One of the many fears students have coming back to school this pandemic season is, how will this semester compare to all of those before? As upperclassmen try to settle into their new schedules, adapt to a routine foreign to them, and far different from before. While the world is constantly changing and no one has perfected their routine or long term plans, there is one particular group of students that are experiencing a different type of semester.
Meet the class of 2024, the freshman. These students are brand new to college living and have walked into college living with no expectations or anything to compare their experiences too. As many students reflect on their freshman experiences, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to make friends with these strict rules and little space to interact with new people.
It also changed the way many USM Residential Assistants (RA) view their jobs and roles in their residence halls and with their residents. Do they have to risk their health to create communities and long-lasting friendships? How do you encourage making friends during a pandemic?
Anderson Hall RA, a junior biochemistry major El Hanley, from the Seacoast of New Hampshire, is entering her second semester of being an RA on the fourth floor with honors freshman. Hanley wanted to become an RA since her freshman year was so important to making friends and creating her community. Even now Hanley stated that she has another community within the RA and ResLife organization.
Each year regardless of the pandemic or not, RA’s have training, where they’re learning new skills, preparing for students, and other various important information needed when given the duty of taking care of residents. Hanley explained that this year was no different, just more emphasis on safety when creating a community and creating a healthy and happy environment during this very stressful time. She stated that all of ResLife has to adjust as a team.
“It’s so crucial to have space where residents can enjoy spending time with one another and one of the most important things about living on campus is creating a community,” Hanley said when asked about her goals for the school year. She also stated that “a new challenge and biggest change was finding ways of creating this community safely and not in person.”
Indeed, all community building between RA’s and students are done via Zoom. Hanley explained that during this semester, “ResLife isn’t sponsoring any events or activities, everything has to be done over Zoom calls.”
However, freshman Anna Smith didn’t mind this way of meeting others, she had nothing to compare it to besides high school. Smith from the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, entered her freshman year studying art history, her schedule consisted of two blended courses and three online. While most rooms in Anderson would be forced triples, Smith lives alone in a double. Of course, she doesn’t mind at all, “it’s so nice to be able to unwind in my room and have a place to refresh in between classes.”
She said, “I couldn’t imagine not being on campus, or remote learning.” Smith explained her decision making as “all or nothing.” She wanted to experience freshman year to its full potential. Smith is living on fourth Anderson, with Hanley as her RA.
Smith said that she was nervous about making friends since we are in the middle of a pandemic. “It’s been filled with a lot of ups and downs, as it was difficult to meet people in the beginning as I was trying to allow time to settle in.” Smith also explained how it was almost nice that large groups were not the main focus of her orientation. Rather than standing in a big circle playing two truths and a lie like most people did in previous years, Smith and other freshmen had time to move in and settle before having to meet anyone.
Hanley set up a large Zoom call for everyone who was on her floor, using the call to introduce herself. Smith laughed as she remembers that when this call happened, everyone on the floor opened their doors to stick their heads out and say hello. Some of the goals that Hanley made for herself as she entered this semester were, “to focus on being safe, but not strict, still allowing students to have an enjoyable time experiencing freshman year. I don’t want it to feel like a lockdown.”
While Hanley does acknowledge that this is a work in progress, as we approach the six-week mark, “we have been uprooted from our old towns and lives and thrown into this new place, I can only hope that these experiences can be passed down and remember for being fun.” Hanley smiled when she explained that she can hear her residents chatting in the bathrooms, or knocking on each other’s doors and writing notes on their whiteboards that hang in the hallways.
“It’s exciting to see these relationships form in your own eyes, hopefully, the community I am trying to create is helping,” Hanley said.
The guest policy across campus varies for each dorm building and grade, for Anderson the maximum number of people allowed to be in a room is three people, including the person who lives in said room. As well as the guest has to live in the same residential building. Doors also have to stay open and masks stay on faces. In past years, the maximum number of people would have been nine people total and they could live anywhere on or off-campus.
Hanley explained that the rules are enforced throughout the building. Plus, all workers at the front desk of the building account for structural interiority. Yet in making a community within your floor, also allows Hanley to know her residents and recognize faces.
In the end, no one wants to pack up and leave. So social distancing and wearing masks are not hard requests to follow. Students can make friends and do so safely. Being mature and understanding the risks of a pandemic is well understood across campus.
Besides becoming friends with her neighbors Smith said that she also is finding a lot of friends within her classes. Utilizing her private chat in Zoom to start conversations. Meeting in person in common spaces rather than dorms, such as going to the library, or eating meals together, she explained how she would often do study sessions socially distanced, “Maintaining friendships is defining interesting. You have to be creative and sit six-feet apart.”
Smith stated that she isn’t being choosy over who she is seeing. She is excited to continue to meet new people and is very conscious of wearing a mask and staying apart. Rather than limiting the number of people she is seeing, she is just heightening her safety precautions.
She stated that USM has exceeded her expectations of the kindness and friendliness of both students and staff. Smith hasn’t run into any issues with people not wearing a mask or making her feel uncomfortable.
Many freshmen like Smith are still finding the balance of making friends while being safe, but at least the community building so vital to freshman year experiences are still highly valued and present.