The first year of college is an unforgettable right of passage. But, when the torch was passed to the class of 2024 in the midst of a global pandemic, the occasion may have felt a bit less than momentous. In my opinion, it was anything but: How could this class ever forget the dormant campus, the increasingly strict COVID-19 guidelines or — perhaps most horrific of all — the looming threat of exile to Barnhart?
The flippant dismissal of Oregon’s online year highlights how crucial realizing not only how first-year students struggled under pandemic-induced limitations, but how they soared above them.
Instead of fumbling around a crowded campus and plotting the quickest possible routes to class, this year’s freshmen scoped out Quizlets and shared Chegg accounts like wildfire. Instead of collecting seemingly endless write-ups for anything from dorm drinking to owning a candle, freshmen received COVID violations that, at times, led to eviction. Instead of potential STI tests courtesy of the Health Center, freshmen nostrils were swabbed for a life-altering virus. This years’ freshmen may not know the shame of walking into Lillis late after a 10-minute speed walk from GSH, but the sweat beads from awaiting COVID test results indicate the more thrilling journey.
To upperclassmen, it’s clear that freshmen experienced a historically different Eugene. To freshmen, this is their normal.
The pandemic united everyone through a shared experience that taught, according to Julia Harris, “how to adapt and work together to overcome the physical restrictions.” The continually rising number of COVID-19 cases among on-campus students, posted on the University of Oregon’s testing and tracking page, suggests many freshmen learned to “adapt and work together,” bonding in ways that no prior class could fully understand.
Freshmen created a sense of normality in an unprecedented time. They developed their own rules, their own bonds and they did this without help from the UO. This year’s freshmen were encouraged to join dorm life by a money-hungry education system only to be discouraged from social interaction. Of course, many found loopholes. Freshman Grace Winjum confirmed the lack of residential advisors in Barnhart, for example, led COVID-postive students to “bring visitors in and throw parties.” UO denied reports of guests or events in Barnhart, and instead wrote uplifting updates home to parents.
This story is not to make light of or excuse disregarding social distancing guidelines. The reality is that freshmen were thrust into both a pandemic and college, when the slightest bit of independence may be daunting. Regardless, freshman year was remarkable for the first-years who made friends and memories in lieu of all other barriers.
Not all students partied in Barnhart, though. “I’ve found a pretty stable friend group in my dorm,” freshman Tori Criss said. Criss feels lucky: a feeling shared among many freshmen students who feel grateful to be at UO during a year when so many were less fortunate. Freshmen are bonded in much more than strict COVID-19 guidelines; they are bonded in the privilege they feel to be at school at all.
Shared contempt for the University’s weak efforts to alleviate struggles brought on by COVID-19 connected freshmen as well. An anonymous freshman said, “I can’t help but feel like everything the school did was half-assed in some way.”
The few scholarships offered to those who needed to quarantine, the lack of socially-distanced community events and the hypocritical COVID-19 guidelines that enforced quarantines where students were ultimately left unwatched point to Oregon’s poorly concerted attempts at cultivating normalcy for freshmen during a pandemic.
“I absolutely feel like I was robbed of a normal college experience,” the anonymous freshman said. “Hearing stories from upperclassmen about how much fun they had before Covid is quite frustrating.”
This particular bit saddened me to hear. These freshmen have been through enough. It seems almost cruel to fill their Zoom-fatigued heads with the grandeur of a COVID-free college experience, especially when their year held its own inimitable allure.
Telling freshmen how much their year sucked is unnecessary. Telling them how much better your freshman year was is dishonest. That night your whole hall got drunk and Johnny puked outside the RA’s door might sound really fun to a freshman now, but they’ll have years to experience the previous normal college experience — and even more years to realize there’s a lot more fun in life to be had.
Even with my freshman year cut short and my sophomore year online, I’ve had great times in Eugene — great opportunities to learn and grow, too. Everyone in college is confronting their own challenges, especially first-year students. This can be hard, and students often feel alone. That is normal. To have so many of these challenges be shared across an entire grade level, though, and to have that burden of loneliness relieved — now, that is special.