For college freshmen, campus life can be lonely amid pandemic restrictions

Rachel Ohm, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·10 min read

Feb. 21—University of Southern Maine freshman Sarah Hirschorn was excited to arrive on campus in January for her first semester of college. After attending a different school in Massachusetts last fall, Hirschorn decided to leave when that school's all-online classes weren't working for her.

In October she started applying to colleges again and fell in love with USM's Portland campus.

"I was just really excited to have a campus community and a campus life," said Hirschorn, 19.

A few weeks into the experience, Hirschorn is still bubbling with excitement, but she says it hasn't been easy to adjust to college amid a global pandemic. Two of her six classes are in-person, an improvement over last fall. But making friends has been harder.

"It's been really difficult because of COVID and the safety protocols that are in place," said Hirschorn, who is originally from Boston. "We can't go into each other's dorm buildings, which is difficult because you come into college and you're like, 'I'm going to go hang out in my friend's dorm,' but you can't really do that."

Around Maine and the country, the coronavirus has upended the experience of going to college. While some campuses are offering in-person classes, others are online or hybrid. More students live alone rather than with roommates. Grab-and-go meals are a fixture at dining halls. Social traditions have been replaced with smaller or virtual events.

Students are spending much more time alone and on computer screens. For many, it's an isolating time that can take a toll on their mental health. Things can be especially hard for freshmen, who are often away from their home and family for the first time and lack the social supports of upperclassmen with established friend groups.

"All these things you would do to counter normal transition issues for first-year students are compounded by the idea students are physically isolated," said Hahna Patterson, assistant provost for student support services at the University of New England. "It's not just something they're feeling. They actually physically are (more isolated)."

HARD TO MAKE CONNECTIONS VIRTUALLY

Throughout the year, campuses around Maine have been working to transform social events to keep students engaged despite the limitations of COVID.

At the University of New England, the Winter Lighting, a tradition that normally brings hundreds of students together for the lighting of a large UNE sign, was replaced with a socially distanced candlelight stroll with stops along the way for hot chocolate or to pick up hand warmers. A Thanksgiving meal typically served by faculty and staff to students in the dining hall became a to-go meal where students could pick up plates of turkey and fixings to enjoy in small groups outdoors or in their dorms.

Still, it can be hard for students to feel like they're truly part of the university.

"While we've been able to provide them with a lot of smaller-scale opportunities for connection, what they've missed out on and what has been felt for them in a particularly acute way, because they've missed out on things like graduation and prom and things like that, is the opportunity to come together in a large community, to see hundreds of people around you and to feel that sense of being part of something bigger," said Dean of Students and Assistant Provost for Student Affairs Jen DeBurro. "That's really hard to make happen in a virtual environment."

Tori Smith, a senior at UNE who runs a peer mentoring program for first-year students, said while the program is still active, it looks a little different this year. There are more Zoom meetings and small group activities and fewer trips to coffee shops or restaurants off campus. For the most part, students seem to be adjusting well, though Smith said it can be hard to form meaningful connections.

"Most of the upperclassmen, we had those chances in our previous years to make friends and we have those friends now to lean on," Smith said. "I'm hearing from the first years in the programs I'm working in that it's definitely a lot harder to have those support systems right away just because they haven't made those deeper connections yet.

"I have had first-year students come to me and tell me they feel a bit isolated or they don't know where to go. I know the university is good about giving out resources, but not every first-year student is comfortable visiting the counseling center because they feel lonely."

At Saint Joseph's College in Standish, virtual Bingo games and an outdoor skating rink in the middle of campus provide safe social opportunities, said freshman Taylor Clark. Most classes at Saint Joseph's are in-person or hybrid, which has also gone a long way in creating a sense of normalcy.

"It's definitely been difficult adjusting to all of the rules and the precautions with COVID, but I think they've really made the best of it," said Clark, 18, of Hopkinton, New Hampshire. "Obviously everyone is looking forward to post-COVID, but I think with everything going on they've done a really good job with making it easier to transition."

