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How the pandemic is influencing Cleveland’s college freshmen

Cleveland State University students visit the student center
Cleveland State University students visit the student center as the semester winds down in December 2022. Credit: Amy Morona / Signal Cleveland

There would be waves. And a surfboard. 

That’s what Christopher Sitney was envisioning, anyways, back in 2020 when he was a student at a visual and performing arts high school in Maryland, planning out a class project meant to help him and his classmates learn how to use Adobe tools.

Each student got a letter of the alphabet to digitally illustrate. Sitney made plans for his W. Those waves would emerge from the top as the letter rode that surfboard.

But just before Sitney could begin,  the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Life at his high school — and those across the nation — changed drastically. He was forced to use a Google Chromebook at home instead of the more full-featured computers at school. No Adobe programs. That W on the surfboard never happened. 

It was just one project in just one class. But lessons build on each other, so it mattered. The loss lingered after he graduated high school  and arrived at the Cleveland Institute of Art this fall. 

“I came here not knowing anything Adobe,” said Sitney. “Everyone was ahead of me in my class.”

That discomfort is one example of how the pandemic’s effects continue to reverberate among students this year. The first semester of college could be a rough transition even in  pre-pandemic days, and COVID-19’s not over. 

Neither are its effects on recent high school graduates who continue to live and learn through it after having so much of their education disrupted. They spent big chunks of those years shuffling between online and in-person classes. Hallmarks of the high school experience  – dances, clubs, activities — got canceled or changed.  

There’s no blueprint for faculty and staff to figure out how to support students right now either. 

“No one here knows what it’s like to go through a pandemic as a 17-year-old, as a 16-year-old,” said Sam Bivens, associate dean of the conservatory at the Cleveland Institute of Music. 

Preparedness manifests differently for everyone. But they all share one thing: Thousands of these freshmen collectively landed on Cleveland’s college campuses searching for new beginnings and normalcy, all while maybe not even being sure what that exactly means.

La’Ericka Butts graduated from the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine this spring and then enrolled at Ohio State University. When she and her peers started college this fall, many felt off track. They confided in each other what became a shared refrain: I don’t know how to do this, but everyone else seems to! Is there something wrong with me? 

When she was in high school, her schedule was stacked: going to high school, working two jobs, helping her younger siblings with their schoolwork. Now at OSU, she’s finding a different sense of self. 

“Before even coming to college, I kind of had a whole plan set for me,” she said. “And once I got here, it changed.”

Online classes in high school didn’t take much work for Butts, who did well. Adjusting to college has been tougher. 

“I had to find new ways of studying,” she said. “I really didn’t know how to study.”

A visit to an on-campus learning center helped. She’s worked through a list of tactics the center’s staff provided, finding strategies that work better than others. Creating online quizzes has been more effective than flash cards, and organizing information in colorful “mind maps” has replaced drawing traditional outlines.

Here in Cleveland, faculty across the city are trying different approaches this year — offering more flexible deadlines when possible to ease overwhelmed students, for example. Tutoring is up, too, as it is at colleges across the region, though officials at Case Western Reserve University caution it’s “difficult” to draw conclusions from those figures. 

“While that growth may reflect students feeling a need for additional support given the pandemic’s impact on their high school experiences, a broad range of other factors may be playing a role as well,” a university spokesperson said via email. 

At Cleveland State University, more than 500 students qualify for TRIO, a federal initiative that provides outreach and support to first-generation and/or low-income students. Demand for math tutoring among first-year TRIO students has increased about 70 percent since last year. 

“They’re just coming to us needing more supports,” said Cullin Fish, CSU’s assistant director for TRIO student support services.  “Scaffolding, I guess, is the best word for it.” 

Helping first-year students at this stage in the year really matters. Getting through the first semester of college successfully means a student is more likely to stay enrolled.  

A sign at Cleveland State University urges students to go to class. Credit: Amy Morona / Signal Cleveland

“The experience that a student has during that small window can really shape whether they feel like they belong in college, whether they want to stick it out and see the value of it,” said Kristy Tokarczyk, senior assistant dean in CSU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

To help, the college placed first-year students in their math courses based on their high school grades versus standardized test scores to account for possible learning loss as a result of the pandemic. And for first-year students who struggled this fall, a new class in the spring will offer them a chance to hone their success strategies. 

The university, like others in the city, offers summer bridge programs to help first-year students make a successful transition. With the addition of a new in-person, three-week offering coupled with an existing online course, enrollment in these programs nearly tripled from 2019 to 2022, with 270 students  participating this summer.  

Tokarczyk said she’s seeing more stress from freshmen as they figure out how to function as college students. One example is learning the dynamics of others via group projects. She said many didn’t have those types of experiences in high school.

“That’s been very stressful to a lot of students, stepping into that space and figuring out how to navigate that situation for the first time as a college student,” she said. “Most students in previous generations have had that sort of training by the time they get to us.”  

For lots of students, another area of major adjustment has been life in a dorm. That was true even before the pandemic, of course. But it’s been a transition this year for Cleveland State freshman Dorian Blazevic. His classes are pretty easy. Socializing in the dorm is the challenge. 

“I remember when my sister was at Ohio State, in her dorm the door was always open, everyone went in the room and chit-chatted,” he said.  “Here, everyone’s kind of like in their own space.” 

Christopher Sitney, the student from CIA, feels that in his own way. 

“I was a little unprepared with living on my own for the first time,” he said.  

But, with time, he’s figured it out. He loves hanging out with people and watching movies with his new friends. That was the kind of socialization he missed over the past few years. 

He’s adjusted to his workload, too, including catching up on those Adobe skills.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

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