Elle Fleenor didn’t know a soul when she first set foot on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis — wearing a mask, of course — and hunkered down for two weeks of quarantine.
She attended orientation and lectures on Zoom, picked up food from the dining hall to eat in her room, and barely interacted with anyone beyond her dorm building’s walls.
Ms. Fleenor, a first-year student from Scottsburg, Ind., knew college wouldn’t be what she had imagined. But she wasn’t prepared for how the precautions her school was taking to slow the spread of the coronavirus would complicate her efforts to make friends, and how isolated that would make her feel.
Sometimes, she said, she would meet someone in an online class but wouldn’t recognize the person later wearing a mask around campus.
“It’s been very hard, very lonesome,” Ms. Fleenor said. “As a freshman, being hit with all this is extremely difficult.”
Across the country, millions of first-year students are adjusting to college during a pandemic. That means classes conducted mostly online, dinners in dorm rooms and a hard time getting to know professors and peers. Some look forward to fleeting moments to be with others, like elevator rides. Others force themselves to take walks to be sure they see sunlight.
The first semester of college is challenging even in normal times, as students get used to being away from home, their families and lifelong friends. This year, psychologists and other experts fear that the necessary precautions taken by colleges and universities, many of them coronavirus hot spots, will increase the loneliness and isolation.
“We’re receiving recommendations and restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus that also limit our ability to connect with others,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.
When cases spiked two weeks into the semester, Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania imposed an all-student quarantine. In-person classes were canceled. Students were told to leave their rooms only to use the bathroom or to pick up food. They were told not to linger or chat in the hallway. And they couldn’t do laundry, said Molly Cordray, a biology major from Wayne, Pa.
“In terms of the actual freshman experience, we don’t really have one,” she said.
They were assured that they would make up first-year traditions that had been skipped during orientation, like walking to the spot where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
The lockdown has since been lifted — all except first-year students were sent home for online instruction — but there still aren’t many opportunities to meet new people, said Delaney Rabenold, Ms. Cordray’s roommate. They fill their days with schoolwork and scrolling on TikTok. She joked that picking up food is their outing for the day.
“It’s really the isolation that gets to you,” Ms. Cordray said. “I just feel stuck all the time and have this feeling of existential dread. I know that this time last year, last year’s class was already making friends and being carefree, but we’re stuck here alone, basically locked in our rooms without familiar faces, without friends, with no one else besides your roommate.”
Fortunately Ms. Cordray and Ms. Rabenold, of Virginia Beach, Va., hit it off immediately. They often stay up till 1 a.m. talking and laughing.
Sima Habach, a first-year student at the University of Florida, found herself in a similar situation with her roommate, adjusting to eating, learning and sleeping in the same small dorm room.
“It’s overwhelming to be online for so long, so we try to give ourselves breaks,” Ms. Habach said. They’ve come up with a routine: a snack after morning classes, and every night, “strictly at 10 or 11, we say, ‘That’s it, we’re shutting off,’” she said.
Online classes do little to disrupt the monotony, students say. Some are recorded lectures that students watch on their own schedule. Others are live on Zoom, a format that Ms. Habach and others said can feel equally impersonal, with hundreds of students filling tiny squares on a screen.
Harry Zhou, a finance major at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., attends most of his classes online. Sometimes, he said, professors aim their camera at a worksheet or present their screen so students can’t see their faces. It is easy, he said, for instructors to miss raised hands when students want to ask questions.
In-person classes are not much better. Van An Trinh, a freshman at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said one of her classes is held in a large chapel where masked students sit at assigned desks that are spread far apart.
She has found ways of meeting people, she said, such as small gatherings at the student-run garden. She attends club meetings over Zoom, but that can feel like school. “There’s no difference in the mind-set when you enter a Zoom call for a discussion class or a club meeting,” she said.
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Danny Waltrich, a freshman at Temple University in Philadelphia, looks forward to elevator rides to his 13th-floor dorm room. “It’s really the only time I get a chance to talk to people,” he said.
Dining halls, once bustling hubs, have been reduced to long lines of students, their heads down, staring at their phones, standing six feet apart, he said. Most days he eats in his room.
At Emory University in Atlanta, students live in singles, and the library is closed, said Rachel Osband, a freshman from San Jose, Calif. Classes and office hours are “kind of awkward over Zoom,” she said, and trying to make friends with classmates “feels a little stalker-ish.”
Majesty Wooden, who attends Florida Atlantic University, said she has made friends by reaching out to people through her class Instagram page, but noted that approaching new people on campus while maintaining distance can be awkward.
And then there’s dating. Ms. Wooden said she and her friends have found it difficult to know if they find someone attractive while everyone on campus is wearing a mask. “It’s kind of hard with the six feet and everything,” she said.
Jeremy Nobel, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the Campus UnLonely Project, which seeks to decrease the stigma of loneliness, said the pandemic offers an opportunity.
“We can take advantage of the fact that we’re lonely because we’re being faced by a common enemy, Covid-19,” he said. “Why don’t we embrace that as something to talk about?”
Dr. Stephanie Waitt, a licensed therapist who treats young adults in Texas, said she has seen more cases of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicide attempts as her clients struggle to cope with a college experience that is very different from the one they imagined.
Despite the challenges, many students said they had no regrets. “Yeah, we’re not getting a typical college experience,” Ms. Rabenold said, “but then again, who can say in a few years from now, ‘I started my freshman year of college in a pandemic’?”