The ‘college experience’: UVA’s incoming first-years sign on for mostly-virtual semester

Incoming UVA first-year Ella Fendley says she’ll be enrolled this fall, because even online classes were a better option than taking a gap year. PC: Marley Nichelle  Incoming UVA first-year Ella Fendley says she’ll be enrolled this fall, because even online classes were a better option than taking a gap year. PC: Marley Nichelle 

By Claudia Gohn

University administrators around the country have expressed concern about whether students would show up for a non-traditional school year (and, accordingly, pay tuition). UVA’s incoming freshmen have shown that they’re so eager to begin their halcyon college years, they’ll do so even during a pandemic.

According to Dean of Admission Greg Roberts, 42 percent of students offered UVA admission accepted—up 2 percent from last year. As of mid-July, just 74 students have requested to take gap semesters or years, the university reports.

“None of us really thought about taking a gap year, just because we still wanted to have a college experience,” says incoming first-year Willow Mayer, referring to the other rising freshmen she’s spoken with, “even if it might not be the same as it was for other students who’ve already had their first year.”

Like many universities, UVA announced in early summer that the fall semester would be a hybrid of online and in-person learning. Though pressure is mounting for the school to switch to an all-virtual plan, UVA seems to hold out hope for some in-person instruction. The university recently sent an email to students, directing them to take a COVID test before arriving on Grounds.

It won’t be easy for UVA to hold a safe in-person semester, especially where first-years are concerned. All freshmen live in on-Grounds housing, and under the current plan, “double rooms will continue to be the default option for housing incoming first-year students,” the school says. The university plans to enact other measures, such assigning students to specific sinks and showers and closing common spaces.

The promise of a hybrid semester has lured some students who might not have otherwise come. Jack Meaney initially considered taking a semester off, but once he learned classes wouldn’t all be online, he decided to start his college career in August. “It might be different, but it’s still going to be a college experience,” he says.

Others balked at the idea of paying full tuition for a watered-down product. Azaria Bolton says she hasn’t committed yet, and will wait to see what classes look like before signing on. “Is it really worth all this money that I would have to be spending?” she asks. “Or would it be better to just leave it all and then come back to it when it’s back to normal?”

“Once I get all of the [information]…especially when it comes to classes and whether my classes would be in-person or online, that [will] probably be the biggest determining factor,” Bolton says.

Based on the number of students who have requested a gap year so far, students like Bolton and Meaney are in the minority. Most, it seems, will pay tuition regardless of the university’s instructional plans. Mayer says she doesn’t care if classes are fully digital; she’ll be enrolled anyway. “I can keep up with them better since there’s always the due dates and then I can just turn in the assignment right away,” she says.

Ella Fendley, who attended Monticello High School, chose UVA over other colleges specifically because of the pandemic. Given the uncertainty, staying close to home has benefits, she says. And while Fendley considered taking time off, she ultimately decided against it because she didn’t have anything else lined up.

“I didn’t have a plan for a gap year, and I didn’t want to sit around for a year and just not do anything,” she says.

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’tis well nigh time that our virtual parchment be lustered once more with the resplendent ‘halcyon’ despite its traditional pairing with days rather than years, as it were…