"First Year Fall FOMO"
This story first appeared in the Sept. 17, 2020, issue of the Whitman Wire.
FOMO— the Fear of Missing Out.
Whitman College’s decision to hold fall semester via remote learning left some students feeling FOMO about what is popularly referred to as the “freshman experience.” First years can usually look forward to the fall as a period for self-growth, forging friendships and other experiences while on an exciting new campus.
As COVID-19 forced first years to put their notions of a typical “Freshman Experience” behind them, some of their peers were able to go to in-person colleges and universities.
Within the last month, social media has been filled with posts of people whose schools chose in-person learning. Each school has a unique approach to handling COVID-19 that may or may not allow for the kinds of activities in which students choose to participate and exhibit on social media. People post themselves moving in, meeting roommates, going to class and experiencing a piece of normalcy.
Four first years shared their experiences suffering from FOMO on the “Freshman Experience.”
Jessica Hernandez-Luis called in from her home, around 30 minutes away from Whitman. As a resident of the nearby area, she was excited to spend this fall sharing her favorite spots with her new friends.
“I was ready to be open to all those opportunities and possibilities,” Hernandez-Luis said.
She took part in the Summer Fly-In Program, which was conducted virtually this past summer, to meet new people before classes began. During their online meetings, she met group leaders who had experienced the in-person Summer Fly-In Program in the past who spoke of their overwhelmingly positive experiences and friendships gained. It stood out to her as the most important part of the “Freshman Experience” she missed out on. While she explained that she knows they will all meet eventually, she said that she does experience FOMO because an in-person Fly-In cannot be recreated for another semester.
At the time of Hernandez-Luis’s interview, most of her friends were preparing to move into Portland State University where there is in-person learning. Her friends will follow safety restrictions on campus, making their experience not entirely what they expected either. She does not expect to be envious of them, but she is concerned about their health.
Her friends currently on campus in Idaho are observing strict social distancing. They have posted Instagram and Snapchat stories showing themselves following the rules of their campus.
“I do get a little jealous because they do get to live in the dorms and I bet that’s something we were all looking forward to,” Hernandez-Luis said.
Hernandez-Luis wished that Whitman had given virtual roommate assignments so that students could have someone to connect with right away. Some way to break down the first barrier of awkwardness would have made meeting people much easier. Instead, she found herself sending random, and sometimes awkward, texts asking people if they want to be friends. For her, this actually worked. She has already made some close friends over social media. Not being able to meet right away has built up their anticipation for spring semester.
“I feel like because…we haven’t been able to meet in person, that when we do meet in person, it’ll be even better,” Hernandez-Luis said.
With the understanding that remote learning is for the greater good, first year Jake Wang has been able to process recent events with a balanced eye. Opening schools for on campus learning does not seem smart to him. As a keen follower of the news and current scientific data, he saw campuses without testing capabilities as significantly harmful to our future.
Among his peers attending school on campus, there are two general categories: campuses with testing and those without testing. A few precautions his friends have noted include one-way hallways, assigned bathrooms and masks required at all times. Taking into consideration these rules, Wang did not think that on campus learning would be worth it, especially while worried about getting sick. He also did not believe that his peers were overall getting what they wanted or expected either.
Like most first years, Wang had a general idea of what his own experience would be like.
“Meeting new people and learning to be who I am,” Wang said.
While he knew college would be different, learning and meeting people online was not a challenge he expected. He hopes that spring semester brings more chances to socialize. Although not a frequent user of social media until recently, he has had some success making friends online. It has been more beneficial than FOMO-producing for him. He met other first years in a similar situation — stuck at home with a love of the outdoors — who he was able to meet for a socially-distanced hike.
He countered FOMO with a statement about the positives of a fall made different by the pandemic.
“We will have a unique set of experiences to look back at when we are seniors and we will be proud of each other,” Wang said.
Grace Fassio had been looking forward to her Whitman College experience after watching her older sister complete her education at Whitman. For the past four years, she has helped her sister move into her dorm room and gone to the family events. This semester was supposed to be her turn.
“Being a younger sister, I was reluctant to go to the same college as her, even though I really wanted to, because I didn’t want people to be like ‘you’re just following in your sister’s footsteps,’” Fassio said.
There was some truth in that Fassio wanted the same foundational first year experiences, but she also knew that she would have the chance to craft it to her taste. She loves fall, so she hoped to spend it on campus in Walla Walla. Going to Penrose Library and going out to eat with friends were two things she was particularly excited for.
She has seen many friends fan out across the country to start school on campus. Some people are on campus, yet learning online, while some are on campus with in-person learning. A few others are in a similar situation to Fassio, at home but currently unable to see each other.
People that she knows that live on campus have not been following COVID-19 prevention measures.
“A lot of people are so desperate to make friends that they are kinda willing to do anything,” Fassio said.
She sees the actions of schools and students as being counterproductive to the greater good for society and stopping the pandemic. Even people who ordinarily would abide by the rules are not because they fear not making friends more. This version of on campus FOMO could be deadly and is not something that Fassio wishes to see continue.
