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Near and Far: First-Year Students on Becoming Part of AU

We interviewed five first-year students and asked for their perspective on online academics, campus life, social challenges, and more, as they start college in the middle of a historic global pandemic.

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Students: Bryana Dyson, Chaitanya Venkateswaran, Evan Rein, Henry Adewamika, Chloe Moss.

Soaking up the sun on the quad. Ordering a latte before a group study at the Dav. Bumping into a professor on the way to class. Volunteering in DC.

Students in the class of ‘24 have, for the most part, been missing out on these experiences. But living through this unprecedented time as first-year students has not prevented them from finding an AU community, whether they’re at home, in the same spot they finished high school, or living on campus in emergency housing or as part of the Mid-Semester Residential Experience (MSRE), where interactions are physically distanced.

To learn more about how students are going through the major life milestone of starting college in the middle of a historic global pandemic, we interviewed five first-years and asked for their perspective on online academics, campus life, social challenges, and more.

Bryana Dyson – CAS ‘24 
Cliffside Park, New Jersey

You’ve been studying from home, which may feel a lot like high school. What’s been the most striking difference?

I think the biggest difference has been the work. In high school, I had seven classes a day, it was work from 8 to 3, even online. With college, I got to choose my classes. I have six courses a semester and I don’t have classes every single day. It’s lighter for me.

What would you describe as the top challenges of starting your college studies virtually?

Definitely Zoom fatigue; I used to get that a lot in September. Less socialization; it’s really hard making friends over Zoom direct messages. [And] staying at home. At home, I work, I study, I sleep, I eat — most of the time in my room to keep up with my work.

What have you done this year to find a sense of community in the current circumstances?

The first thing I did was add a bunch of organizations on Instagram so I could get updates on events and things that happen in the AU community. Then I started attending the Zoom events. I got into a couple online study groups and messaging chats — that really helps. I also joined clubs: SisterSisterAU, HerCampus AU, the Caribbean Circle, and the Black Student Union! I found the cultural groups on Engage and Instagram. A lot of them follow each other so I went through their followers’ list to see their posts because they usually co-sponsor events.

Are you participating in MSRE?

Yes, I’m actually very excited about it. Because I’m a Public Health Scholar, I might have to study abroad in the fall. I just wanted to experience campus life at least once before I went away — if I’m still going away. So I think the Mid-Semester Residential Experience was a good opportunity for me to do so. I’m very, very excited.

Chloe Moss – SIS, CAS 24
Richmond, Virginia

You’ve been studying from home, which may feel a lot like high school. What’s been the most striking difference?

The biggest difference would have to be free time and getting to build my own schedule.

What would you describe as the top challenges of starting your college studies virtually?

Challenge number one: staying focused. I have to keep my speaker mode and camera on so I know I’m paying attention to the professor. The second: being asked to work on partner projects because we can’t meet up in person and sometimes we work in different time zones. The last one: it’s tougher to participate and a little more nerve racking. I love working in a classroom where you can engage in person with people.

What have you done this year to find a sense of community in the current circumstances?

Social media has definitely helped me connect with other students. I follow AU-type accounts and that helps me get to know the school better from afar. But I think the biggest thing for me is being an Orientation Leader. I now have a group of people who I will get to know and who will teach me all I need to know about AU. However, it’s hard to get to know a classmate when it’s just for two minutes in a Zoom breakout room.

What’s the first thing you’ll do when you actually arrive here in person?

I am a very social person and I love getting to know other people, so I think the first thing I’ll do is go door-to-door in my residence hall and introduce myself!

Henry Adewamika – CAS 24
Warwick, Rhode Island

You’ve been studying from home, which can feel a lot like high school. What’s been the most striking difference?

Fall semester I was at home with my parents and they were there to support me. But it’s hard to do Zoom where everything feels the same. My performance felt like it was lacking and I had to put in that extra effort.

What would you describe as the top challenges of starting your college studies virtually?

It’s hard to connect with people — it’s more natural in person. I’m also experiencing Zoom fatigue and it feels like there’s a lack of human connection. I like building a rapport with my professors and it’s been hard to do that.

What have you done this year to find a sense of community?

I’m currently in emergency housing in Nebraska Hall at AU, which has helped feel like I have a sense of community. I joined STEP — a program where students help one another succeed in the classroom and help with the college transition. Having the pressure of being the only child and golden child, I wanted to find ways to help me succeed in my college experience. When you’re far from home, it’s important to have someone who understands what you’re going through.

What keeps you motivated and engaged?

