Pandemic sophomores

Damian Christensen, a sophomore secondary history major, stands in front of the Arkansas Union. Christensen, like many UA sophomores, is navigating a year that feels much like a freshman experience after an unconventional 2020-21.

As the university returns to fully in-person instruction after a year of COVID-19-related modifications, many UA sophomores are excited to find a sense of community on campus after their non-traditional freshman year.

Many students are getting their first inside look at a more authentic college experience this fall. Kristy Branstine, sophomore art education major, said that because all her classes were remote last school year, she and her friends did not explore many buildings beside the dining hall.

“It’s cool to actually explore campus and go in the buildings we spent so much time being around,” Branstine said. “The only issue was finding the actual classrooms because we’ve been here for a year but never stepped foot in any of the buildings.”

Damian Christensen, a history/secondary education major said without being immersed in campus life, making friends can be a challenging experience.

“I didn’t make any friends last year, none,” Christensen said. “I’ve made more friends in the last two weeks than I did last year.”

Christensen and Branstine have been part of a UA program called Safezone Allies since their first year on campus, in which they serve as peer mentors and allies to members of the LGBTQ community. Branstine said she has found a sense of community through the program, but even more so since the program resumed in-person meetings this year.

Because Branstine had all of her classes on Zoom last year, it was tough to make genuine connections with her classmates, she said. Only being able to see her classmates through a screen did not allow her to form the strong friendships she could have in person.

Raegan Holyfield, a sophomore journalism major who uses they/them pronouns, lived in their hometown of Bentonville during their freshman year. Holyfield said they still feel like a freshman because this year is their first on campus. After a year of remote classes, navigating campus has been a struggle for them.

“It was really weird, I was walking around and I was like, I have never seen any of this before,” Holyfield said. “I didn’t know what building was what.”

Not being present for in-person classes and events during the 2020-21 school year took a toll on some current sophomores. Holyfield said it was frustrating to not be able to experience the traditional freshman firsts.

“First football game, first freshman pep rally, being able to have a dorm my freshman year and having my first, like, big class,” Holyfield said. “I never got to do any of those firsts my freshman year, (so) I’m doing it this year.”

Holyfield said It has been refreshing to attend classes and events in person after last year when most events were online or restricted to limited attendance.

Christensen said it is strange to see so many students on campus this year compared to last year, when campus felt almost empty. There are a record-high 29,000 students enrolled for the fall 2021 semester, according to the UofA.

“It’s like I’m actually in college now, not just sitting in a dorm looking out my window going, ‘Oh look, there’s Zoom people,’” Christensen said. “It’s different.”

Holyfield said they feel bitter about missing the traditional freshman college experience last year. There were things that collectively hurt to miss, but with in-person classes and events, Holyfield said they already feel more involved on campus.

“Everyday, I’m like, ‘Ooh what’s happening on campus, do I have time to go?’” Holyfield said.

Branstine said it was hard for her to find anything to get involved with on campus last year, but now she and Christensen are peer mentors for the university perspectives 360 Program, which is intended for first generation college students. They said they both feel a greater sense of belonging being in that community..

“Everything either wasn’t happening or it wasn’t advertised, so it was really difficult to find good communities, and now it’s readily available,” Branstine said.

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