Hundreds of miles from her home in St. Louis, Mackenzie Montandon sits at a small desk squished between a wall and a wooden, twin-sized bed in Dallas. She is one month into living in her residence hall as a freshman at Southern Methodist University (SMU).
“It’s been slightly challenging, but also, it’s just how things are now,” Montandon said about her experience on campus so far. “It’s a lot harder to meet people and create relationships, especially when everyone is wary about everything right now.”
Montandon is one of the 1,500 freshmen entering college at SMU this year during a pandemic. Unlike the classes before hers, the freshmen have had to connect with other students virtually, take courses from their dormitories, wear masks when meeting people, and find their niche on campus, all while six feet apart. So far, the pandemic has reshaped the way freshmen adapt to campus life.
“Coming to a new place, in any sort of transition, is hard, and then layering on a pandemic is a different challenge,” Meghan Perez, an Assistant Director in the Office of Student Experience at SMU, said. “I do think that first-year students are experiencing a challenge in meeting people.”
Just as they learned to overcome the hurdles of COVID-19 as seniors in high school, freshmen now have had to find new ways to meet people and ease the transition into college life. Montandon said she has joined different Dallas Hall Lawn events, such as Peruna Palooza and outdoor movies, to meet other freshmen. As a runner, she also has taken advantage of her automatic relationships within the track and field team.
“I think it would be a lot harder, especially right now, trying to connect with other people and not having that built-in teammate atmosphere,” Montandon said. “[The track and field Team has] been really helpful with trying to connect to other people.”
Regardless of whether a student is a part of a team or not, Perez said it is not impossible for people to connect with each other. This year, she said it is less about the goal of transitioning smoothly to college and more about how a student achieves it.
“There are still ways to meet people while wearing a mask and being socially distant; it just is maybe not as comfortable,” Perez said. “Students are having to get creative.”
For freshmen Cece Coon, she has used creativity to put herself out there. Since social distancing guidelines are in place, Coon said the transition to SMU and meeting people in person has been weird. Instead, she has reached out to friends of friends via social media to connect with other newcomers like herself.
While the pandemic has built new hurdles for freshmen, Perez said much of her pre-coronavirus advice to newcomers still stands.
“There’s always a tendency to remember the end of something and not the beginning,” Perez said. “You can’t compare the end of high school to the beginning of college. “Remember that building relationships takes time, even in a normal school year.”
In the meantime, Montandon said she has continued to reach out to others and has built a bond with her roommate after attending the Black Lives Matter March at SMU together. For now, she said she is enjoying the journey of making her tiny dorm room feel like home.
“Things are gonna change so rapidly that you can’t really plan for anything,” Montandon said. “Take it one day at a time, do what you need to do that day, and look forward to the next.”