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Two Cleveland college freshmen embrace on-campus life after a senior year upended by COVID-19

Case Western University freshman Aja Leatherwood sits in her dorm room with her eye on a communication sciences major.
Jenny Hamel
Ideastream Public Media
Case Western University freshman Aja Leatherwood sits in her dorm room with her eye on a communication sciences major.

For students going to college for the first time, being out on your own can be both intimidating and exciting. But after a senior year in high school that was completely rocked by the pandemic, freshmen are embracing the nerves and normalcy of being on campus.

Aja Leatherwood’s dorm room at Case Western Reserve University is a tiny space, but the freshman keeps her things organized. There’s a lot of stuffed characters, or ‘plushies,’ on Leatherwood’s bed and around her room. 

“I have some plushies that are biology-based. So I have, like, a bacteriophage hanging from my wall. But I also have different microbes,” Leatherwood said. “This is a microbe of a flesh eating disease.”

Leatherwood had planned to major in neuroscience, but then she found a major where she can pursue a career that helps her 14-year-old autistic brother and others with speech support.

“I realized that I wanted to do communication sciences because I'm interested in exploring more about autism and deaf and hard-of-hearing culture,” Leatherwood said.

She considers herself an ambivert, someone who has extroverted tendencies but whose social battery drains quickly.  Sometimes, she says, she feels awkward in social situations with a lot of people. 

Interacting with new people in college was her biggest concern after spending almost her entire high school senior year in remote learning.

“Yeah, I had a lot of worries, and I actually found myself, like, Googling and going on YouTube on it, like ‘How do I socialize in person again?’” Leatherwood said, “because it's just, it's such a different experience when you're talking to people through Facetime and texting them than it is when you're making new friends in person.”

When she started her freshman year, she went to events where she met people in person, but she said she wasn’t making deeper connections.

“A lot of the times I would see people at an event, I'll talk to them during that event and then afterwards, I won't really connect with them. But at the end of last semester, I started forming, like, a friend group, which I'm really tight with now,” Leatherwood said.

When it comes to academics, Leatherwood did well in high school. She received a Cleveland Metropolitan School District Say Yes scholarship to attend Case.  Academically, she says, she’s a lot happier now that she’s attending classes in person.

“When I was remote, most of my studying would just be me in my room alone, doing practice problems and then attending the Zoom meetings. But when I'm at my university and we were in person, of course I'd be going to a lecture hall, but I would also be doing study groups. I was going to office hours, and I was also able to do tutoring,” Leatherwood said. 

Down the road at Cuyahoga Community College, Chloe Takacs is working towards an associate degree in nursing. In her second semester, the freshman is happy to be on her own and on campus with other students.

“My first semester, I did really good. It felt like a huge accomplishment because I did that on my own. In high school, you would have teachers helping, your parents would be nudging at you. But you're in college and you're doing this all on your own,” Takacs said.

Even though she's attending school in person, the pandemic continues to affect her college experience.

“This semester in my math class, there's literally, probably about only 10 kids. And it's a massive room and it’s like, you're not really making friends anymore,” Takasc said.

She also worries the pandemic is impacting job shadowing in her field.

“When you're in the nursing program, they want to take you to other hospital clinicals. Right now, I heard these people, these other kids who are in clinicals, it’s all on a computer and they're doing it at home,” Takasc said.

Still, Takacs remains grateful to be in college and moving towards a career, especially after feeling the sting of losing out on so much her senior year of high school.

Copyright 2022 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.

Jenny Hamel is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media and calls the eastside of Cleveland home. Prior to that, she was a reporter for KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Los Angeles, covering a range of issues from immigration to politics.