When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Imani Muse was a high school junior with a full academic schedule and daily extracurriculars.
But as a senior at home, she struggled with the isolation of remote learning. Despite that, she decided to use her extra time to apply for college scholarships and work on passion projects, hoping she could attend university in person after graduating from Kenwood Academy on Chicago’s South Side.
“There has been a huge fire under me because I had so much time on my hands,” Muse said.
She’s now a freshman at the University of Alabama, looking forward to upcoming game days and meeting students face to face.
Muse is one of thousands of Illinois students heading to college after 18 months of the pandemic, much of it spent in front of rectangular boxes on Zoom. They are excited about finally getting to college and meeting professors and peers in real life, even if that means wearing masks and social distancing in the classroom.
But many say they are also worried — worried about what they lost academically during the pandemic, worried about learning to be an in-person student again and worried about the surging delta variant. This is especially an issue for freshmen, who missed out on so much at the end of their high school careers.
“I do not want to go back [to remote learning], even if what we have right now is not exactly like what it was,” Muse said.
Professors and university leaders are well aware of their concerns and said they’re preparing for them. Mei-Ling Hopgood, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, said it will come down to faculty meeting their students halfway.
“Some people actually have learned and some people have not. And there’s just this massive … difference between where students are,” Hopgood said. “I think the first thing for us, as teachers, is to kind of acknowledge that and know what’s in front of us.”
Coming off a strange year
Nancy Latham teaches an entry-level education course at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The theme of her first lecture is “freshman year is not grade 13.”
This lecture helps her students understand that the tips and tricks that helped them succeed in high school may not work in college. But she says this may be more challenging for them given “the strange year that they’re all coming off of.”
To ease the transition this fall, many professors say they will incorporate what they learned during the pandemic into their pedagogy.
Among them is Kevin Boyle, a history professor at Northwestern University who said his virtual office hours were more crowded during the pandemic than they had been in the past.
“I was sitting in my kitchen talking with students, as opposed to in an office, which they had to truck over from their dorm to,” Boyle said. “So they were way more likely to come talk to me one on one.”
Boyle will continue hosting virtual office hours this fall for the students that will be in his freshman seminar. He has been communicating with them over email to help alleviate some of their anxieties ahead of classes.
“If I were an incoming student, I would be worried about the practicalities of a transition,” Boyle said. “Like what’s it gonna be like to move into a dorm? What’s it gonna be like to move out of home when you’ve been working at home for all this time? I’m trying to reassure them that we’re going to do our best to make that a smooth transition.”
Aside from these practicalities, Brad Hunt, a professor and chair of the history department at Loyola University Chicago, says it will be crucial to get students “back to the idea that college is not simply about attending a series of courses.”
He says his department will host traditional events such as pizza nights to give students a feel for what college once was. And to help them shake off their social jitters, he plans on asking his students to reflect on the stories behind their names on the first day of class.
“We all have hopes and fears, and some of those are embedded in our names,” said Hunt.
Hopgood’s icebreaker is to ask her students what they learned in the last year and a half.
“So far I’m astounded at what they’ve learned about themselves and their families and who they want to be,” Hopgood said. “And it’s ignited things in them that I think will change them for the rest of their lives.”
That’s what happened to Muse. During the pandemic, she researched how race and class affect the quality of care women with breast cancer receive on the South Side. She wants to continue that work in college and, like everyone else, hopes the pandemic won’t derail her plans.
“We really want to be in person,” Hopgood said. “But we still don’t know a lot of things. Ultimately, we still have to be super flexible and give each other a whole lot of grace.”