Behind the mask, college is a lonely place for students during COVID

Alyson Hatfield
York College of Pennsylvania

Editor's note: The York Dispatch is running a series of stories written by student journalists as part of a mentoring program with York College. In this story, sophomore Alyson Hatfield writes about the experience of starting college during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My freshman year of college was supposed to be spent with other students attending basketball games, joining clubs and, most importantly, making friends.

Instead, my days were spent in classrooms with 15 other students — all spread out 6 feet apart — listening to guest speakers tell us, via Zoom, how amazing the next four years would be. My nights involved sitting in my room, waiting for my roommate to get home from dinner with their mother.

York College sophomore Alyson Hatfield stands near a sign outside the cafeteria in the Iosue Student Union at the campus Sunday, March 6, 2022. She is a political science major. Bill Kalina photo

When you see movies about adults living their dream life, most of their best friends were made in college, so of course that was what I expected: I would meet a group of people my first week of college and we would be friends for the rest of our lives.

What I got was completely different.

College has been lonelier than I expected.

I went to classes eager to talk to new classmates until confronted by the harsh reality of trying to carry on a conversation with someone when you're being forced to sit over 6 feet away from everyone.

It was extremely tiring to follow the same cycle of "I'm going to meet someone new today" and continuously being let down, so I gave up. For the entirety of my freshman year, my best and only friend was my roommate. Luckily, as of the fall 2021 semester, I made new friends in my classes and joined more clubs, where I've made new friends.

Yet even now, as a sophomore in college, I've never sat in a classroom without a mask on. Despite attending classes with the same people for four semesters, I have no idea what most of them look like behind their masks.

The York Dispatch Managing Editor Wallace McKelvey, standing, speaks to York College journalism students as part o a mentoring program between the news organization and the college Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Bill Kalina photo

Although COVID restrictions seem to be loosening, the challenges of the past two years may have caused irreversible effects on students like me.

‘School has been lonely’: College is stressful when there isn't a pandemic — but, according to the director of York College counseling services, Darrell Welt, “since COVID-19 started, students have been experiencing increased stress.”

An increase in stress causes people to self-isolate, and when you are trying to branch out and meet new people, additional stress can get in the way of that.

When asked how COVID affected socializing with peers, sophomore Alex Merritt said the pandemic made meeting new people particularly difficult.

"As I am someone who doesn’t frequently leave my comfort zone," Merritt said, "it became isolating at times when I was unable to easily connect with the people in my classes or through clubs.”

Sophomore Juneau Sykes added, “Since I started out college on Zoom, people just haven’t been interested in branching out to meet new people. School has been lonely!”

Now that classes have started transitioning back to being held in person, it has been easier to connect with peers.

“It helps because, in virtual classes, the breakout rooms are relatively awkward. I think in-person (learning) feels more organic compared to virtual classes,” sophomore Reginald Sullivan said.

The effect has been noted by more than just the students.

“Since being back on campus and offering in-person sessions again, we experienced an increase in the number of students requesting services,” Welt said.

A survey conducted last November by Best Colleges found that 9 out of 10 college students said they had some sort of mental health impact as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, 46% of those surveyed said they felt socially isolated and lonely.

Similarly, a September 2021 survey by the Harvard Crimson found that 91% of the students who said COVID-19 affected their mental health believed that was due to social isolation.

Performance has suffered: For some, not being able to socialize with their peers has caused them to struggle in their classes.

“I feel like I haven’t been able to perform as well due to the decreased ability in collaborating with my peers,” Sykes said.

Some people said they need that extra socialization to thrive academically and that not having a connection with those in their classes made it harder to reach out for help.

The Best Colleges survey found that 44% of students struggle with laziness and a lack of focus, 37% had a hard time with the school-life balance and 35% experienced self-doubt.

From my experience with two semesters of hybrid classes and one full semester in person, I can confidently say that in-person classes make it so much easier to learn.

My first two semesters were extremely difficult, and I felt as though I barely learned anything. But after just one semester of in-person classes, my academic performance improved, and I felt that I learned more during that semester than in the other two combined.

York College sophomore Alyson Hatfield poses for a photo outside the Iosue Student Union at the campus Sunday, March 6, 2022. She is a political science major. Bill Kalina photo

One possible reason?

There are numerous distractions when attending class via Zoom, from loud floor-mates to your roommate attending their own class. There is also no sense of accountability because students can turn off their cameras and play on their phones, leaving the Zoom class as background noise. Online, there's little motivation to maintain focus.

With COVID-19 guidelines changing daily, it seems likely that we will soon return to “normal” and underclassmen will start to discover what a typical college experience is like.

It is nice to be able to sit in a classroom and engage with your classmates, but it will probably take a while to feel comfortable sitting in closer proximity.

Earlier this month, York College changed its mask policy to state that masks must be worn in all classes but are no longer required in most other indoor spaces. Nor are they required outdoors.

The shift is stressful for many students, including myself, because I've never been on campus without a mask.

For the past two years, my mask has been a safety blanket. I've used it to hide my facial expressions when reacting to what a professor or classmate has said. I'm comfortable with it on and, as a result, I'm anxious about the day when I will no longer have that buffer.

That day may be coming sooner than I expected.

York College sophomore Alyson Hatfield poses for a photo outside the Iosue Student Union at the campus Sunday, March 6, 2022. She is a political science major. Bill Kalina photo

If you or anyone you know is struggling, please contact counseling services, at 717-815-6437 or email counselingservices@ycp.edu.

Alyson Hatfield is a sophomore political science major at York College of Pennsylvania.