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Hear Harvard freshman Josie Chen as she navigates her first semester remotely from her parents’ house in California. Audio story produced by Monica Braine.
Josie Chen is a first-year student at Harvard, but has never set foot on campus. Like many students this year, she has opted to take her courses virtually from her parents’ home, in Oakland, California. Credit: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

OAKLAND, Calif. — It was 3:30 a.m. on a Monday during a typical all-night cram session, full of procrastination and random life stories.

Her long, dark hair pulled back into a messy bun, Josie Chen worked alongside her classmates on a chemistry lab report that was due in 2½  hours.

What wasn’t typical was that, instead of hanging out in a common area of a dorm, she was perched at a table in her childhood bedroom, trying not to disturb her parents and two siblings who were asleep on the other side of the cardboard-thin walls.

Chen, 18, is a first-year student at Harvard, even though she’s never set foot there. The others in her study group were cloistered in their rooms on campus.

Given how odd this semester has been for her, Chen said, “That was the moment I think was the closest that I got to what I thought my freshman year of college would be like.”

College isn’t normal for anyone this fall. Uncounted numbers of students like Chen have chosen to forgo the typical first-year experience to stay closer to home, whether to help out their families or to safeguard their own health. Their first impressions of college are turning out to be challenging, isolating, frustrating and confusing, with a few bright spots.

Harvard gave freshmen the option to start their college careers in residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but Chen and 250 other first-year students chose to stay at home — in Chen’s case, with her family in Oakland. She worried about leaving her father, a home care worker, and her mother, who was a waitress until she suffered a knee injury, in the middle of a pandemic.

“There are a lot more considerations that I have to take into account aside from just what is the classic college experience I want for myself,” said Chen, who plans to major in the history of science and East Asian studies.

Related: Covid has been bad for college enrollment — but awful for community college students

When she first made the decision to stay home, Chen was disheartened about it. But in the ensuing months, her perspective changed — mainly because she saw that the semester has been equally challenging for her classmates who opted to be on campus.

“There’s definitely some disappointment that my first college experience is going to be through a screen,” she said at the end of July.

As the semester went along, however, Chen said she had made the right choice.

When she talks to her classmates at Harvard and friends at other colleges, she said, “they don’t seem like they’re having too great a time either” because of Covid-19 restrictions. Some have pushed the boundaries enough that Harvard has sent home at least three students for partying.

Josie Chen attends a Harvard class, virtually, from her childhood bedroom. Credit: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

Meanwhile, Chen has kept very busy. During her first week of class, she reported spending eight hours doing problem sets for calculus. “It just went from doing nothing this summer to having to work constantly again,” she said.

The rigor of her high school classes dropped off significantly when her school switched to remote learning in the spring, she said, and coursework now takes longer than it would “if my brain had been active.”

Many prospective first-year students are skipping college altogether in this pandemic fall. The number of first-time students who showed up either in person or online declined by more than 16 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. At Harvard, more than 20 percent of the incoming class opted to defer admission until fall 2021.

“Right now I wouldn’t say I belong at Harvard,” Chen said. “I’ve never seen the campus. It’s kind of hard to feel like a sense of ownership, or any sense of loyalty even, to a place where I’ve never been.”

The number of first-time students who showed up for college either in person or online this fall is down by more than 16 percent from last fall.

She knows she most likely won’t see the campus in person until the fall of 2021, since Harvard is giving priority in the spring to seniors returning for their final semester.

Chen’s desk at home is a jumble of tangled cords from her iPad, laptop and phone chargers, along with a red Thermoflask water bottle, AirPod earbuds, scrunchies, a scientific calculator and lip balm. Her walls are bare of the posters and other childhood memorabilia she stripped off before classes started so her personal effects wouldn’t be on display on Zoom. Her classmates can’t see the rumpled green comforter on her unmade bed when she logs into Zoom at 7:30 a.m. for her Medicine and Conflict class.

Related: As the world goes virtual, big education technology players tighten their grip

“It feels like my life essentially has gone static,” Chen said at the end of the first week of classes as her enthusiasm about starting college began to wear off. “I’m rolling out of the bed that I’ve rolled out of for the last 10 years. The environment is too familiar and too comfortable.”

She shares her ground-floor, two-bedroom apartment two blocks from the I-580 freeway in East Oakland with her parents, younger brother and older sister, Janie, 21, who is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley.

The sisters initially shared their childhood bedroom when Janie came home in the spring after the pandemic shut down her campus.  That was until they started having simultaneous Zoom classes. “Um, it’s a situation,” Josie Chen said.

Josie Chen, left, and her sister, Janie, are both attending college virtually from home this semester in their family’s two-bedroom apartment in Oakland, California, so their parents partitioned the living room to give Janie Chen a private space to study and sleep. “I’m really loud when I talk, apparently,” Josie Chen said. Credit: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

So her father built a metal frame that her mother hung with bed sheets, tied back with a gold sash, to curtain off a corner of the living room, giving Janie her own space to sleep and study. It’s steps away from the kitchen, which is often filled with the peppery aroma of her parents’ fried rice or the smokiness of barbecue pork. A whiteboard with Josie Chen’s class schedule hangs on the fridge, and the sisters communicate by text although they’re only feet apart.

 “I’m really loud when I talk, apparently,” Josie Chen said. “She’s always texting me to be quiet.”

“Yeah, because I can still hear her with the doors closed,” Janie Chen interjected. “I need peace.”

Their 15-year-old brother, Andy, a high school sophomore whose classes are also online, tries to stay out of it. “My brother is taking the same classes that I did in high school,” said Josie Chen. “So every time I pop my head into his Zoom, I get to see all my old teachers.”

