Unofficial first-years: open campus allows once-virtual sophomores to explore, thrive in college setting

As the Class of 2025 gets lost, stumbles through awkward conversation and gains freedom from parental control, a new group joins their ranks: the virtual Class of 2024. These “unofficial first-years,” as some may call them, have arrived at campus as sophomores after spending their frosh year at home away from friends, away from the college experience and away from a sense of belonging. Now, they are more than ready to discover college life as sophomores or more likely, as first-years.


For Haoyue Qian ’24, coming to campus was high on her list of priorities after Zoom classes left her yearning for a sense of togetherness. “It feels weird to introduce yourself as a sophomore because everyone [thinks] you know your way around school and everything and I know nothing. I feel like I’m a freshman,” Qian said. “But I love the sense of community and I kept telling [my friends] I needed to go [to campus].”  


Qian’s arrival to campus was as much a mental transition as it was physical, especially after studying for a semester in China followed by a gap semester spent traveling. Many students were in Qian’s position: several members of the Class of 2024 experienced social anxieties about returning to campus as they sought to acclimate to the college social scene. 


One student who felt nervous about returning was Luna Schiller ’24. “It’s gotten better every day, [but] in a lot of ways I feel like I’m coming back for the first time because I’ve never experienced college opened up as it is right now academically and socially,” Schiller said. 


After spending the fall semester on campus taking classes online, Schiller spent a gap semester with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms in Colorado and Montana. While there, she gained insight into who she wants to be and what her goals are for this year: to try everything and begin learning again. “It really feels like a whole new world of possibilities [in] realizing that [college] doesn’t have to be like a linear process in order to get the most out of it.” Back on campus, Schiller is eager to get involved in many facets of campus life. In particular, she is excited to join the ceramics club and rediscover a love for the craft she stumbled upon in high school. 


A desire to return to campus activities after the difficulties of online learning is a sentiment shared by several virtual students, including Sophie Wood ’23. As feelings of isolation grew among the cohort, Wood aimed to bridge this lack of community for others as a virtual student fellow of 23 first-years when she was at home in Maine. As for the strategies she uses, Wood cites not comparing herself to others socially, acknowledging the pressures of seeing students develop immediate friendships during first-year orientation week and making time for herself. 


“I’m so nervous [about] reliving freshman year all over again and I am trying to make friends but then it doesn’t work. It’s basically a second year of first-years that are coming in,” Wood said. “But so far it’s been really good seeing people I knew and having, not in a narcissistic way, them be excited to see me after a year and a half,” she admitted.


The re-opening of campus has helped academically as much as it has socially, as it has allowed students to engage both with professors and peers and develop friendships outside of Zoom. “It does feel very different being virtual and it made me realize how nice it is to be in person. I’m a little ‘Zoom-ed’ out,” Schiller admitted. “I feel so much more connected to the professor when I can actually look at them and when I can have them make eye contact with me and I feel like that’s a totally different experience.”


As once virtual students are now free to explore the halls of Blodgett and dine in the Deece with friends, a new chapter begins for many. Naturally, this begs the question: What other exciting aspects of college will the virtual Class of 2024 begin to unlock? All “unofficial first-years” will likely continue to get lost on their way to class in the near future, but now they will have a support network of students and faculty physically there to help them.


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