UNCW freshmen face a strange first semester


Lauren Wessell

UNCW columns between Leutze and Morton Hall.

Veronica Wernicke, Opinion Editor

As many schools and universities around the country are gearing up for their return to classes this Aug, there are many concerns about the adjustment in learning amid the dangers of the coronavirus (COVID-19). 

For students already enrolled at UNC Wilmington (UNCW) there are many lurking questions and concerns about just how safe campus will be upon arrival despite the university’s attempts to address concerns and answer questions via their Best for the Nest guide.

But imagine the concerns and questions of incoming freshmen and their parents.

It sounded like until recently UNCW’s plans and messaging sent to them had been about as detailed as their general fall plans announced back in June.

“They have sent out multiple emails in regards to choices of drop off or move in and also sent out the details of both options,” wrote incoming freshman Emily Pennell. “As for classes emails, as well as orientation, [UNCW] has explained the three types of classes (in-person, hybrid, online) and explained what dates they are starting. It has been a little confusing with all the changes along the way but these past two weeks I feel like they’ve really set everything in place…”

“I am getting emails fairly frequently about drop off and feel that I know most of the answers there. However some things such as picking up items (One card/Parking Permit/ Orientation tee-shirt) were not communicated with me until orientation,” Pennell added.

I wish UNCW would stop sending out several vague messages about anything, but especially fall 2020 plans. They should have started working last semester to put together their plans and back-up plans so they could have announced them early so that students like myself did not have to wait in agony to see what the semester was going to look like. Releasing a more detailed plan earlier would have allowed students contemplating staying at UNCW a better opportunity to fully consider their options, instead of having to wait until the last minute or until it is too late.   

There are so many new and exciting experiences that come with starting your freshman year of college. Orientation, registering for classes, move-in day, meeting your roommates, first day of classes, the list goes on. 

Although with the threat of COVID-19 still looming, these experiences will look very different this year and many freshmen were left with the question of whether they even want to begin their college experience at all this year. 

Incoming freshmen and their parents had to face tough decisions like whether they should defer, unenroll or start online at a community college amongst other available options. 

“I am worried about people not following the set-out guidelines and rules such as wearing a mask and social distancing,” wrote Pennell. “I’ve seen adults and high school students who refuse to listen to government mandates and I am afraid that will happen on campus. But I also have concerns about making friends and getting involved because COVID-19 makes that really hard…My parents don’t worry as much as I do. My mom has been buying me masks and cleaning supplies so she feels she has adequately prepared me. My dad doesn’t really care as much about COVID-19 in general.”

The excitement of college usually begins with orientation. Freshman orientation at UNCW is usually a two to three day required adventure where you get your first taste of campus life. But this year, orientation looked different.

UNCW had to push back its sessions until they ultimately decided to hold eight virtual orientations at the end of July, in addition to offering two pre-orientation online modules.

According to the UNCW transitions website, pre-orientation consisted of several virtual modules provided by the university.

“UNCW’s online orientation is separated into multiple modules that will provide you with information that will be helpful during your time at UNCW. You can complete the online orientation at your own pace; the system will save your progress and allow you to return to the last module you completed,” as stated on the website. 

Given how boring and long my own orientation experience was — and that was in person — I can only imagine how awful these modules were. I have taken my fair share of online learning sessions and I can say it was very hard to keep wanting to move on despite having to in order to receive credit. But given we are stuck at home due to COVID-19, do freshmen really have anything better to do –aside from binging shows on Netflix? 

However, transitions listed that it would take students only about 4.5 hours to finish all the modules.

Unlike attendance being taken during normal in-person orientation sessions, freshmen were being held accountable for these sessions by having to complete quizzes at the end of each module. They were only able to move on to the next model after getting all the questions right.

Our attention spans are one thing in person, but going through orientation online is a whole other ordeal, the more interactive a format the better for student engagement. But I am not sure quizzes were the right solution.

“Orientation answered a lot of my questions and even outlayed what was to happen if someone got the coronavirus. Orientation also outlined a lot about how the campus will be running and made me feel a lot more comfortable,” wrote Pennell.

Following the modules, freshmen were finally given the opportunity to meet their fellow incoming peers.

“During the [one day July] virtual orientation, students will meet their Orientation Leader, learn more about campus resources, connect with other first-year students, and register for fall courses,” as stated on their website.

Since orientation was pushed back until several weeks before classes started, freshmen had to wait until the last minute and until they completed their pre-modules to schedule a virtual advising appointment and later register for classes — which is anything but ideal.

Registering for classes in person was hard enough in person trying to decide with less than helpful academic advisors walking around the room trying to advise a room full of people. I can only imagine how more difficult it was for freshmen, who are very unfamiliar with the systems UNCW uses, to register for their first semester of classes given the natural confusion about what classes they should be taking and lack of in-person guidance.   

And that is without the added confusion of seeing what format classes will be offered this semester (online synchronous, online asynchronous, hybrid, etc…) and the later your orientation date was the fewer options you have available and as someone who had to wait to do orientation till the last session my freshman year, I can say it was frustrating trying to find a good schedule. 

“I registered on the later end and so many of the classes I wanted were not available,” wrote Pennell. “Also, many were not available in person which is a better learning experience for me. They guided us through the process and I would even say the over-explained it a little. I was able to register in 30 minutes and they explained it like it would take hours. All my classes still help cover my university studies area or major though so I would consider it a success.”

The last bit of orientation consisted of a welcome event that will be held from Aug 9-13 in Burney. 

“Join us on-campus to pick-up your orientation bag and t-shirt, student ID card, parking decal (if applicable), drop-off your medical records and immunization forms, sign the Honor Code banner and take a campus tour (weather permitting),” as stated on their website.

At least that part sounds somewhat like a normal orientation, but obviously social distance measures will be taken and freshmen will be some of the first to see what other measures UNCW has taken against COVID-19 on campus. 

Move-in day will also look different. Instead of having one set date for all freshmen to move in, UNCW offered a two-phased program, a drop off day and then a move-in day. For both phases, UNCW housing provided a list of several days and times where they could choose to drop off and then move in over a period of time to limit an influx of people coming into contact. 

Drop off runs from July 31 to Aug 9 with move-in held from Aug 13-18. Both phases require students to request a time slot, again to limit an influx of contact and ensure everyone’s safety. 

And Wilmington sure gave some freshmen an extra welcome with the threat of Hurricane Isaias making an impact in our area Aug 2-4, right at the start of drop off. Thankfully students were given the option to reschedule earlier or later to avoid the impacts of the storm. 

This is a somewhat better way to manage move-in day amongst COVID-19 concerns, however, it will be strange for all the freshmen who had hoped for all the excitement that comes with a “normal” move-in day at college. 

I also still see college dorms being a breeding ground for the COVID-19 virus given the typical movement of people between halls and rooms, shared spaces like bathrooms, especially since UNCW announced that masks do not have to be worn once in your room, which makes sense since no one wears masks in their own home anyway, but dorms are more confined spaces with more people. 

It will be interesting to see how this will be managed during the semester to ensure everyone’s safety, especially since there will always be a handful of students who still think they are immune and will not care about the safety and concerns of others. 

No matter what, incoming freshmen will have a much different college experience than most of the rest of us at UNCW. I feel for them and I can only imagine their concerns, especially since my own senior year is not starting off quite how I pictured it — thanks COVID-19. 

“I feel like UNCW is doing its best to start in the fall and I respect them trying to give us a safe, but also as normal as can be first year,” wrote Pennell.