Photo courtesy of Emily Steen
“When I visited Calvin and went to chapel, it was so evident how people really wanted to be there and worship together and join together as a community. And it was so cool to see college students so passionate about having a genuine faith and genuine connections with people…chapel was definitely one of the reasons why I came to Calvin.” What sophomore Emily Steen did not anticipate, however, is that throughout her first year as a Calvin student, the in-person chapel experience she’d been drawn to wouldn’t be possible.
Steen, a sociology major, is one of the 642 full-time, first-year students to join Calvin in the fall of 2020.
Although diverse in their backgrounds and reasons for attending Calvin, the class of 2024 has a unique experience in common: both their senior year of high school and first year of college – fundamental years in education – were shaped by the spread of COVID-19.
Like so many others, the class of 2024 faced loneliness, isolation, mental health concerns, and uncertainty. Besides adjusting to college, freshmen last year struggled to build community in the midst of fluctuating COVID-19 restrictions.
For now-sophomore Kelli Poolman, the hardest thing about her first year was not having a roommate. “She’s from India, so she couldn’t come because of COVID. So, I was just alone a lot of the time,” Poolman said. “It was a little bit lonely.”
Sophomore Brian Williams told Chimes: “With COVID restrictions, because I worked in healthcare, I understood why it was in place. It was a little bit harsh, it did hinder facilitating retaining relationships here and there in creating community but it was for a greater purpose.”
Steen remembers it being a challenge to meet people outside of her immediate circles. “I think it was hard to not know what people looked like at all… if you knew people before COVID, you would still know what their face looked like. But like, the freshman class, I have to remeet so many people because I don’t recognize them without masks on,” she said. “We obviously lost a ton of connection.”
Now-sophomores also lost the opportunity to participate in Calvin traditions like Chaos Night and dorm worship. Last year’s freshmen also missed out on many aspects of orientation. “I just have very distinct memories of what Quest was like for our class,” Steen said, “And like seeing what we missed, I guess we didn’t know what we had missed until this year. ”” she shares. “And I feel very grieved at the loss of a year where I could have been doing things like going to the Quest dance and having friends in my dorm room and stuff like that that I never really got the chance to miss because I wouldn’t know I was missing it.”
Mental health struggles were common among last year’s freshmen. Steen said it was essential to “be intentional about keeping relationships going. Otherwise, it was very easy to just not see people. It was very easy to be isolated.”
Maddie Pluimer, who was remote her second semester, echoed how last year enhanced her need to care for mental health. “My anxiety went through the roof because of COVID,” she said.
Taheer Alibhai was remote his first semester. “My first year at Calvin was kind of mixed. My first semester was fully online and I was learning back in Kenya; that was a whole new experience, having to do everything online and working with the time differences,” he remembers.
Despite the challenges of their first year, these sophomores returned to Calvin.
“I chose to stay at Calvin because I felt like, even in a hard year, I already feel like I was a very important part of the community,” Steen said. Steen told Chimes she is involved in the Calvin Theatre Company, Calvin Peacemakers, Newfound Narratives and the Honors Program. “I feel in some ways very tied to the community here, like, I know that they surround me and I pour into them, ” she said.
Pluimer credits her professors for her desire to return to campus. “Dr. Du Mez, if I can say, her class, that would be my favorite thing about living on campus,” she said. Being able to get the vaccine was also part of her decision. “Given that, it was kind of a no brainer for me… It just kind of seems like a nice little step to take towards the rest of my life so why not just give it another shot.”
Returning to campus as sophomores was a completely new experience for the class of 2024.
When asked what stood out the most coming back to campus, Poolman answered, “The dining halls, for sure. I’ve been going from two people at a joint table to like, ten!”
Pluimer, too, was shocked by the dining experience, saying: “All the food options? No way, there’s so many!”
For Steen, the return to “normal” dining came with two anxieties, one practical, the other social. “All of the lines are different, and I didn’t know where to put my dishes or silverware – I didn’t even know where silverware was,” she said. “…seeing that many people in a room again, like, made me feel very overwhelmed and a little bit anxious too. Not even just about COVID things but… I don’t really know how to exist in large groups.”
With a new year, new hopes and fears have arisen, especially for this sophomore class.
Alibhai voiced his concern that COVID could still be spreading. “That’s one of my biggest fears,” he said. As an international student, he also realized that if Calvin was to shut down again, going home would be a bigger challenge for him.
Steen told Chimes she trusts the university’s decisions to keep students safe and prays that the sophomore class won’t isolate itself “in an unconscious response to working through the emotions and the losses” they are realizing from their past year.
“The juniors and seniors have at least experienced some normalcy at Calvin, and now the freshmen are experiencing this as their normal because they have no other prior experience,” Steen said. ”So, really, the sophomores, we didn’t know a normal Calvin before COVID, so easing back into this new, into the “old way of doing things” or the “normal way of doing things” doesn’t feel normal for us.”
Disclaimer: Hadassa Ribeiro is a Resident Assistant. Maddie Pluimer lives on her floor. Chimes has vetted the story to preclude bias and ensure accuracy.