While the fall semester has already presented challenges for all students and staff, it has been particularly daunting for freshmen who are entering an entirely new environment and lifestyle. Freshman year can already be stressful and challenging, and COVID-19 adds a new dimension to every aspect of student life. To help freshmen succeed, this must be acknowledged by the University of Michigan. 

The one thing I hear most from freshmen is that they are excited to meet new people and make new friends. For most incoming freshmen, it is their first time living in a new town, granting them the ability to reinvent themselves. Amid a pandemic, however, spending time around new people becomes a huge risk — you do not know strangers’ attitudes, actions and exposures to COVID-19. While the remainder of the student body has already had the opportunity to make friends and establish a circle they are comfortable with, freshmen inevitably have to expose themselves to strangers in order to make friends this semester. 

“I’m most nervous about not getting the chance to meet new people but I really hope that there will be opportunities to socialize,” LSA freshman Naoko Maeda said when asked what she was most nervous about this school year. While it is important to impose strict social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it is also important that the University supports and offers safe methods for students to meet each other. “Since we don’t have the opportunity to meet people in classrooms,” Maeda noted,  “I think it would be nice to be able to have outdoor gatherings where we could socialize with people in our dorms and other dorms.” 

It is going to be difficult for freshmen to know where to start when it comes to meeting people, which can greatly impact social development and a sense of belonging on campus. The University campus has plenty of large outdoor spaces such as Palmer Field, the Law Quadrangle and the Diag for residential staff to organize outdoor, mask-required bonding activities to help freshmen meet each other, which is critical for freshmen during the pandemic. 

Another important part of the freshmen experience that must safely continue is club recruitment. “I still want to get involved in as much as possible, even if that means joining clubs via Zoom so that hopefully, by the second semester of sophomore year, if things start going back to normal, I can already know people around campus and be involved in activities on campus,” LSA freshman Gretchen Carr said. 

Although Zoom calls do not match the in-person experience and comradery clubs normally bring to student life, they are essential to help freshmen meet new people and feel connected to the campus community. Maeda said that, although she initially did not plan on joining many clubs freshman year, she is now looking forward to joining clubs as it may be “one of the only opportunities to meet new people.” 

The University should provide freshmen with more information about clubs than years prior, beyond Festifall and relying on club recruitment. It should actively promote safe ways clubs can operate with outdoor gatherings that meet social distancing guidelines. While it may seem that COVID-19 makes clubs and general student life less available, it is more important than ever that students find ways to connect. 

Many freshmen will likely feel very isolated following social distancing guidelines and not being able to meet people in classes. 

“I’m nervous that I won’t be able to really leave my dorm because of COVID or that I will be stuck doing all my classes and work solely within my dorm,” Carr said. According to a MedVisit article, this social isolation can cause “insomnia, low mood, stress, irritability and confusion.” 

Although students are no longer quarantining, trying to limit exposure and prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout campus may cause students to follow routines similar to those of a quarantine environment. According to previous studies on quarantining and being socially isolated, 28.9% of participants experienced a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and 31.2% developed symptoms of depression. 

Increasing awareness of outdoor spaces like the Nichols Arboretum and the formation of outdoor study spots around campus, such as the canopy tents, are some ways the University can help students get outside and feel less isolated in their residence hall room. It is also important for the University to make online mental health services accessible and to inform freshmen of all resources available.

Things will be very different for everyone this semester. However, it is important for the administration and campus community to acknowledge the extraordinary challenges freshmen face — they will need more support and guidance than ever before. The concerns of freshmen must be addressed so that their first semester fosters success, integration and growth at the same level U-M students have experienced for decades. 

Lizzy Peppercorn can be reached at epepperc@umich.edu.

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