February 8, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 40°F


Freshmen struggle to adjust to college amid pandemic

Freshman Kathryn Gilbride dreamt of attending Ithaca College since her freshman year of high school, but her first-year experience has her questioning whether she will return for Fall 2021.

“I feel like I’ve tried everything to make this experience work,” Gilbride said. “I just don’t know if I can do it because it’s ruining me. There are very few things that are keeping me here.”

Freshmen beginning at the college in Fall 2020 had an unusual start to their college careers, as classes were held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the campus has reopened for Spring 2021, the college experience is limited by COVID-19 guidelines. Social isolation due to COVID-19 has made it difficult for some freshmen to make friends and has negatively affected their mental health.  

Brian Petersen, director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), said that in a typical semester, freshmen generally struggle in three areas of adjustment: living with a roommate, homesickness and making connections with people. Petersen said this is still the case during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic presents new obstacles within each area of adjustment. 

“COVID makes it all even harder, especially around the connection piece, because I’m hearing over and over again from people that as much as it’s great that we can do Zoom, as much as it’s great that we have all of the social media to stay in touch with each other, it still can’t replace the actual sitting down across from someone and feeling their presence,” Petersen said. 

There are 778 freshmen enrolled for Spring 2021, which is 322 students fewer than the 1,100 freshmen who were enrolled in the fall semester, according to the class standing tab from the Office of Analytics and Institutional Research (AIR). This 29% decrease between the fall and spring semesters is not significantly different from previous academic years. There was a 30% decrease from fall to spring in 2019–20, a 29% decrease in 2018–19, a 27% decrease in 2017–18 and a 29% decrease in 2016–17. 

In 2017, 25.9% of freshmen at private four-year not-for-profit colleges in the U.S. dropped out during their first year at the college, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Jacqueline Winslow, director of New Student and Transition Programs (NSTP), said the Retention and Engagement Strategy Team (REST) has been partnering with other offices and organizations on campus to support freshmen. REST and the Exploratory Program are holding events to help students make a four-year plan. NSTP and the Office of Residential Life are planning engagement opportunities for Fall 2021 with the hopes that most students will have received the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“The Retention and Engagement Strategy Team is working with a number of campus partners to help students recover, revive and thrive in the wake of a tremendously difficult year,” Winslow said via email.

Jenelle Whalon, administrative assistant for NSTP, said the office has also been working with students and families on an individual basis to support them through their freshman year. 

“By doing this we do not just facilitate connections but facilitate meaningful and organic connections that make our new students feel welcomed into our vibrant community, which we know through evidence-based assessment to be a crucial first step in creating a positive college experience,” Whalon said via email. “Once we can help these students find their sense of belonging on our campus, we can continue to provide support, as needed, but most students just need a little extra nudge to give them the confidence they need to take control of their own IC experience.”

Freshman Darby Dutter said she has found it difficult to make friends due to the COVID-19 restrictions. At the beginning of the semester, students were not allowed to enter other students’ dorm rooms. As of March 15, students are permitted to visit other dorm rooms within their residential building while wearing a mask and social distancing. There is a limit of one visitor per resident. 

“It’s really hard because it feels like you have to pick between following what the school wants you to do and having a social life because the rules are just so all over the place,” Dutter said.

Dutter and Gilbride both said they have not tried joining any organizations or clubs because the semester has been too overwhelming. All clubs at the college are operating virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freshman Emily Koudelka also said she has not joined any extracurriculars. Koudelka is doing classes remotely this semester and felt that it would be difficult to get involved remotely. 

“I’m hoping next year, it’ll be different,” Koudelka said. “I’ll be able to actually make friends, like talk to classmates and everyone, but right now, I’m kind of just accepting that I don’t need to put too much effort into making friends because I’ll be there next year, and it’ll be easier to.”

A 2018 study by Jaclyn Kopel, thendoctoral student at Walden University in Minneapolis, showed that students who remained at their respective college or university cited personal connections as their main reason for staying. The study is based on research at an unnamed private four-year not-for-profit university.

Kopel recommends in the study that higher education institutions increase awareness about co-curricular and extracurricular opportunities, increase the number of lounges in dormitories and create learning communities to improve freshman retention.

