nears and in-person student organization meetings look possible, the EMS Club’s prospects are looking up, according to Moll.
“I’m super hopeful for this upcoming semester,” Moll said. “Speaking of my club, we’ve already been able to purchase supplies to hold some of our events in person, so I’m really excited for that. It’ll be a huge step for us.”
Although most sophomores remain hopeful and excited about in-person classes, football games and more new friends, some, like Mayoras, noted how adjusting back to normal life will be strange, especially given that there will essentially be two new classes of students present on campus in addition to a junior class who has yet to experience an entire normal year of college.
“It’s going to be an odd experience being sophomores, but really being freshmen, at the University,” Mayoras said. “We’re going to have to relearn study habits. We’re gonna have to relearn all the things you would learn freshman year, to a certain extent. I am a peer mentor for that learning community I lived in my freshman year, so one of my jobs is to help advise incoming freshmen. I have a certain understanding of how campus works, but even then, it’s gonna be weird telling my mentees that I’m going to class too for the first time in-person.”
Engineering sophomore Kaylee Johnson is similarly curious regarding what the atmosphere between the different grades on campus will be like.
“I feel like it’s going to be three classes of freshmen,” Johnson said. “I’m hopeful that everyone will be able to bond over the fact that nobody knows what’s going on, and I’m just expecting nobody to really know the campus or anything like that. It’s going to be a learning experience.”
Although excited to be in Ann Arbor after spending her freshman year remotely learning hundreds of miles away in her hometown of New York City, LSA sophomore Nancy Chen is worried about adjusting and succeeding academically once the school year begins because certain perks of remote learning will not be available.
“I am a little scared because I won’t have the same resources as I did when I had remote learning,” Chen said. “All the lectures are recorded for the most part, and you’re able to watch it at your own leisure. But now it’s like whatever a professor says, that’s all you have in class.”
Chen recently signed her contract to live in the Helen Newberry dorm with fellow members of the Adelia Cheever Program — an all-female Theme Community with an emphasis on global leadership. She feels optimistic to finally receive a traditional college experience and bond with her peers in person. However, Chen is anxious about both leaving her family for the first time and being in contact with unvaccinated members of the U-M community.
“With things going back to normal and knowing that not everyone on campus is vaccinated, it can be a little scary in terms of safety,” Chen said. “Knowing that Michigan is such a big school, it can be a little scary because we have tens of thousands of students there. It’s also scary because I will be leaving my sisters in New York City, and we have never been apart.”
Like Chen, Balachander has never lived away from his family. He expects the transition to be rough at first, but says the opportunity to experience a traditional freshman year this fall outweighs all the cons.
“An in-person experience is definitely not the same as a remote experience, and even though life technically can be lived remotely, it is not the same,” Balachander said. “And it is not how college is meant to be experienced because you really cannot cultivate bonds with others in the same way. You cannot experience campus life, refine your own interests and grow in many ways in a remote way, the way you can in an in-person setting. An in-person experience is the most conducive to having a fun and balanced college experience overall.”
Daily staff reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.