Setting a schedule for myself has been helpful. I also work at a desk receptionist here at AU, and I like doing homework when I do night shifts. On campus, I have no more excuses and living with a community helps me stay accountable. We do homework, attend classes, and cook together, which is really nice.

What’s the first thing you’ll do when classes are operating in-person?

I want to meet the people who have been there for me and helped me make the decision to attend AU, including many in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. I’d love to get to build real relationships with them.

Evan Rein – SIS 24
Minocqua, Wisconsin

You’ve been studying from home, which can feel a lot like high school. What’s been the most striking difference?

One of the biggest differences for me was going from a high school environment, which was significantly more structured — I had eight classes a day. In college, there’s an open schedule. That was a challenge at the beginning, but I got the hang of it now.

What would you describe as the top challenges of starting college virtually?

Not as many interruptions in high school, because in college you have a lot more free time. (But) it’s harder to keep going when every hour or so there’s something that takes you away for 15-20 minutes: doing laundry, taking care of the puppy, or talking with people.

What have you done this year to find a sense of community?

At the beginning, I was reaching out through social media. That was a great way to follow a bunch of people — Instagram, Snapchat, etc. — but it never really turned into great connections. That was less effective than I was hoping. I definitely found that in class, bonding over homework with my peers was the better option for me.

My Complex Problems class the first semester was really helpful. It was a small class, 17 students. We all really bonded through that class as we did activities together. The same goes for this semester’s First Year Seminar for SIS.

My first semester, I was a bit hesitant to join clubs because of the online environment, but this semester I decided to try something new and join the Cheese Club at AU, which two people from my First Year Seminar also joined. So that’s great for meeting new people. I made a charcuterie board so far!

What keeps you motivated and engaged?

To stay engaged with online school, you have to take breaks once in a while. When I do homework, I usually set a timer for a half hour, then I take a five-minute break — go on a break, get some water — then I come back and work another half hour. Instead of being drained, it breaks it down into more manageable bits.

What’s the first thing you’ll do when you actually arrive here in person?

I want to explore more of the campus. When I toured, I only got a snapshot of certain spots. Exploring DC itself will also be fun to do and do touristy things.

Chaitanya Venkateswaran – SIS ‘24
New Delhi, India

You were studying from home, which is a lot like high school. What’s been the most striking difference?

I was lucky in the sense that India’s academic years run differently. So mine ended in March. My final exam was the day before everything shut down. So I got to have the prom and graduation experiences, thankfully. I’m currently residing in Nebraska Hall, which has definitely been a change from being home. The biggest difference is how much I grew by myself and how responsible I’ve become. Adulting is hard! Being in charge of chores, safety, and responsibilities are very different from being home with my parents.

What would you describe as the top challenges of starting your college studies virtually?

Last semester, I was at home in New Delhi, meaning I had a lot of classes in the middle of the night at 2 or 3 am. I became a night owl. This semester, I’m in emergency housing at Nebraska Hall which has been wonderful. With only two people in my suite dorm [in single rooms], it’s been a good life.

The thing that is different is that I don’t know college any other way — it’s always been online. So I feel like I’d have a better answer of what the challenges are once things are back to normal. But in terms of making connections, it’s much harder because I’m not meeting people in person. The classmates I see on Zoom, I don’t even know what their heights are! In some ways, Zoom makes it a little easier to talk, because I’m an introvert.

What have you done this year to find a sense of community?

I literally crash every Zoom meeting. I attend every general meeting that a club has. I have chats with every school department. I’ll log in and say “Hi, I’m a new student! What do you teach?” Every person I have met has given me a very warm welcome. 

Finally, I was able to narrow things down. I’m currently in the SPA Leadership program and the Lincoln Scholars Program. These are community-based programs that have been great. I’m also in the Women’s Initiative program, I’m a first-year fellow in the organization. I’m involved with the AU Diplomats, which [relates to] being an international student. And once I’m on campus, I’m sure I’ll expand my community and explore more.

What keeps you motivated and engaged?

I love what I’m doing here, I love what I’m studying, I love the city and the campus. Every weekend, I walk at least 10 miles around DC. I found a couple of friends who like to walk around with me. I felt at home immediately. It all helps to motivate me to keep going and form connections with the community. If you love what you’re doing at the university, you’ll want to be more involved.

What is the first thing you’ll do campus is operating fully in-person?

I want to attend a lecture in a full classroom. I love the classroom environment and interacting with people in conversations. Campus is so quiet. I want to see the quad noisy and full of students!