Ella Brittain, CFNN Reporter

When you think of college, parties, midnight food runs, sports, and even the regular classes spring to mind. In the age of COVID-19, however, college for some recent Colt graduates is anything but fun and games in our new normal.

“College has been nothing like I expected,” said Angelina Nicolosi, a 2020 Cape Fear graduate, who’s now a first-year student at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City.  “I’ve always had a perfect vision in my head of what college would be like, and with everything going on in the world, that fantasy has been shattered.”

Other members of the Colts Class of 2020 share Nicolosi’s feelings as they adjust to not only the changes from transitioning from high school to college, but doing so in the middle of a world-wide pandemic.

“I’m not allowed to be with my friends,” said Marlie Horne, also a 2020 Colt graduate and attending the University of Mount Olive with plans of playing volleyball. “I’m not allowed to go anywhere without a mask. I’m not allowed to play my sport. There is nothing I can do,” added Horne, saying that all the restrictions make college feel more like a prison.

“On move-in day and throughout the first week, I saw massive groups of students gathering outside, some without masks, which I found disheartening,” said 2020 Cape Fear graduate Nicholas Aime, describing his first days at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.

On the other end of the spectrum of college experiences is Lily Terwilliger, a first-year at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, who attends in-person classes and plays soccer.

“My school is very safe and responsible about masks and sanitizing everything and enforcing social distancing and such,” Terwilliger said describing her experience at the all women’s college with a student population of 300 to 500. “I hope the campus can keep it up and people stay responsible so that we do not have to be sent home like my friends have been,” she says.

Unfortunately, Terwilliger’s first weeks of college are not typical, as most students grapple daily news of new COVID cluster outbreaks on campuses across the country. Even in these difficult times, some still see hope and are optimistic. 

“It’s definitely different from the typical college experience but I think it will make our generation better for it,” said Walker Brittain, a first-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill who received a waiver to allow him to stay on campus and hopes to work with the school’s athletic communication’s office.

“I wish I would have had a normal freshman year, but I see no avenue where that could have been possible in these unprecedented times,” he said. UNC moved classes online and most students were asked to move out of dorms and off campus by Aug 30.  As of September 1, there were 1,142 students still living on UNC’s campus.

On September 3, NC State reported 22 new cases from Aug. 31. That brings N.C. State’s total count to 907 since the beginning of the pandemic in March.  Since students returned to campus in early August, the school has reported 31 clusters on and off-campus.

Some students are confronting a harsh financial reality with students being sent home with online, remote learning but still expected to pay the same tuition as for the in-class, on-campus experience.

 “I am learning from my bedroom in North Carolina instead of lecture halls at Barnard College in New York, but I’m still paying the same price,” Nicolosi said.  “I’ve also learned that a lot of university officials will do whatever they can to save money, even if it hurts the students.”

Several North Carolina universities to include UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State University, East Carolina University and UNC-Charlotte have gone entirely to online learning. These conditions have led some students to reconsider their choices for this academic year.

“If I could go back to the start of this year, I definitely would have taken a gap year or maybe looked into different schools,” Nicolosi added.  “Overall, I’ve become very disillusioned in my view of higher education.”

After struggling to get through their senior year at Cape Fear under the shadow of COVID-19, many students who were looking forward to a fresh start in college found they are still in the clutches of the pandemic.

“The coronavirus has successfully taken my senior year and thrown it away forever,” said Horne.  “So finally, I can move on.  I will get over it.  I’m at college.” Horne’s excitement was soon dashed when she learned that she could not play volleyball at the University of Mount Olive this year because of the virus.

In-class teaching at colleges being replaced by online learning is the reality even for those students who have not been sent home, but have remained on campus.

While students like Aime are still on campus at Wake Forest, the University is relying on more online classes to protect teachers and students. The adjustment to Zoom has been difficult for Aime, but he feels that it’s better than having nothing. “I wish we could have that valuable face to face education, but everyone’s safety comes first in times like these,” he said.

The effects of COVID-19 go beyond the physical or economic factors. It has taken a toll on our education system, reaching from the lower grades up through higher education and even teachers, changing the experience for everyone.

On September 4, The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported 2,045 new COVID-19 cases, up from 1,656 the day before, adding that 16% of the state’s total coronavirus caseload are among ages 18 to 24.

“This time has left it’s mark on us, and even when we return to a new normal, we will still have all been changed,” said Brittain. “I think we will all learn lessons of self-reliance and resilience that will exceed anything we could learn in the classroom.”