As the COVID-19 pandemic threw many students’ undergraduate education plans for a loop, many first-year and transfer students, in particular, delayed their arrival to Grounds this year. In their short time here, the question remains whether the University has adequately helped these students fully adjust.
According to University Spokesperson Brian Coy, 600 more students are planning to live on-Grounds this semester compared to last semester. A total of approximately 5,186 students are living on Grounds this spring.
Like many other students across the country, first-year College student Katelynn Nguyen decided to stay home for the first semester due to coronavirus restrictions on Grounds and the prevalence of online classes.
Academically, she said she feels “much better” on Grounds because psychologically, it’s helped her feel more serious. However, the only thing she feels “behind” on is making new friends because of her delayed arrival.
For that specific predicament, Alison Nagel, clinical psychologist and program director for Hoos Connected, said that the group was designed to serve students just like Nguyen.
Hoos Connected is an organization that brings together first-year and transfer students by having small group meetings Mondays at 5:30 p.m., Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. or Wednesdays at 7 p.m. This year especially, the program aims to connect students through their housing assignments as University COVID-19 restrictions only permit residents of the same building to enter residence halls.
Nagel and other psychologists in her field observed connections between loneliness and isolation on both physical and mental health. According to Nagel, there has been a growing recognition of these impacts within the psychology literature. She reported that a quarter of all adults feel that they have nobody they can turn to in a time of need. This statistic — coupled with the fact that college-age students have higher rates of depression and anxiety and that there are higher utilization rates at counseling centers across the nation — prompted a “perfect pairing” for advertising Hoos Connected this semester.
With college being a time of change and transition, there can arise a “normative” stage where students feel isolated or that they don’t have their footing, Nagel said, especially due to the pandemic.
In theory, Nagel plans to help students feel “better in their skin” by gradually going from small talk about movies and TV in the earlier sessions to discussing personal identities, stories and self reflection to foster productive and “meaningful” relationships with other students.
“Hoos Connected is meant to meet students where they're at in that moment by providing a space where they can get to know their peers,” Nagel said. “So, first years are in groups of other first years, transfers are in groups of other transfers and [we want them to] just get to know one another, get a little bit beyond the types of conversations that we, for very good reason, are most likely to have when we're new in a space.”
In a randomized control trial of 438 people, or two semesters worth of participants, Nagel found that “students who participated in Hoos Connected reported feeling significantly less depressed than the control students.”
Despite Hoos Connected’s efforts, Nguyen feels that since the University is so vast and most clubs have to meet over Zoom, the University hasn’t done enough to facilitate a smooth process.
“In the nicest way possible, I don’t think U.Va. has done anything to help students who are new to Grounds spring semester,” Nguyen said. “I think it’s just not their priority. Obviously it’s a huge university so they only have so many resources, and I think they’re just choosing not to direct attention to students who have just moved in because there’s a relatively small number of us and in the grand scheme of things, there are more pressing issues than a small handful of new students.”
According to University Spokesperson Brian Coy, who responded on behalf of Housing and Residential Life, the department thus far has not reported any particular challenges in accommodating incoming first-year or transfer students.
“The University looks forward to them being part of our residential communities,” he said. “The Resident Staff have been checking in with their new residents and welcoming them to Grounds.”
New residents moved into their residence halls a few days earlier than returning residents. The day before returning residents began moving in, Resident Advisors held a meeting with new residents to welcome them to their residence halls and establish rules and responsibilities, a similar meeting to the one that first years usually attend during their first day living on-Grounds in the fall.
One student in particular that has benefited from the engagement of the resident staff is first-year College student Ronith Ranjan.
Ranjan — who decided to spend his first semester at home to spend more time with his family and reflect and recharge — chose to attend resident advisors meetings after he settled into Dillard dormitory and connected with other people on his floor that way.
“[It's] a lot of making opportunities for myself,” Ranjan said. “There was a guy who lives on my floor, who was really into rock climbing, so because of that, I started going with him rock climbing this past week. I would have never seen myself do something as different as that, so it's great to be on Grounds.”
Although Nagel said that transfer students historically have more often reaped the benefits of Hoos Connected, because of the circumstances of this year where first years are experiencing the same threshold of change that transfer students normally would, the program might work “particularly well” for first years.
However, according to Ranjan, it doesn’t matter how many resources the University gives students because, ultimately, college life is dependent on the effort individuals choose to put into it.
“I've seen a lot of emails about Hoos Connected,” Ranjan said. “But it's like, I think in general, for college life, you have to go make those opportunities for yourself. Things like Hoos Connected at U.Va. will only do so much for a student. You really have to put yourself out there and meet new people, go out to lunch and dinner with people with different interests."
The deadline to sign up for Hoos Connected was Wednesday, and groups meet starting on Feb. 15.