Related: While focus is on fall, students’ choices about college will have a far longer impact

Though bickering often takes them back to their childhood, Josie Chen acknowledges she’s had an easier path through higher education thanks to her big sister. “Janie was the first to do everything in the family,” Josie Chen said. “As much as I don’t know what questions to ask, she didn’t know anything at all. … Everything that I know how to do largely came from the fact that she did it first. So I have the privilege of an example.”

Their parents don’t mind having all three of their children back under the same roof. “I was expecting the two older kids to be off in college,” Yu Sheng Chen, 53, Josie’s father, said in Taishanese, a dialect of Yue Chinese; he and his wife, Chun Ling Chen, 55, immigrated to the United States from rural China in the 1990s. “The silver lining for me is that I can spend a little more time with them.”

Like many students, Josie Chen opted to stay home for her first year of college to be closer to her family during the pandemic. Her father, Yu Sheng Chen, is a home care worker and her mother, Chun Ling Chen, was a waitress until she suffered a knee injury. Credit: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

Yu Sheng Chen is grateful that his children have been able to attend top universities, even if they are temporarily online. “If I was still in China, no matter how bright my children are, I would have no way of supporting them through good schools,” he said.

In addition to Harvard, Josie Chen was admitted to Berkeley and several other universities. “My parents … came here so that I [could] have a choice,” she said.

Her parents are also the reason she wants to go into medicine, though they are not pressuring her to do so. She has witnessed firsthand how her parents aren’t always able to get what they need from medical professionals. “The whole world of medicine is really daunting,” she said. “It seems really inaccessible to a lot of people from immigrant communities, communities of color, communities with low socioeconomic status. I want to pursue medicine for the sake of changing that dynamic.”

“It feels like my life essentially has gone static. I’m rolling out of the bed that I’ve rolled out of for the last 10 years. The environment is too familiar and too comfortable.”

Josie Chen, who is spending her first year of college taking courses virtually

College Track, a nonprofit that runs a college completion program, is helping Chen begin her college experience from afar while balancing her studies with her family responsibilities. She checks in with her college completion advisor, Tomás Rodriguez, several times a month by text and Zoom.

Being at home has made her feel guilty about spending so much time studying instead of with her family. At a check-in with Rodriguez in late September, Chen got emotional when talking about not living up to her own expectations as a daughter.

Related: Students who counted on work-study jobs now struggle to pay their bills

“I’m so weighed down by school that I don’t have a chance to interact with them, even at home,” she said. “It’s a constant feeling of, ‘You should be more on top of it so that you can actually do what you stayed home to do, which is interact with your family during a freakin’ pandemic.’ ”

Rodriguez replied: “Just because they struggled, does that mean you have to?  There is this pressure that … particularly the children of immigrants put on ourselves that there is this need to do right by them. And the fact that you’re already in college, you are doing right by them.”

When she decided to spend her first year of college taking courses virtually, Josie Chen was disheartened about it. But over time her perspective changed as she saw that the semester has been equally challenging for her classmates who opted to be on campus. Credit: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

Chen’s first-year advisor at Harvard, who checks in with her occasionally, has also encouraged her to “learn to learn and not to get the A,” Chen said.      

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to enjoy that mindset that I can actually take the time to learn  and not worry about failure,” Chen said. “Because the whole world is plummeting right now.”

So much has she taken that lesson to heart that Chen was “bouncing off the walls” with giddiness when she got a 79 on a math midterm she had been worried about failing.

Five weeks into the semester, Chen told her advisor that she was also reaching out for help from instructors and teaching assistants. “It just takes me so long to understand everything,” she said.

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to enjoy that mindset that I can actually take the time to learn and not worry about failure. Because the whole world is plummeting right now.”

Josie Chen, who is spending her first year of college taking courses virtually

Zoom lectures haven’t been as bad as she thought they would be, though the upstairs neighbor’s vacuuming is distracting when she’s trying to pay attention. It’s actually easier to ask questions in large lectures online than it would be in person, she said.

A bigger challenge has been the time difference.  Her 9 a.m. class on the East Coast is at 6 a.m. in California. Sometimes she watches “alternative viewing sessions” later in the day.      

“It knocks me out for the rest of the day,” Chen said. “It’s like I’m in a constant state of jet lag.”

She said she has to subtract three hours every time she gets an email about a meeting, and work a little harder to figure out the best time to schedule study groups with her classmates.

Related: How higher education’s own choices left it vulnerable to the pandemic crisis

Chen has settled into her academics, but she’s still trying to figure out the social side. She met a few other first-generation students through a pre-orientation program and has gotten involved with an undergraduate science journal — all virtually — but still doesn’t have a real sense of what it means to be part of Harvard.

“I can’t just meet people by chance who have common interests … and get that human-to-human feedback that I crave so much because I’m an extrovert,” Chen said.

One of her professors teaching a small seminar class recently invited everyone out for socially distanced pizza at a popular joint in Harvard Square. “Sure, I’ll do that from California,” Chen joked.

: Josie Chen’s father, Yu Sheng Chen, expected that his daughters would be off at college this year. Instead, they’re both learning from home. “The silver lining for me is that I can spend a little more time with them,” he said. Credit: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

“I’m basically going to go to college as a sophomore. I don’t know anything about the campus. … I don’t know where all the good food places are,” she said. “And I’m going to have to learn all that my sophomore year.”

Still, there are occasional moments when remote learning and living almost feel normal. Her chemistry professor cracks corny jokes during his lectures, and she’s been to more than one surprise Zoom birthday party.

“When we’re up at 2 a.m. and we’re just half-hysterical and some of us are hopped up on caffeine — funny things happen on Zoom,” she said. “It’s not all drudgery.”

This story about college and Covid-19 was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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