First-generation students face new obstacles amidst global pandemic

By Anna Pogarcic

Savannah Pless, first-year

Savannah Pless probably spends about eight-hours on her laptop each day. She goes between watching her online classes and doing her homework, rarely leaving her desk.

Usually, a first-year at UNC-Chapel Hill like herself would be spending their first few weeks of classes getting lost on the main campus in a sea of brick buildings, or signing up to join too many clubs and instantly regretting it. Instead, she’s doing her first year of college at her home in China Grove, North Carolina, more than 100 miles away from Chapel Hill.

She’s not the only student who isn’t on campus this year due to the pandemic, but she does feel that she has extra hurdles. On top of being a first-year, she’s the first person in her family to go to college. Every day has brought new twists during the last few months, and she never knows what to expect.

About twenty percent of the class of 2024 are first-generation students like her, and no matter what year they are, this year is testing their strength. All of these students are trying to find their footing, but many of them feel like they’re scaling this mountain alone.

Pless always thought about going to college, even if she didn’t realize it at the time. She remembers being as young as 10 years old and helping her father feed calves on the family’s farm. From that moment she knew she wanted to work with animals for the rest of her life.

However, going through the application process was mostly trial and error.

“I really didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to about the application process or what I should be going through, or even what career I was pursuing or what I wanted to do,” she said.

College websites were a puzzle; even when she could find the application, she didn’t know how many essays she had to write, how to seem like the perfect candidate, or when to apply. By the time she had applied, was accepted, and committed to UNC-CH, it was late April. North Carolina was approaching 600 reported cases, and people were still saying it would all be over soon.
Before she knew it, Pless was doing orientation virtually. Move-in day for her consisted of changing the color of her bedroom from purple to teal. Not a bright or neon blue, but one that will help her focus.

Those teal walls surround her as she tries to balance her classes, assignments, and her professor’s preferences. But it’s not the difficulty of the classes that worries her most, it’s the thought that she’s missing out.

Aside from one person from her high school that also goes to UNC-CH, she hasn’t had an opportunity to make any friends, meet new people, or do any of the traditions that come with being a first-year, like convocation.

“I’m sure they’ll do them at a later time, so I’ll eventually get that experience, I hope,” she said.

Abbas Hasan, junior
For Abbas Hasan, a first-generation junior at UNC-CH, those experiences made the university feel like home. Without them, he doesn’t even feel like he’s in Chapel Hill, even though he’s living in his off-campus apartment.
When he toured the campus as a high school senior, he noticed the trees right away. In Dallas, where he grew up, he mostly knew pavement and gray buildings, but Chapel Hill was overflowing with greenery. He didn’t think it was possible to live somewhere like that.

It took him a semester and a half to feel that he was finally adjusted once he moved here. Aside from the fact that he was several states removed from his family, students tore Silent Sam down on his first night on campus. His parents were on the plane to Texas when it happened, and they didn’t stop texting him for days once they landed.

With social unrest, hurricanes, and a water crisis happening all while he was trying to figure out how to adjust to a new place, make friends and decide on a major, he felt like everything was coming at him all at once. He felt like it couldn’t get more complicated than that.

Then, when he finally had a solid friend group and declared an American studies major, the pandemic sent him back to Texas in March. He still feels lucky because at least he’s not a first-year while he’s doing virtual college.  “The way that I made friends and connected with this university would have been impossible to do,” he said.

But some students are trying. Melanie Krug is the president of the First Generation Student Association, which provides resources and community building opportunities to students each year. What usually would be game nights or speaker events with food are now happening on Zoom, which she said isn’t the same environment.

“They don’t really get to have that click moment with each other, either,” she said. “One of my favorite things at events (is) when people end up sitting down next to each other and talking and they’re like, ‘oh, where do you live?’ to ‘what floor are you on? Oh, no way, what’s your major?'”

First-years are always eager to make friends, she said, and her organization encourages people to get to know each other so they can at least wave if they cross paths on campus. Those little moments can’t happen now, and that can be isolating for anyone, let alone a student who has no support system going into UNC-CH.

“Carolina is about the space and the people and the buildings,” Hasan said. “It’s not this idea, it’s something you work for.”

Kamryn McDonald, resident advisor

Kamryn McDonald is a resident advisor in the first-generation residential learning program at Hinton James Residence Hall. She said many first-generation students are vulnerable now that they aren’t on campus and can’t get these experiences outside of their family setting. Many of them don’t have a supportive environment at home, or they may struggle to build confidence.

“I worry that if you don’t have some foundational relationships with people that are really important to you and that you trust, or that you don’t have a faculty member that voices support for you, I can see why you wouldn’t want to stay or why college wouldn’t feel right to you,” she said.

She remembers staying up late with her suitemates during her first year at UNC-CH, playing card games, and talking. Every Sunday, they would get brunch at Chase Dining Hall, and she would order vegan banana french toast because it’s sweeter than regular french toast. That community helped her get used to the university, and that’s what Pless and Hasan miss the most.


Edited by Aashna Shah