She found herself disappointed with high school friends who have chosen to join social scenes and are not following campus rules. This has strained her relationships, because those who break rules seem aware of their negative behavior but avoid confrontation with friends who point it out.
“In some ways they have distanced themselves from us…stopped talking to us since we know that they are acting differently,” Fassio said.
At least virtually, she suggested, students do not have to choose between bowing to FOMO social pressure or safety.
Fassio reflected that people often assume that everyone else is having an easier experience and that they are the ones missing out, specifically with meeting people. She found that from talking to other first years, people are actually not having as easy of a time as they might project. Many people it seems to her are still going through the stage of not knowing anyone yet. Meeting people in class and then making an effort to connect with them outside of class is difficult, she explained.
“I personally find it hard to start a friendship over text. I feel like it can get really dry quick and no one knows what to say,” Fassio said.
Fassio does not use social media very often, but has used it more recently as a resource to put faces to names. It has made her feel more connected to the Whitman community, knowing that she can at least have a little background information on people she will be meeting in person.
She felt FOMO hearing from friends who are at in-person colleges right now. She hopes that during the spring she will be able to recover some of what the virtual fall has caused to her to miss out on. She even thinks it may serve as a point for connection once everyone is on campus. Together, first years can recreate those aspects of fall that they feel like they have lost out on.
In Astrid Ketcham’s family, there is a rule that everyone must go to college outside of Arkansas. With her brother at Bates College in Maine, she decided to take on the opposite coast, after falling in love with Whitman during her first visit to campus. She was drawn to Whitman’s location, its study abroad programs and the Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB) major. Whitman stood out to her as a school that could propel her towards her goal of going to medical school. She was looking forward to this fall as her chance to escape humid Arkansas and enter an entirely different atmosphere that felt conducive to her aspirations.
For a long time, she felt different for having different goals than people around her. Most people from her town go to the same two colleges in Arkansas. She was about to be one of only two people leaving for college in Washington out of her entire graduating class.
Ketcham watched as her friends moved into their dorms on social media. At first, it was exciting to see people moving in. Although, after a few days of seeing other people moving in, she felt the weight of not being able to move to campus herself. She almost wishes that she had rented her own place in Walla Walla.
She had been looking forward to moving in with her roommate, whom she met on social media after being accepted. They interacted on Snapchat for a while before deciding to put in a request to room together.
“I have all these boxes ready to go for my dorm and I don’t get to use them,” Ketcham said.
As much as she wishes that Whitman was on campus, she witnessed other friends who have been able to live on campus still not feeling like they are getting the “Freshman Experience” they wanted. Most of the University of Arkansas classes are online with very few in-person meetings. During any other school year, sororities would usually be a huge deal, but with the restrictions, it has become the focus for all student life. A masked rush week became one of the only ways to meet people and to have the “Freshman Experience.” For one of her friends who did not participate, this sorority mayhem made her feel more isolated. This friend was excited to meet people, but now finds herself stuck in her dorm doing classes alone.
In comparison, meeting people has not been all that bad for Ketcham. Besides her roommate, she did not think she would be able to make friends online. She would remember students’ names from class and try to find them on social media later. She was very surprised when people from class began coming to her, asking if she wanted to study together.
“I literally thought that I’d have one friend,” Ketcham said.
For the most part, Ketcham believes virtual learning is for the better. She anticipates a spring semester with first year activities in which she can meet more people. However, if Whitman does not take in students this spring, she wants to be well informed of the next plan.
In It Together
The fear of missing out on the typical “Freshman Experience” can be crushing, but these first years show a remarkable hopefulness. Their views may help other first years feel validated and represented in the midst of an often emotional experience.
Watching peers on social media have experiences that Whitman first years also crave can be hard. Social media can have the power to inflate experiences into looking more fun or desirable than they may actually be. However, social media can also be a strong form of connection, as these first years have illustrated.
Across these four interviews, a similar phrase was spoken by each: We are in this together. Unity and strength are what have come to define the class of 2024. In spite of an uncertain future, they continue to be hopeful and understanding of the greater purpose behind virtual learning.
About the Featured Writer
Genevieve Vogel is a first-year student from Brunswick, Maine and a feature reporter for the Whitman Wire. “First Year Fall FOMO” was her first article. The article was Vogel’s idea and she pitched it as part of her application to work for the Wire. Vogel is excited to pursue her love of journalism as a Wire reporter and has already found that her interviewing of other students, faculty and staff has helped with her own case of fall FOMO.
For her first feature, Vogel found students on Instagram and reached out to them via email—connecting with students with diverse and interesting experiences and ideas. Beyond her journalism interests, Vogel is taking classes in history and economics and is enjoying her history course: Across Borders: U.S./Latin America taught by assistant professor of history Camilo Lund-Montano. She is involved in the Every Vote Counts Club and the Young Democrat Socialists Club at Whitman. While she is at home in Maine this semester, Vogel looks forward to moving to Walla Walla and experiencing campus life at Whitman. She was drawn to Whitman, because she wanted to be at a small liberal arts college “Whitman checked off everything I had on my list,” she said.