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With coronavirus on campus, college freshmen face a disorienting orientation

During a typical year, Texas A&M University will have about 69,000 students on its College Station campus. This year, with classes just starting for the fall semester during an ongoing pandemic, some students are electing to have a completely virtual college experience. Not freshman Addison Cross, who recently moved into her dorm, not quite sure what to expect from her first year of college.

Her senior year was disrupted midway through when her high school closed down and went online. Her awards banquet was canceled and graduation was pre-recorded in a mostly empty auditorium. “Last year really sucked, and the whole time I was thinking: ‘As long as I get to go to college, I’ll be OK,’” she said. Now, she’s hoping she’ll be able to stay.

Digital Trends spoke to her right after she moved onto campus and again after classes started. “So far, it hasn’t made that much difference, except I wear a mask everywhere I go, and there’s not large groups of people everywhere,” she said.

The big move

Even before Cross got on campus, the changes were apparent. She went to Fish Camp, which is normally a four-day orientation program where upperclassmen teach freshmen about the school’s traditions and college life. Instead of the usual pajama parties and foosball games, it was all online. “But it wasn’t bad,” she said. “I’m still glad that I did it.” Similarly, Howdy Week, an event-packed several days welcoming students to campus, was almost entirely virtual.

Texas A&M University

In order to move in, Cross first had to sign up for a check-in time to help stagger when students were arriving. She was only allowed to have two people help with the move, to limit the number of people roaming the dorm’s halls. “The only thing that made it weird was that there weren’t as many people moving in at the same time,” she said.

Dorms are trying to limit the amount of people in other ways as well. Students can only have a single visitor at a time, and there are no overnight guests allowed. “Which I don’t really feel like is that big of a deal,” Cross said, “and I don’t really know how well it’s going to be policed.” Friends at other schools seem to have more safety measures in place, she said, like temperature checks and monitoring of who goes in and out of dorms.

Groupless activities

Traditionally, the first few weeks of school are when Texas A&M’s many student organizations put on events to attract members. This year, they’re doing that recruiting via Instagram. Cross watched a YouTube livestream for freshman leadership organizations, which then had individual Zoom breakouts for students to ask questions. “I feel like as much as things stink, I really appreciate the effort that people are putting into making things still happen for us,” she said.

Some events, like fraternity and sorority formal and semi-formal dances, are still unscheduled or postponed until next year. Two of the school’s sororities had to undergo a chapter-wide quarantine after 14 people tested positive for the coronavirus.

And then there’s football. “College football is a big thing everywhere,” Cross said, “but, you know, we’re in Texas. A lot of organizations’ events revolve around football.” They might have tailgates or all sit together at games. Students had to decide whether or not to purchase a sports pass, which gives them access to football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, and other games. Cross decided not to purchase one.

“I like football, but I’m not really going to watch the game. I’m going to socialize, and if I can’t socialize, then what’s the point of going?” she said.

Zoom into the classroom 

“You know, that feeling where it’s like everyone knows more than you, and you’re just sitting there like, ‘Who told you all this?’” said Cross. She said that’s how registering for classes made her feel. Once she was signed up, she ended up with only one all-online class. The rest are in person.

Most of them already have an online component, for students who are off-campus. “[It’s] also really convenient whenever you don’t want to wake up in the morning and go somewhere,” Cross said. Like when there’s rain.

Alistair Berg/Getty Images

One of her classes, a sociology course just for first-generation students, is in person but has Zoom meetings for group projects. There are only around 25 students in the class, which has made it easier for her to get to know people. “Just being such a small group, it’s really easy for us to become friends with each other and form a little community,” Cross said. Figuring out the ropes as a first-generation student is tricky enough in normal circumstances, she said. “Having a global pandemic happen during your freshman year — I’m especially really grateful for that group,” she said.

Though some schools are experimenting with outdoor classes, College Station doesn’t have the weather for it. “As soon as you walk outside, you’re like stepping into the ocean because the humidity is so bad,” she said.

Texas A&M has started randomly testing students for the virus. Though the school has a dashboard that’s supposed to keep them informed about numbers of cases and other information, it doesn’t seem to have stopped the rumors. “One of the things that I heard was that if we ever have like 100 hundred new cases in a day, that’s when they’ll close it down,” said Cross. “I know a lot of what we hear, I think, is from hearsay.”

One thing she’s sure of, though, is that some of her fellow students aren’t doing her any favors. “I hope fraternities stop having parties,” she said, “because I’d really like to not have to go home in a week.”

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