UST freshman education major Isabel Garcia jots down her schedule for the next week, her eyes glazing over the multiple club and class meetings waiting to be attended. Awaiting attendance as a member of the University of St. Thomas’ student-run Senate, along with Campus Ministry and Campus Activities Board, Garcia has found numerous ways to keep herself busy, but for all her time on Zoom, she still finds herself struggling to make friends and immerse herself fully in the UST community.
“It’s hard meeting new people through Zoom, because it’s not like everyone is just free to talk,” Garcia said. “There’s only one person speaking and running the meeting at a time.”
Garcia said she has tried to meet some of her classmates for online or in-person study sessions, but even then, the limits of establishing relationships during the pandemic have led to undesirable circumstances.
“I’ve met up with others in coffee shops to talk about our classes, but most of the time I find myself being the only one who initiates the conversations and tries to make this new friendship work,” Garcia said.
Garcia is one among many university freshmen who have found themselves attempting to navigate their first semester of college through a situation they would have never imagined. Due to COVID-19, the usual envisioned college experience has been transferred to a virtual environment or has been drastically altered.
UST freshman education majors Mckenna Malzahn and Bailey Miller, roommates at UST’s Guinan Hall, both said the pandemic has made it hard to keep up with campus meetings and events this year.
“I have been in touch with Campus Initiatives, but I haven’t been able to be on campus whenever they meet,” Miller said.
Malzahn, who like Miller had hoped to get more involved with Campus ministry, said conflicting schedules and family priorities have limited her participation.
“It’s hard for me to get more involved with the school because when I go home, I want to spend this time with my family,” said Malzahn, who goes home on weekends.
Garcia, a freshman Senator and member of the Senate’s Student Life Committee, said the lack of physical, face-to-face interaction has also hampered her ability to participate the way she had hoped.
“We are supposed to pass legislation on what to change at school, but I don’t live on campus and I’m really never on it, so I don’t know what ideas to bring up,” Garcia said.
Meanwhile, in addition to class and extracurricular commitments, many students must split their time with work.
Miller, who used to work for Residence Life, said her schedule was exhausting.
“I worked the 2 – 4 a.m. shifts every day, and I had no energy at all for the rest of the time,” Miller said. “I would go to sleep at 11 p.m., wake up at 2 a.m., work my 2 – 4 hour shifts, and then go back to the room to sleep until class.”
Malzahn, who works at the JAAC, has made friends with upperclassmen during her shifts, but said even with these new connections, she doesn’t have the energy or state of mind to take part in extracurriculars.
“Working and being online makes me miss the dates of things all the time,” Malzahn said. “It just makes a difference when everything is physically available because online school has just taken a toll on me where I don’t feel very productive.”
Although some students have little time for extracurriculars, freshmen who want to get more connected on campus often don’t know how. According to Vice President of the Campus Activities Board and UST senior psychology major Eveleny Plata, social media can be the best tool.
“Use Instagram to your advantage, especially the story highlights,” Plata recommends. “Many clubs and organizations here at UST have their own Instagram pages where they post information about their groups and events all the time.”
Furthermore, Plata says that once a student has researched the clubs that might interest them, they need to take it one step further and actually reach out to participate in the organization, something that can easily be done through the mandatory class, Freshman Symposium.
As a Freshman Symposium mentor, Plata said she has heard from other mentors that some students are disengaged and fail to participate during their sessions.
“It’s not because [freshmen] don’t want to engage or participate, it’s because they don’t know what is available to them,” Plata said. “Use that resource of freshman symposium in order to get more involved with others.”
However, not all freshmen are struggling, Plata notes. She says some have shown interest in participating with school events through some of their intern work for the Campus Activities Board, or CAB.
CAB officers were forced to redesign their entire internship interview process because of COVID-19, leading them to expect few applicants. Plata says they were surprised to see that a lot of students joined their introductory Zoom call and participated in the interviews.
“This interview process was very successful as we were able to use Zoom to our best abilities, like utilizing breakout rooms, where we saw the student’s strengths through the group sessions,” Plata said. “They were really vocal during the meeting and it was obvious they did their research on what CAB was and how interested they were to be a part of it.”
Plata said that the best way to break through freshman shyness and nerves is through looking into what may interest you and just doing it. Being able to learn what UST offers can also give students new perspectives on what things they may like and wish to be a part of.
“Even though I’m a psychology major, I’m over here planning events and it’s the best,” Plata said. “It’s only because I was open to CAB, so being open to new things and just showing up to events that maybe you don’t know anything about is taking that step forward to more self-growth and getting involved with the school.”