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Penn State freshmen could face challenges in transition to in-person classes following virtual NSO

A Walk Around Campus, Touring Campus

Nelson Troncoso walks with his sister Domenica and their mother through the heart of Penn State's University Park, Pa. campus on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. Nelson is a graduate student studying computer science, and his family visited him during the summer session.

An annual tradition for incoming students, Penn State’s New Student Orientation aims to mitigate the difficulties of transitioning to college life.

Featuring lectures, programming and a plethora of opportunities for new students to meet and mingle, the events are generally two-day ordeals.

But after coronavirus cases on campus last academic year, the university opted to err on the side of caution this summer, holding a large portion of its NSO virtually. And this isn’t the first year the university chose to do so — when the pandemic first began, NSO was one of the first major university functions affected during the summer 2020 semester.

A year later, many Centre County residents are vaccinated, things are opening up and masks are no longer required in most areas.

The class of 2025, however, will be the first to transition from a mostly virtual learning format to an entirely in-person one. Some incoming freshmen weighed in on their NSO experiences — and not all of them feel as though they’ll be prepared for the return of in-person activities this fall.

For incoming freshman and current summer student Luke Hebbelinck, the virtual orientation was “a waste of time.”

Hebbelinck (freshman-division of undergraduate studies) said he believes the information from several of the hourslong seminars he had to attend could have been easily condensed into an easy-to-read email.

Charlotte Elliott, Nya Holland and Kate O’Brien all shared similar sentiments to Hebbelinck, and they said they thought they were missing out on NSO experiences.

“The content part was the same [as previous years],” Elliott (freshman-finance) said. “It was the meeting new people part that we missed out on.”

Holland (freshman-marketing) said she believes an in-person orientation “would have been more fun.”

Such an orientation, Holland said, would have helped her meet and interact with her peers in face-to-face environments.

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For O’Brien (freshman-division of undergraduate studies), the lack of random roommate assignments that students would’ve experienced in person and length of the virtual component — three days — were particularly difficult, she said.

“We just sat in our rooms by ourselves, staring at a screen for three days,” O’Brien said.

All three are currently summer students and said they believe their summer courses and activities are preparing them more for an in-person fall than NSO did.

Elliott said her summer classes and in-person activities helped her “feel normal again” and helped her transition to campus — something NSO didn’t do, she said.

This, in particular, was a sentiment and experience shared by Charlie Dorazio, another current summer student and incoming freshman.

“It’s actually very helpful to be going here over the summer,” Dorazio (freshman-business) said. “It’s really nice, too, just to meet people and get your feet wet before everyone comes here and you might be getting lost or overwhelmed.”

Dorazio noted, however, several of his experiences were solely the result of his summer enrollment, and other students not enrolled for the summer session weren’t able to experience the same events, he said.

“They had extended orientation in person our first week, and that was really nice because that way, I actually got to meet people in person,” Dorazio said. “The in-person [aspect] was definitely a better way to meet students.”

He said he met his orientation leader, several of his classmates and his current friends during the first week of classes this summer — friends like Dan Dailey, who echoed many of Dorazio’s thoughts.

“The virtual orientation was definitely less engaging than the in-person part,” Dailey (freshman-division of undergraduate studies) said. “The in-person part, I felt, was really beneficial because you actually get to meet the orientation leader, and you get to talk.”

Dailey said he believes the summer session gave him a “leg up” on his unenrolled peers.

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Yet some upperclassmen like Grace Buddle aren’t as optimistic about how they believe the class of 2025 will fare after the mostly virtual NSO.

“Not getting that in-person NSO to start off their college experience will probably make the transition a lot harder,” Buddle (junior-biotechnology) said. “They won’t be used to or ready for the in-person college experience… It could be harder for them to adjust to campus life.”

Buddle said she believes freshmen will begin their fall semester, start their classes and “be thrown in blind.”

Mitchell Stry voiced the same concerns and said the class of 2025’s high school experiences will be a contributing factor in students’ difficult transitions.

“They’re going to have a lot harder of a time than the other groups did,” Stry (senior-chemistry) said. “They’re not going to be used to in-person classes anymore.”

Stry also said he believes new students will have to scramble to find classes and worry about aspects of campus life he said should have been part of their NSO experience to begin with.

NSO was one of the most impactful aspects of Stry’s Penn State experience due to its in-person nature over three years ago, he said.

“I enjoyed the chance to see what being in a dorm was like. I enjoyed the chance to get to know campus. I enjoyed the chance to go to the [Berkey] Creamery,” Stry said. “Those were important things for getting the feel of what Penn State’s like.”

Buddle reminisced on her own experiences at NSO and how they aided her, too.

“As uncomfortable and weird as it was sometimes — sharing a room with a stranger — it was definitely really helpful to start making connections and [getting] used to the whole college [experience],” Buddle said. “It helped me get used to the idea of being on my own, away from my parents.”

Both Stry and Buddle said they believe incoming students will not have gotten the necessary experience students need before their first fall semester.

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“Having NSO is an important chance to make friends and be together in person on campus,” Stry said. “It gives them a chance to see what Penn State’s all about before the hectic... fall starts.”

Edward Kaiser, a research technologist at Penn State, said he is also concerned for the class of 2025 after experiencing virtual orientation.

Much of the benefit of NSO, Kaiser said, is having students present on campus so they learn where buildings are, navigation to and from classes, and campus rules, procedures and processes.

“There’s going to be a decrease in quality with them not being here and seeing everything,” Kaiser said. “Just seeing it on a screen versus being here — we think there’s going to be some loss of quality.”

Kaiser said he believes it will be a “shock” when students, faculty and staff return to campus — both for those returning during the fall and those already on campus over the summer, and the new environment will take “getting used to.”

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