Petersen said students who already have diagnosed mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are more likely to struggle with the transition to college. 

“If COVID raises everybody’s anxiety level, and if you’re already kind of at a pretty highly anxious state, that can become debilitating,” Petersen said. “For students that are already dealing with what I would call existential fears, about death and about illness and about healthiness, this is a nightmare.”

Gilbride said she struggles with mental health disorders like anxiety, and her mental health has deteriorated since starting college. She said she has struggled to find treatment at the college. Gilbride usually uses medical marijuana to manage her mental health conditions, but medical marijuana is not legal on college campuses under federal law. Gilbride said she has been seeking help from CAPS since her usual therapist is not licensed to work with clients in New York state. 

Petersen said it is important for members of the college community to check on each other and on their own mental health. He said people should watch for any changes in personality like irritability, acting withdrawn and a lack of motivation.

Petersen said that although freshmen have extra obstacles in their transition to college this year, CAPS has seen a decrease in students seeking services. Petersen said this is because more therapists have adopted telehealth practices which allow them to continue seeing clients who have left for Ithaca. He said CAPS is not offering any in-person services this semester. CAPS has created a space in Terrace 13 for students to have privacy while doing their telehealth therapy sessions, whether it is with a CAPS counselor or another therapist. 

CAPS has also introduced a new service called the Connection and Health Through Text Support Group (CHATTS). This group meets on Zoom with other students and clinicians, but participants leave their cameras off and communicate via the chat feature. Petersen said this group is designed to give students a space to receive support without the stress of being on camera.

The college is participating in the annual Healthy Minds Study throughout March 2021. All students at the college are encouraged to take the survey, which asks questions about issues like mental health and substance use. The college uses the results of the survey to determine what resources are needed on campus.

Koudelka said that even though her freshman year is not what she expected, she believes her experience will help her enjoy the rest of her time at the college. 

“I think it might make me appreciate it a bit more, like actually look forward to doing the small things, like going to the dining halls or whatever because I can’t do that right now,” Koudelka said. “I think I’ll try not to take it for granted.”

Freshman James Zampetti has also found some positive aspects to his freshman year. Zampetti had committed to play football for the college, but during the remote semester, he discovered a passion for academics. Zampetti has since quit football and joined the Student Governance Council as the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) senator. 

“Had I been on campus the first semester, I wouldn’t have quit,” Zampetti said. “I wouldn’t be a student senator. I wouldn’t be doing all the things I’m doing right now. So, I really can’t even imagine what my life would look like right now if I was on campus last semester.” 

Gilbride said she is working to improve her academics through the Fresh Start Program after she struggled with classes in Fall 2020. Kathy Lucas, former assistant dean of H&S, started the Fresh Start Program in 2011 to help freshmen who had a GPA less than 2.0 during the fall semester, said Amy O’Dowd, assistant dean of H&S. These students have the option to take a leave of absence or defer suspension under an academic contract. This contract requires that students achieve a minimum GPA of 2.3, have no more than one grade below a C and complete a minimum of 12 credit hours. These students meet regularly with O’Dowd or Jim Riegel, academic services coordinator for the program, who help students achieve these requirements.

“We recognize that the first semester of college can be a difficult transition for students, and while it benefits some students to take a leave and consider their goals, we believe it benefits others to have accountability and a chance to learn from past habits while building new ones that lead to success,” O’Dowd said via email.

Gilbride said that even though she is struggling to manage the adjustment to college and find her place on campus, she has made it a goal to get through the semester.

“Not give up on it, give up on myself, just try to grow some roots and make some connections and feel inspired in any sort of way,” Gilbride said. “I think the worst thing I could do is go home and not know if I could have done it. That would kill me forever.” 

Petersen said he hopes freshmen can recognize and be proud of the work they have already achieved by starting their college careers.

“Give yourself credit,” Petersen said. “Be proud of yourself for doing as well as you have. Even if you don’t feel 100% great about everything, you’re here, you’re trying, you’re doing it, and it’s only going to get better.”

Alyshia Korba can be reached at akorba@ithaca.edu