No Parties, Roommate Contracts And Zoom Study Groups: U Of I Freshmen Navigate New COVID-19 Challenges

College freshmen already had a rough end to high school. Many are nervous and uncertain how their first semester of college will unfold.

u of i
Elizabeth LeBeau of Lombard is starting her freshmen year at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, one of thousands of students there who will be trying to find their way during the COVID-19 era. Courtesy of Elizabeth LeBeau
u of i
Elizabeth LeBeau of Lombard is starting her freshmen year at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, one of thousands of students there who will be trying to find their way during the COVID-19 era. Courtesy of Elizabeth LeBeau

No Parties, Roommate Contracts And Zoom Study Groups: U Of I Freshmen Navigate New COVID-19 Challenges

College freshmen already had a rough end to high school. Many are nervous and uncertain how their first semester of college will unfold.

When Elizabeth LeBeau decided to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign last December, she didn’t realize choosing a school relatively close to home her home in Lombard would be so important.

It allowed her to move on campus to better focus on her studies this fall, but also means she’s close enough to her family that she could easily get home if a COVID-19 outbreak made on campus living impossible.

“‘December-me’ was very smart staying in-state,” she said, laughing.

On Wednesday, she’ll move into a dorm room on campus along with her roommate, whom she met on Facebook. They’ve already had to have conversations that previous roommates haven’t had to nativate. They agreed not to attend parties this semester and that masks must be worn. LeBeau decided to put off joining a sorority until her sophomore year.

“Sorority houses are going to be super spreaders,” she said. “One person is going to go to a bar, and then everyones has it.”

Starting college can already be a stressful and scary change. But the class of 2024 is beginning a new chapter under extremely uncertain conditions. Students across the University of Illinois system said they’re feeling nervous and uncertain about how the fall semester will unfold amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

LeBeau said she’s worried students won’t take the virus seriously and ruin the semester for everyone. She doesn’t want to experience another disappointment if students have to move home mid-semester, after missing out on in-person graduation and prom during their senior year of high school.

The pandemic has forced many rising freshmen across the country to change their plans. A survey released last week by the higher education research group, SimpsonScarborough, found 40% of incoming freshmen surveyed nationally say it’s unlikely they’ll attend a four-year college this fall as planned.

For those who still plan to enroll this fall, many said it doesn’t feel real.

“It’s kind of weird when I think about it, ‘Oh, I’m really going to college,’ ” U of I freshman AIdan Rogers said. “Then it’s like, ‘But am I going to college?’ It’s going to be me sitting in a dorm room most of the time.”

The majority of students in the U of I system are taking their classes online, which is one reason freshman Julia Korzeniowski decided to live at home in suburban Hoffman Estates while taking classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She’ll also save money. She’s curious how she’s going to make friends or find study partners from a Zoom class.

“Are these people actually going to help me? Are they going to know how to do the work?” she asked. “Are these the right people I should be working with?”

Students are also struggling to keep track of constantly changing safety requirements throughout the summer.

Universities share updates via email or on a website, but students said it’s obvious from social media that some aren’t checking regularly. Others might not know how to access their emails yet. Rogers said some students at U of I created a group on the app GroupMe called “I’m Confused UIUC,” where students can talk about the latest announcements and steps they need to complete before arriving on campus. He said nearly 100 people have joined the group.

UIC
Jacinth Valera starts her freshmen year at the University of Illinois at Chicago next week. Courtesy of Jacinth Valera

Jacinth Valera also decided to move on campus at UIC even though all her courses are online. She’s sharing a six-bedroom apartment with three other freshmen. They’re taking rooms on one side of the apartment and using the two empty rooms as places to quarantine if someone feels sick or stays out all night.

They’ve also established rules for the semester, but Valera said it’s hard to tell if all her roommates interpret safety guidelines the same way. Overall, Valera said she’s also sad because she thought freshman year would be a time to join new clubs or play tennis.

“I know maybe my next years of college are going to be harder [academically], so I’m not going to have the time then,” Valera said. “I feel like it’s the opposite of that.”

But LeBeau at UIUC said she’s getting used to things being different now than they were before. Her class was born after 9/11, and she said they’ve spent their entire lives hearing about what it was like before the terrorist attack.

It’s not surprising to her that her senior year of high school, as well as her freshman year of college, might be different than before, too.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.