REPORTS OF ISOLATION, STRESS

Some campus counseling centers said while they aren't seeing increased numbers of students using their services, they have noticed changes in the type and severity of issues impacting students during COVID. At the University of Southern Maine, the number of students using counseling services is about the same as last year, though complaints of anxiety, depression and isolation have increased. "It's not that we aren't seeing a huge pandemic effect, because we are," said Liza Little, a psychologist, advanced practice nurse and director of counseling services at USM.

Instead, Little said many students are living at home and not coming to campus as much as they normally would. And while overall numbers haven't changed dramatically, the counseling center has seen a huge surge in interest for group programs, which transitioned from in-person to Zoom in March. "They often like it because they can be in their rooms and it's private and they don't have to come to campus," Little said. "That's one of the unintended positives that have come out of the pandemic is realizing we're meeting a need that we hadn't been meeting before."

Campuses across the University of Maine System also rolled out a new online mental health tool called SilverCloud last month that allows students to go through anonymous, self-guided programs to help them cope with anxiety, depression, sleep issues and stress in much the same way as they would experience meeting with a live therapist. "If a student isn't sure they want to go to counseling, it's a wonderful opportunity to see what it's like," Little said.

At Saint Joseph's, the counseling center saw a 20 percent decrease in students last semester compared to the fall of 2019, though the level of distress of those seeking service was more significant, said Liz Wiesen, interim associate vice president and dean of students and a licensed psychologist. Wiesen said that may be due to the rise of telehealth, but the decrease could also be explained by the long, gradual unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which have yet to be totally realized. At the same time, an assessment of students completed during the fall semester found 45 percent scored positive on a subset of questions that screened for loneliness and 95 percent reported increased stress related to COVID.

"The negative impact of prolonged, unrelenting stress raises concerns not just short-term, but as we move into recovery phase," Wiesen said. "I anticipate a long and busy post-vention year responding to the psychological impacts of this pandemic."

While it's hard to imagine COVID-19 isn't contributing to isolation, loneliness and stress, Wiesen said it's also possible the negative impacts of the virus are mitigated by the shared experience. "There is a scientific basis for the adage 'Misery loves company,'" she said.

HOW ARE STUDENTS COPING?

Hirschorn, the student from Boston, said she is normally a very social person and now relishes the little things, like riding the bus from Gorham to one of her in-person classes in Portland. "I get on the Metro," she said. "I take a little commute and I run down to Portland and I take my class. It's kind of fun. It's like a little adventure. It's nice to get out."

Many students are relying on sports and exercise, as well as the friendships formed through those activities, to help them cope. Omri Ron, a first-year USM student from Israel, joined a club volleyball team optimistic the activity would be good exercise and help him meet people, even if games end up being canceled. "I'm making attempts to expand my social circle, but obviously it's a little more difficult nowadays," Ron said on a recent afternoon as he ate lunch alone at the Brooks Student Center in Gorham after a visit to the gym. "I mean, it gives you time to focus on your grades and in my case I exercise a lot."

Not far from Ron, friends Jadyn Cunningham and Katie Morse, both members of the varsity softball team, sat at separate high-top tables 6 feet apart. Current rules in the dining hall mandate students sit one-per-table. The pair said they were grateful for the chance to forgo eating in their dorm rooms, even if the pandemic-style lunch was a little out of the ordinary.

"It's kind of annoying sometimes when you can't have a real conversation," said Morse, 18. "You're yelling across to each other, so you can't really have deep conversations about anything because you don't want the whole world to hear it," Cunningham said.

Outside of the softball team, they said they've met few other people. "It's definitely really, really tricky to meet other people in our halls, just because the masks create this really awkward divider between everybody," Cunningham said. "It makes people feel like they can't communicate and they can't say 'Hi' in the hallway as often. So it's definitely very tricky unless you know someone that has a mutual friend you can meet."

In dorms, students don't leave their doors open as they might normally, which decreases the chances of spontaneous social interactions. You can't ask the person sitting next to you for help in an online class, so a student is either on their own or reaching out to a professor.

"COVID itself is this giant weight on your shoulders and if you've already struggled with mental health issues in the first place, it's just another thing to add," Cunningham said. "I think there needs to be awareness to have more people to talk to and reach out to so people don't feel like they're going through this alone. There are definitely a lot of students I've met that are just struggling with comprehending being here during a pandemic and stuff like that. It's a matter of being there for each other and just being aware that people are struggling."