Rising freshmen face unique college transition amid pandemic

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By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

Region – Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School (AMSA) graduate Ian Harvey had a shortlist of colleges he was considering committing to this spring. 

Then, the coronavirus hit, and Harvey opted for the safe route, choosing UMass Amherst over campuses he had not and now would not get to visit. 

“I can’t commit to a school that I’ve never been to,” he said.

As COVID-19 has upended almost every aspect of life over the past four months, rising college freshmen have been hit in unique ways. That’s left students and their families unsure of what to expect as they reach a major milestone in early adulthood. 

“I had no idea how I was going to make a decision at all,” Harvey said. 

From Harvey’s confusion over committing to questions about the possibility of online classes in the fall, very little is certain even as the scheduled start of the semester quickly approaches. 

Vasant Sundaresan had excitedly committed to New York University this year to study music. Speaking to the Community Advocate in May, though, he said he was wary of any moves away from in-person education in particular. 

“Most of the things you learn in music school involves connecting with people and going to studios and stuff,” he said. “I’m not sure that can happen online.” 

While others shared Sundaresan’s concerns about remote learning, many have been equally concerned about the alternative should their colleges “go online” – taking a gap year. 

“It’s been so much work over the past few years to get to this point,” Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School graduate Noah Fernandes said. “It would be a shame to push it back now.”

Fernandes plans to attend MassART in Boston this fall. He was echoed by Marlborough’s Cam Sinopoli, who is headed to Suffolk University just a few miles down the road. 

“I’m prepared to do online classes [if that’s what it takes],” he said. “The transition won’t be ideal. But I don’t think it will be too much.”

As COVID-19 has snarled the spring commitment process and raised questions about online classes, it’s also brought massive changes to the traditional orientation events that normally fill students’ summers before college.

Most schools have tried to convert at least part of their programming to remote, digitally accessible formats. But the experience has been almost unilaterally muted. 

“I’ve been keeping tabs on things,” Fernandes said of MassART’s orientations. He noted he’s seen turnout stay “pretty small” in the events he’s logged into. 

Area colleges were some of the first major institutions to shut their doors back in March. Densely populated dorms, packed cafeterias and large lecture halls simply made the typical campus dangerous petri dishes amid a pandemic. 

Now, parts of the country are reopening and students want to go back to school. Their schools want them to come as well. 

But coronavirus cases are also rising in parts of the country, and some students remain confused, anxious and even frustrated about their college’s plans.

Westborough’s Josh Sternburg is aware of all this. He knows cases could surge again and understands his freshman fall semester will not look like those of his older fellow graduates. 

Still, he’s hanging on to some optimism. He says that helps.

“I want to be hopeful and say that I’m going to Temple University on Aug. 22 when I’m supposed to move in,” he said. “I hope I get to look back at this and say…at least I got to go to college on time.”