Easheta Shah: The freshman experience, interrupted

Monday, March 23, 2020 - 6:46pm

On Wednesday, March 11, the University of Michigan canceled classes for the remainder of the week and decided to move to an online format for the rest of the semester in light of the coronavirus pandemic. I was sitting at the Michigan Union, rushing to meet a deadline, when I received the email. The atmosphere around me immediately shifted. Textbooks closed, phones rang and chaos was in the air. Students’ first response was excitement for the four-day weekend, but the commotion quickly turned into grief and panic as they began understanding the grander implications of the situation. It meant figuring out how to get home at a moment’s notice and risking the dangers of air travel. It meant saying an early goodbye to a new chapter of life and to best friends that had turned to family. It meant that (although this announcement came later) after four years of an intense grind, college seniors would not get to walk at graduation. And for the class of 2023, it meant never getting to complete their freshman year of college.

Only seven short months ago, the class of 2023 was packing up their vans and heading to campus. It was the beginning of dorm life, unimaginable experiences and a great deal of trial and error. In the seventh month of freshman year, the blue, moving day bins roamed the residence halls once again. The semester was cut short by something everyone would always remember. As cliche as it sounds, freshman year is the year of finding oneself both individually and professionally. It’s the year for meeting a version of yourself you didn’t know existed and for figuring out how to be a student at the second-best public university in the country. The nightly study push to the Shapiro Undergraduate Library and questionable dining hall meals were just starting to feel like routine, and Ann Arbor was just starting to feel like home. Now, students trade in their dorm lounge study sessions for long hours on FaceTime with friends halfway across the country in an attempt to feel normal again. But it’s just not the same. For many students, being home has its own set of struggles.

Due to the nationally rising number of coronavirus cases, many states have mandated curfews alongside the closing of public spaces like bars, restaurants and libraries, leaving students in complete isolation. This, in addition to recommended social distancing practices, especially does not bode well for the percentage of northeastern college students that are just beginning to recover from the notorious “winter blues.” The five-and-a-half-month period back home inevitably offsets all the self-growth and newfound sense of independence that emerges from the unfamiliarity of one’s first semester at college. For many, home means cramped hometowns, toxic households and all-consuming struggles that were escaped after high school graduation. For some, home is conducive to steps backward instead of forward: It breeds complacency over discomfort because that’s the easy thing to do. Remotely, it’s easy to feel content doing the bare minimum at a university that is otherwise constantly doing the most and expecting the most out of its students. In the new era of online classes, it is likely we will not fully reap the benefits of our tuition dollars. We will be expected to finish winter semester doing college without the college experience — without our community of the Leaders and the Best.

And that sense of community doesn’t come easily for many first-semester freshmen, as much as we hate to admit it. It was a lot of feeling out of place, not getting what you wanted and constantly questioning your interests. The looming sense of imposter syndrome many incoming students face was more manageable come second semester: There were more friends to turn to and a community seemed imaginable. Then, sophomore year was going to be the year — the year of diving headfirst into career opportunities, continuing to meet some of the most important people in your life and becoming the best version of yourself. Instead, next fall seems doomed with even more confusion and a lesser sense of self. 

As University students, we face an extremely privileged problem amid a global pandemic. But it’s OK to feel disheartened, to feel robbed of critical months of growth and to feel discomfort in knowing there are far worse consequences of this crisis beyond our control. In fact, this serves as even more reason to come back in the fall determined and ready for anything. Because freshman year is never really over. Anytime can be a fresh start for new beginnings and experiences. And that starts with this five-and-a-half-month hiatus from college life. Hold on to those first seven months of pulling all-nighters during exam season, dancing along to “Mr. Brightside” at frat parties and eating meals at ungodly hours. Come back next semester to continue the freshman experience right where you left it. 

Easheta Shah can be reached at shaheash@umich.edu.