Redefining the First-Year College Experience in the Midst of a Pandemic

On Thursday, Oct. 23, I went for a run around Pratt Field in my jeans at 10:30 p.m. Although the denim was a bit restrictive, it was probably the freest that I’ve felt since beginning my time at Amherst. 

I came to Amherst with the same rosy vision of the college experience that most students have initially. Often, college is marketed as ‘the best four years of your life.’ Four years to form unforgettable memories. Four years to build lasting friendships. Four years to lay the groundwork that will define the rest of your life. Four years that society deems as a rite of passage, not just academically but socially. Despite Covid-19 restrictions, I still expected to attend plenty of social events, form a wide group of friends, participate in all the extracurricular activities that I wanted and form meaningful connections with professors, all while maintaining a high academic record. These were the promises that I had been told to expect in my college experience. But then, Covid changed all of that.

Amherst — as an elite, private college — perpetuates this overly rosy vision. In its pamphlets, website and other advertising, it is seen as an emblem of happiness and success, where students excel academically while having fun. Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the unattainability of this perfect college experience, especially for first-years. 

Once I click the “Leave” button at the end of every Zoom lecture, I’m met with the impending loneliness that arises from realizing that I’ve been alone in my dorm room all along. Although my in-person classes are better in terms of engagement, there’s still a certain longing from professors and students alike to penetrate the distance and shed the masks that separate us off from one another. Introverted first years like myself often find it unnatural to start conversations with random peers, making it difficult to foster new friendships. This difficulty, which is natural to the first-year experience, is again compounded by Covid-19 restrictions. 

The added pressures of being the first person in my family to go to college — which I’m sure other first-generation students can resonate with — makes the first-year experience even more difficult to navigate. We have to carve out our own paths by ourselves, without the familial guidance regarding college life that others may receive. And with our families having given up so much for us to be here, it feels as though it is our responsibility to fulfill the ideal, rosy college experience if only to make them proud in accomplishing what they couldn’t. 

What my family and friends are reluctant to hear about, though, is how I struggle to keep my eyes open to complete my endless assigned readings and problem sets late into the night. They want to hear the upsides that allow them to vicariously experience the rosiness of college life. This, in turn, causes me to externally conceal these negative aspects of college life exacerbated by the pandemic — loneliness, poor time management and stress — which ultimately causes me to mentally conceal them from myself.

But putting on this facade of happiness and repeatedly trying to convince yourself of something that is not true is simply exhausting. You try to catch hold of the illusion and make it real, but you can never really attain it.

 Only recently did I finally realize that I was putting on a front of feigned joy. It was that Thursday night. I became so overwhelmed by my workload that I was impulsively spurred to go on a run outside despite still wearing jeans. This run felt different than my other runs.  There was something freeing about doing it at night under the stars, concealed from the view of others, not having to put on a public facade of success that masks the struggles (even though I was, in fact, wearing an actual mask). 

Why do we keep shutting out these negative aspects of our first-year college experiences? Shouldn’t they be normalized as a part of the real college experience, or at least, as a part of our ‘new normal?’ 

Of course, I’m not trying to say that the Amherst experience is unpleasant. It just shouldn’t be unquestionably looked at through a rose-colored lens. Certainly, numerous privileges come with studying at Amherst, but we have to normalize that these positive aspects go hand-in-hand with some negative ones too, even more so during a pandemic.

Even though we’re in a Covid-19 bubble on campus, we shouldn’t also be trapped within the artificial confines of pursuing the ‘rosy college experience.’ As a first-year, I feel pressured to try and tick off the boxes of the idealized, normal experience. But, especially in a time like this, we have to stop acting as though things are normal when they aren’t. Some things just won’t make the checklist. And that’s okay. 

Sometimes, all it takes to realize this is a run at night, working past the restrictions of your blue jeans away from the public eye, enjoying the freedom of being relinquished from these expectations so that you can create your own college experience, filled with ups and downs and everything in between.