Welcome to Zoom University

What’s it like to start college in the middle of a pandemic? We reached out to our fellow members of the Class of 2024 to see how things are going.

Imagine if your first year of college was like this: You wake up—not in your dorm, but in the bedroom you’ve been living in for the past 18 years of your life. You walk a few steps over to your desk and launch Zoom on your computer. You go into a virtual breakout room in Zoom and finally get to talk to your classmates. Class ends and you go to the kitchen for some snacks before you go back to your bedroom and start the Zoom cycle all over again. 

For the Class of 2024, this is the new normal. After our senior year in high school was cut short (unsatisfying online classes, no prom, no graduation), COVID-19 stomping on our next big step toward independence was unsurprising. However, our hopes were still high about at least moving on to campus. A few students succeeded in that move, but most of us are doing online classes from our childhood bedrooms. Our class is living through history, and how it is remembered is up to us. That’s where we come in. 

We are Guide Puget Sound, a class of first-year students who set out to learn more about the fall’s entering class and hear their stories. We talked one-on-one—typically via Zoom, ironically enough—with nearly two dozen of our classmates to hear what being a new college student during a pandemic has been like. Here’s what we learned. 

It’s different. Many of us had a clear picture of what our first year in college would look like. We’d be “going to get coffee, hanging in the quad,” according to Jojo Marshall, a first-year from Sherman Oaks, Calif. We all shared some of the same thoughts: that we would build up a new friend group through social events—like the movie Pitch Perfect, as Emma Porter ’24 of Meeteetse, Wyo., put it. Instead of meeting with our new clubs in the Sub or the library, we’re doing what we can to connect online. Says Grace Playstead, a first-year student from Olympia, Wash.: “It’s really nice to check in with one another and see people face-to-face, even though it is through a Zoom screen.” The learning process, too, has been different. Playstead was one of several students who observed that “online college has been significantly better than online high school. Our high school teachers would just give us assignments. All of my classes at UPS are synchronous. I see my professors and I see my classmates at least a couple times a week.” For music majors, though, even the best Zoom experience can be frustrating, as violin performance major Ela Escobar ’24 of Tacoma explains: “You’re supposed to be playing together, but Zoom has a lag and it’s just not gonna work. We have to record ourselves. It’s very tedious and, honestly, I don’t like it.” 

Although the difficulties of “Zoom University” are real, there are a few small benefits. For some, it’s easier to learn when we have control over our environments. We can schedule our meals and our free time how we want, and we can learn in our pajamas without worrying about impressing our classmates. 

It’s isolating. While we are learning to adapt to the academic challenges, we have suddenly faced much more difficulty reaching out to each other. Jackson Slocum, a first-year from Spring, Texas, describes it as “really, really bizarre. It’s really easy to meet new people when you’re sitting next to them in a classroom, but when you’re on Zoom, you don’t really meet people in your classes.” Even those lucky enough to be living on campus, like Porter, have struggled to connect, since they’ve been unable to interact much with people in person. And online friendships dissolved: “The people I had been talking to on social media over the summer didn’t talk to me when we got on campus,” Porter admits. “It’s been pretty isolating and lonely.” 

Although it’s not the same as networking in person, many students have used social media platforms to connect with each other. Group chats on Instagram and Snapchat are a common way to meet people; for Escobar, there are a lot of “DMs that just start with: ‘Did you understand the homework? Because I did not.’” Zoom breakout rooms have offered another way to socialize, to talk to each other “without an academic filter,” as Emma Jean Curtis ’24 of Fontana, Calif., puts it. 

It’s actually productive. While these new social challenges make us get creative to connect with our peers, the COVID-19 pandemic has had some positive effects on people’s personal lives and free time. For some Puget Sound students, this has included integrating more self-care into our everyday routines. Ryan Bennett ’24 of Parkville, Mo., built a longboard from scratch and has often gone skateboarding to clear his head. Kaya Heimowitz ’24 of Honolulu, Hawai`i, learned how to crochet. “It was the one good thing about quarantine,” she says. “I made my sister a bucket hat, and I crocheted a whole market bag. I got really good at it.” Heimowitz also gained a new appreciation for cleaning: “I look forward to vacuuming every Friday. I listen to the Hamilton playlist—it’s very good to listen to when you’re trying to get a lot of cleaning done.” For other students, maintaining their usual routine has helped: Lara Flanagan ’24 of Edina, Minn., explains, “It’s what I’ve always done. It’s normalizing.” One thing that has tied all of us together, though, is that the experience has forced us to slow down and reflect on priorities. For Ben Everett ’24 of Highlands Ranch, Colo., this means taking more time for his own well-being and spending more time with family. 

It’s unprecedented. To start this next chapter of our lives during a pandemic has caused us to redefine our story of what college would be like. The plans to decorate our dorm rooms, grab coffee with friends, and go to parties, have instead become an endless cycle of eat, sleep, Zoom, and repeat. It’s isolating and hard not to obsess about the possibilities of spring. Will we ever get the traditional experience of being a first-year student? Who knows. However, if this experience has taught us anything, it has taught us how to use adversity to our advantage. Sure, a pandemic said “no” to us physically experiencing what college is like. But we found ways to meet new people, focus on academics, try out new hobbies, and engage in self-care. It forced some of us to break out of our comfort zones and reach out to others in ways that we might not have thought possible. Our first-year experience isn’t starting out like any other class’s would have. So yes, some could call it unprecedented, but to the Class of 2024, this is just our reality. 


By Ben Everett ’24, Moira Gaffney ’24, Gracie Mathis ’24, and Alex Wick ’24, with assistance from Julie Nelson Christoph, professor of English
Illustrations by Loris Lora
Published Feb. 6, 2021