First-year students adapt to post COVID-19 learning after four years of interrupted education

A struggle shared by first-year students and their instructors

By Netty Jurriaans | December 4, 2023 5:30pm
Graphic by Netty Jurriaans.

Take yourself back to your highschool years: homecoming, football games and making new friends. From prom to the stress of finals all ending with a bittersweet feeling associated with graduating — highschool is a huge period of growth for many people. 

Now imagine if you got none of that. Imagine those four years of highschool were spent on zoom, in your bedroom, connecting with friends and teachers through a screen. 

The COVID-19 experience is unique for the class of 2027 as all four years of their high school experience were impacted by the pandemic. 

In March of 2020, their first year of highschool was cut short due to shutdowns and the remaining three years were marked by a shift to online learning, lasting until graduation. 

According to students and faculty, this experience has significantly shaped their social and academic readiness as they transition from high school to college. 

“I am seeing a change in the interaction and involvement of students,” Assistant Director for First Year Experience Brenagh Sanford said.

Due to the effects of COVID-19, first-year students are struggling in their classes. According to professors, there are concerns about how students are interacting and engaging with their coursework both in and out of class.

“There's just a lot more absences than we used to have and I think that students are not quite sure how to engage in what to do,” biology professor Amy Beadles-Bohling said.

This perspective is not rare; students and professors alike are seeing and experiencing this change. So much so that professors are actively changing their curriculum and styles of teaching to better accommodate students during this transition. 

For professor and faculty lead for first-year students Maureen Briare, it's almost as if she is having to teach students how to engage and interact in a classroom.

“For the first time, we've integrated a self evaluation assignment to ask students to reflect on, ‘How am I engaging in class? Am I on my phone? Am I surfing to other websites?’” Briare said. “This reflection is important because the brains of today are so used to having interruptions, notifications, and they get distracted easily and the attention span is less.” 

First-year students are also recognizing the need to reflect. For first-year biology major Olivia Herning, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered her from experiencing the complete personal and academic development that high school typically facilitates. 

“We weren't really given the chance to grow and find out what exactly we wanted to do because of having basically two and a half years of solitude,” Herning said. “I feel like I just didn't have enough real-world experience to really know what I wanted. I feel like there is a general lack of readiness, maturity, responsibility and also an understanding of financial readiness for college.”

Navigating the shift between high school and college has always been challenging, but prior to COVID-19, in-person learning aided this transition. The lack of a typical high school experience has essentially left first-year students underprepared — and not just academically. 

“For the last four years [in highschool], students haven't had the same opportunities to not only meet people, but then go through those trials and tribulations of friendships in the same way,” Sanford said.

Balancing a full course load, managing study schedules, living with a roommate, being responsible for basic necessities — all without the support of parents – is a lot to juggle, especially for students who have spent the past four years using their bedroom as a classroom. 

“If I miss a class, nobody calls my parents,” first-year Willow Rodriguez said. “Nobody emails me about it. It is very relieving to have that sense of responsibility because it allows me to change my schedule around. But at the same time, it makes it a little hard to be like ‘Well, what am I supposed to be doing?’”

It's not just up to students to figure out how to adapt to college. After the pandemic, Briare and other professors have recognized what it takes to be a college student and how difficult the first-year transition can be.

“As COVID went on, I have become far more sensitive to mental health issues for students,” Beadles-Bohling said. “I recognize that there are days when you just can't come to class.”

COVID-19 triggered a 25% increase in mental health issues, hitting young people first. For professors like Beadles-Bohling, it has become imperative to incorporate inclusive mental health practices into their curriculum.

Students have also observed this shift; Herning highlighted the growing trend among professors to provide Zoom classes and offer extensions on assignments.

“I've been talking to some other students too about this increase in recognition of mental health,” Herning said. “Providing Zoom links to join classes if you are sick or things like that — just giving a little bit more leniency. I think that's something that definitely stemmed from COVID in our classes. Now we are getting more of a firsthand perspective of professors really being well rounded on that.”

The increased flexibility reflects a more understanding and supportive approach, fostering a healthier learning environment. Professors are recognizing the addition of mental health practices into their curriculum as the solution to this learning crisis. 

“As faculty in the School of Nursing we need to meet students where they're at,” Briare said. “We need nurses and not just that — we need future nurses who can take care of themselves.”

According to Sanford, who advises the 729 first-years, it's not that the class of 2027 is less motivated than past classes It's that they have not been given the same tools needed to succeed. 

“As we're coming out of this crisis, the system hasn't totally evolved to the next because we don't need to go back to how we were doing things,” Sanford said. “We need to be aware of what's going on and how we are going to move forward.”

Students are feeling that sentiment. And for many, the lack of resources has inspired them to work harder and take advantage of the opportunities to grow at UP. Despite the unique circumstances of the class of 2027, professors and faculty still want to see them succeed and are adapting to support their needs.

“I didn't realize how important education and going to school was until everything shut down and development in my own personal life was stunted," Herning said. “It was like, okay, now that I'm given this opportunity, I want to do it, take great classes and have great professors. I really want to get this done and get it done well.”

Netty Jurriaans is the Community Engagement Editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at