First-year students make the best of a Zoom-filled year

Brayan Garcia Soriano ’24, left, hangs out with friends on the Arts Quad

Chatting with first-year students in the College of Arts & Sciences would normally be done over coffee at the Temple of Zeus, with stories, smiles and even some tears, talking about the ups and downs of the huge transition to college life.

These days, the chats happen by Zoom but the stories, the laughter and the hopes and dreams are still the same. In some ways, the Class of 2024 is managing better than many people might have expected, but in others, the pandemic has made learning a lot more difficult.

“I appreciate the fact that we’re here, even though we can’t have all of our classes in person,” said Brayan Garcia Soriano ’24. “As a class, a lot of us had challenges academically with online learning, but overcoming that has been empowering. And I don’t think I would have met many of my closest friends if this had been a regular semester.”

Most first-year students had the majority of their classes online last semester, with the exception of smaller discussion classes and labs. One common experience for all Arts & Sciences students is the first-year advising seminar, a small-group class led by a faculty member that introduces students to university and college resources and special programs. Even though those seminars were online last semester, they gave students a chance to develop a closer connection to faculty and their peers.

“My professor made it a space where we were able to talk about ourselves and learn about other people in our group,” said Amara Valerio ’24. “She told us to send her whatever questions we had and she would find the answers. Then, she blasted us with answers – it was nice to have someone who could answer our questions so quickly.”

Aurora Mu ’24 said her seminar group was “on the quiet side,” but she found many of the resource discussions helpful, particularly about the library.

That “quiet side” of online classes is something students hope will change when they’re back in class in person.

“It becomes very easy not to leave your bed or turn on your camera or unmute yourself,” Mu said about online classes, adding that her in-person discussion sessions, labs and first-year writing seminars were the classes she looked forward to most last semester. “Sometimes people would get to class early or stay later to chat and hang around. We would have side conversations or as a group talk about something fun or interesting.”

Garcia Soriano had only one lab in person last semester, and the same is true this spring. “There were some classes I wish I could have taken in person to gain a better connection to the professor and to my classmates,” he said. “I work well in teams and that was something lacking last semester. Even though professors tried their best by putting us in break out rooms, sometimes a minute would go by before anyone spoke up in those rooms. It makes it hard to press the unmute button.”

Nonetheless, all three of these students say they are grateful to be on campus and thankful for Cornell’s safety and testing protocols, which have allowed students to remain here.

“Everyone I know is taking it seriously. I never see anyone without a mask,” Valerio said.

“I was proud of the way Cornell was able to handle the pandemic and have students on campus,” Garcia Soriano said.

Mu said the pandemic restrictions helped her to develop fast friendships with people in her dorm. “The community atmosphere is extremely strong and I don’t think it would be if wasn’t for COVID because people would have been more dispersed,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to walk out and feel like there’s a huge community of friends right near you.”

Valerio said she also found many opportunities to meet people through clubs and organizations. Her a capella group wasn’t able to have a traditional concert, so they recorded an album instead and La Asociación Latina has helped her meet many people who identify as Hispanic on campus. “I’ve made some of my best friends,” she said.

Still, they say they can’t wait for a bit more “normalcy,” which would include:

Valerio: “I’m really into arts and haven’t been able to perform. I can’t wait to meet all of my club members in person. Now when I meet people in person, they are so much taller that I thought. I’m also really excited for hockey.”

Mu: “I am so excited for the games and also just having more social interactions. I really value classroom time and being able to have chats with people sitting next to me. Plus, I really enjoy outdoor activities, and I want to do them in a group. I’ve been dragging my friends on short hikes.”

Garcia Soriano: “I’m looking forward to events, clubs and e-boards. I’m also big into the arts, but my main dance group isn’t holding auditions right now. I’m just looking forward to the social interactions. I agree that a lot of people seem smaller online and it’s funny to see them in person.”