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A year after the pandemic interrupted school, Goucher College is welcoming two classes to campus for the first time

Surveying the tell-tale clusters of new students wandering into Goucher College’s freshman orientation Saturday, Aarika Camp felt a burst of pride — and relief.

The college’s vice president of student affairs had been hoping to spot the first-year students once again spending their early days on the Baltimore County campus moving in groups, making each others’ acquaintance and working together to find their way.

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Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted or altered many important collegiate experiences for students, including campus living, in-person instruction and social bonding. The next 30 days will be a crucial time for students who are first-time residents to build ties to the campus and strong relationships with peers, Camp said.

“The first thing you’re always concerned about is homesickness,” she said. “And then it’s acclimation, where students may start questioning ‘Have I made the right decision?’”

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As Maryland colleges and universities welcome students back this week, some officials are bracing for twice as many first-time residents on campus as usual because of last year’s school closures caused by the pandemic. Freshmen — and many sophomores — will set up their dorms, find their way to classrooms and meet their professors face-to-face for the first time.

In the Baltimore region, Goucher College was among several institutions that remained closed for most of the 2020-21 school year, welcoming only a few students to campus for seven weeks in the spring.

Camp and other Goucher officials have designed two orientations this year — one for freshmen, the other for sophomores — in an effort to focus on their differing needs.

Sophomores, for example, may ask where to find a specific office or service while freshmen are more likely to ask broader questions about what help is available to them. However, both sets of students may need to acclimate to shared living arrangements with people who are different from themselves.

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“You don’t want to treat a second-year student like a first-year student, but there are commonalities between them,” she said.

Ayo Ajiborode, of Parkville, lived about 15 minutes from Goucher’s campus during the 2020-21 academic year, but spent his freshman year at home attending class online. As his brother helped him move Monday into a campus dorm, he playfully teased him not to cry.

“I definitely got some feelings in my tummy,” Ajiborode said. “I was nervous about parking in the right lot, talking to the right people about where to move in.”

Still, the 19-year-old couldn’t relate when he some overheard freshmen remark that they didn’t know anyone on campus. Ajiborode and other sophomores who took online classes likely will spot familiar faces this week.

Goucher officials expanded the freshman mentorship program this year to include sophomores and transfer students, pairing them with resident assistants and upperclassmen as part of the orientation process.

The goal last year, Camp said, was to give students a college experience that would make them physically want to come to campus. This fall, it’s about taking steps to combat homesickness or unease over the virus.

“The more engaged you can have students be in those first couple of weeks ... they’ll realize this may be their new home,” she said.

Sunny Butterfield, a senior employed as a campus mentor, made a point to greet families by making eye contact directly with their students as they arrived on campus. She hoped it would help them embrace their newfound independence in college away from nervous parents and guardians.

Butterfield’s own first year at college had been rough, she said, but improved significantly when she started talking about her struggles with her peers. The senior applied for the mentorship position with the goal of offering students the same moral support she received.

“College is put on this pedestal as the best time of your life,” Butterfield said. When the expectations do not match reality, students can feel isolated.

Around the campus Monday, new friendships bloomed as students trickled through dormitories and scouted out hidden corners of their new home.

Olive Scott and Leila Malone poked their heads into an empty common area in Goucher’s Trustees Hall. Scott’s mom, Rebecca Trimpi, urged the sophomores to explore the space a little more and plopped onto one of the room’s plush, purple couches.

The sophomore roommates, both from California, already had met once over the summer in their native state before moving into the Goucher dorm Monday.

Malone was among a small group of students to live on campus in the spring, but it felt mostly empty at the time, they said. Meanwhile, Scott didn’t allow herself to get excited about college until she finally stepped off the plane on the East Coast.

“I was fortunate to make friends in the spring and they all know you,” said Malone, seated on the purple couch.

“Oh, good,” Scott sighed.

Both students said they were a little nervous about finding their classes and getting back to an earlier sleep schedule, but eager to attend courses in person.

“We’re here now and that’s what matters,” Malone said.

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