• Joey Goodsir

Rerouting: Going To College, Never Leaving Home

By Joey Goodsir

This is Part Two in a series about how Lake Forest High School’s Class of 2020 is navigating their first year of college in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this story we examine the experiences of students who stayed home to take classes remotely. Before reading, make sure to check out Story 1 first, which focuses on what life is like for students living on campus.

Everyone knows that going to college is all about learning to become more independent. But this academic year, college freshmen are left on their own far beyond what they expected, due to restrictions schools have put in place to manage the COVID-19 virus.

Many students decided to spend their first semester of college in their childhood homes, studying online. Others had no choice: Colleges such as Northwestern University informed freshmen late in the summer that they need not pack their trunks and duffle bags for the first semester because all of their classes would be held online. Studying at home has become more popular throughout the semester, as some students have backed out of what they saw as an on-campus experience that wasn’t worth the risk.

“It started out great and I wasn’t really worried about things. I took the precautions I needed to and kept my group of friends fairly small, but as Halloween happened, and people started to hang out more and go to parties, outbreaks started to happen,” said Julie Barber, a freshman at Carthage College. "I noticed that more and more people that I knew were getting it, and it was coming closer and closer to me. I decided that I didn’t want to risk it and came home, as my family has some at-risk health conditions – I wanted to stay cautious.”

Students like Barber often come away from this change of plans positively, as COVID outbreaks became predictably more widespread in the home state of their respective college.

"Literally the day I came home, I got an email that restrictions had increased out there, so I realized I had made the right decision to leave Wisconsin at that time,” she said.

LFHS Class of 2020 graduate Julie Barber, who has now endured both the on-campus and at-home experience of Carthage College this semester, has had one consistency throughout: online classes. (Photo Courtesy Julie Barber)

Some students, however, chose the at-home learning route from the beginning, citing the costly risks of buying into an on-campus experience and the contrasting flexibility an at-home experience can bring.

"I decided to stay home because Miami has been pretty bad with cases, so I assumed that things would be relatively shut down out there – for that reason, I decided to stay home instead of head down to school for this first semester,” Paul Rhoades, a freshman at the University of Miami, said. "It has been beneficial in that it has given me more freedom. I even spent some time with my grandparents to change the environment a little bit.”

No option is free of flaws, and studying at home is no exception to this. Among them is the obvious degree of separation from the social scene to which some students have had to adapt.

"It has also been a negative as I have not been able to meet as many people as I am not on campus yet,” Rhoades said. “I’m actually leaning towards being on campus next semester, just to go and meet people and get out of the house.”

Beyond the near-void of the college experience that an at-home plan offers outside of the classroom, the experience of the classroom itself for such a plan is an entire situation in itself, as both students on and off of campuses have adjusted to the benefits and imperfections of online classes.

Some praise the format’s flexibility.

“In terms of school, there are some added convenience and benefits, as I can do my schoolwork at more of my own pace with pre-recorded lectures and more flexible deadlines,” Princeton University freshman Alex Slomba said.

Despite this benefit, however, some have struggled more than others.

“I can’t do these online classes! I can barely pay attention in class when I’m actually there and the teacher is looking at me. Do you actually expect me to sit in front of a computer through three 30 minute-long videos about chemistry?” University of Illinois freshman Billy Gardner said.

The issues with online classes tend to always circle back to the mental side of things.

“I think probably my mental health has been the most affected by being at home. I believe you can only be engaged so much online, and there are some things that you get out of online classes that you wouldn’t get in person and vice versa, so I guess I just have been looking at this and trying to make the most of it. Whenever it is harder for me to focus in class, instead of trying to fight it I just try to acknowledge it and move along with it,” Chapman University freshman Ryan Klein said.

Even the setbacks on the social side of things bleed into the mental side effects of this kind of academic experience.

"It’s so much worse doing things alone, however, as it is so much better and more productive to have someone next to you to walk you through things,” said Slomba, who is taking her Princeton coursework at home in Lake Forest.

Luckily for the students facing this wide range of issues, universities and professors have tended to be responsive to the academic problems.. For example, many schools have found that the hybrid model, with some students in the classroom physically and some virtually, has been less successful, rather than a fully online format that levels the playing field.

“They have been sending out some info about how all of your classes will be either in-person or remote, with less hybrid classes,” Miami freshman Paul Rhoades said. "I think this will be beneficial, especially for remote students, as they will feel more included in classes instead of feeling second-hand in a hybrid setup.”

While the described social setbacks of the online situation are reasonably prominent, some students’ collective circumstances have assisted these issues.

Chapman University freshman Ryan Klein has found his way to make the most of a college life taking place at the same desk with which he completed high school. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Klein)

“There are a lot of people in my situation, so it’s easy to bond over being at home and doing online classes, so I’ve met a lot of people in that regard. It’s a little less lonely when you are in a breakout room with people who are in the same situation as you,” Chapman student Ryan Klein said.

And, ultimately, these unexpected bright spots of the experience have made the decision for some students to stay at home to be worthwhile.

"I’ve gotten a lot of different opinions from people, but overall I think the consensus is that the people who went out to college and are doing online classes in the dorms are having a similar, if not a little tougher, experience than I am,” Klein said. "At least at home, I can see my family and friends. I feel good about my decision, even if it doesn’t make things any less of a struggle.”

The next story in our series will focus on the gap year.