Last year was tough for freshmen who had to learn to co-exist with the coronavirus. As sophomores, some of them are now helping the new class of freshmen and transfer students find their way at SUNY Oswego
By Steve Yablonski
After living through an uncertain year at SUNY Oswego, some sophomores are helping incoming freshmen navigate the end of the pandemic and beyond.
Aziz Sarimaskov and Isabelle Keefe are Laker Leaders (orientation guides). Delaney Koehl is active in the Newman Center and also helps returning and new students.
“As someone who entered college amidst the undefeatable global pandemic, I feel like I’ve accomplished something not many have — I’ve spent my first year on campus,” said Sarimaskov. “Moving into Cayuga Hall last August was an exciting, yet frightening part of my adulthood.”
He thought the world would fight COVID-19 and win by the end of 2020 and his first year of college would be what he’d thought it would be by the start of the spring semester.
“I genuinely believed clubs, organizations, offices would fully reopen. I thought the campus would be filled with thrilled and inspired college students,” he said. “Unfortunately, my hopes didn’t come true.”
“Last year was definitely an interesting experience. It wasn’t at all how I imagined my first year to go,” said Koehl. “A lot of people expressed how sad they were for other freshmen and I who were missing out on their first year of our college experience. I can’t comprehend everything I missed because last year is the only college experience I know.”
“This past year has been very… unique. I absolutely loved my first year and I wouldn’t change it for the world, even when it felt like the world was ending due to the pandemic,” agreed Keefe.
She didn’t have many friends in her first semester.
“That changed by the end of that first semester. Originally, I had three friends; by the end, I had a very close group of 10 friends,” she said. “COVID may have impacted my method of learning [having classes online the whole year] but it surely didn’t stop me from meeting friends and having fun on campus.”
She and her friends went bowling in town and attended wellness Wednesday events at Rice Creek Field Station.
“Even when it seemed like there was nothing to do, we explored campus and found the best place to stargaze [the Hidden Fields on the western edge of campus],” she said.
“Frankly, it scares me a little when people talk about how excited they are for things to ‘return to normal’ because I don’t know what normal is. My first two semesters were odd and different than anything anyone else experienced. That’s normal to me,” Koehl admitted. “I felt sorry for the upperclassman who knew what college was supposed to be like and those experiences were taken away from them.”
“In the fall, all my classes, but one, were online. That one that was entirely in-person was geology 101, the laboratory for geology 100, instructed by Dr. David Valentino,” Sarimaskov said.
Thanks to that course, he said he made many great friends with whom he’ll be pursuing his geology degree.
“We spent a lot of time by the lake, measuring strike and dip, distinguishing rocks and analyzing the soil,” he said. “In fact, during the two-week campus lockdown, our class was one of the very, very few that I had still be in person. Frankly, that helped me feel less depressed about staying in my room 24/7.”
Sarimaskov was president of the Cayuga Hall Council.
“My close friends and my roommate also participated,” he said. “Although our hebdomadal meetings were held remotely in the first semester, during the spring, our assemblies were face-to-face.”
They worked to solve issues residents had while living in Cayuga Hall and organized different online activities and social events as an opportunity for students to socialize.
A tale of two semesters
“Some differences between fall and spring semesters were that in the fall we weren’t allowed to have guests in our residence halls, even if they were fellow students. Where at the end of spring semester we were allowed to have a guest, which was wonderful,” Keefe said. “Once COVID cases started to settle on campus they opened up our options on campus.”
“Personally, I don’t believe that it was hard to adjust to anything because it was all I knew,” she added. “I didn’t know campus before the pandemic; I didn’t truly know what I was missing. I know I missed an in-person torchlight ceremony to signify my start at SUNY Oswego. That makes me a little sad. It isn’t the end of the world, I will have one when I graduate.”
Although her first-year experience was “odd and different,” Koehl said she still enjoyed it a lot.
“As someone who gets very stressed and overwhelmed by change, I think it was actually good for me. It allowed me to transition into college, a big change, at a slower pace,” Koehl explained. “Everyone was rightfully very cautious at the beginning of our first semester. We were very limited on what we could actually do. I had no in-person classes. So, I spent most of my time doing class from my dorm room and hanging out by the lake.”
“In my opinion, the fall semester was much more different than the spring semester,” Sarimaskov said. “More students were living on campus in the fall. In the spring, we only had around 1,400 living in residential buildings. The campus looked truly soulless and heartbreaking. I’d see no more than two other students any time I was outside.”
There were more positive things than negative, he added.
“Most of my classes were in person in the spring semester. I took a historical geology course with Dr. Paul Agle and absolutely loved it. Because both the lecture and lab were taught face-to-face,” he said. “At the beginning of the spring semester, I applied for multiple jobs, including resident assistant and Laker Leader positions. I’m proud to announce I got both jobs. I’m now a Laker Leader for the Office of New Student Orientation and a resident assistant in Seneca Hall. Both opportunities have given me chances to improve myself as an individual and grow as a leader. My Laker Leader position has shown how much I still have to do to be an influential leader throughout my life.”
Koehl is on the field hockey team. Missing her season was one of her biggest struggles.
“Field hockey is one of my greatest loves. Not being able to practice with my team was painful. We did have a few in person practices; we wore masks and were in our own six-foot box away from each other. We were broken into very small groups scheduled at different times. The few practices we had before we got shut down for two weeks were fun, but a part of me wishes we didn’t have them,” she said. “I knew I missed my sport, but I didn’t know what I was missing at the college level until I got a tiny taste of how it should be and then it was over. We had a spike in COVID cases that was over the limit. We ended up shutting down for two weeks, which was a bit scary. I didn’t have any in-person classes.”
As far as the differences between the fall and spring semesters, Koehl said it didn’t feel much different to her. Many of her friends had different experiences. They actually got to have classes in-person. But that wasn’t her experience, she added.
“We were still hoping to have field hockey practices when we made our schedules in the fall, so in order to carve out time for practices, I couldn’t fit any in-person classes into my schedule,” she said. “I still spent most of my time in my dorm room. But I found a lot of enjoyment in going to the gym and getting out, in a safe way, as much as possible. We got COVID tests every week during the spring semester, which was more frequent than the fall. Other than that, I personally didn’t experience many differences between the two semesters.”
“As a Laker Leader who only experienced a COVID college year, I truly don’t know what ‘normal’ means. What I’ve heard about ‘normal’ college life sounds wonderful,” Keefe said. “I’m preparing first years (students) as best I can by keeping them up to date about any changes and promoting all of our in-person events for this upcoming semester.”
“My primary responsibility is to ensure a smooth college transition for our incoming first-year students,” Sarimaskov said. “I work closely with our newest Lakers, their families and supporters. Indeed, for them, it is certainly a challenging time to enter college after having a year-and-a-half of the online world with states having gone into several lockdowns, businesses closing down, people losing jobs and so on.”
“Incoming first-years and transfers have had enough of remote education and I can see how excited many of them are to finally start taking in-person courses at SUNY Oswego,” he added.
Even though they are hoping for a full reopening, they don’t expect to go back to a pre-COVID world.
“I cannot say we’re going back to ‘normal.’ We’re adapting to a new ‘normalcy’ — ‘orange is the new black,’ perhaps you can call it,” Sarimaskov said. “We, the current students, along with the incoming students, are excited to have in-person activities in the fall.”
“There are still safety precautions in place as of right now,” Keefe pointed out. “Specifically, masks must be worn in classrooms, vaccinated or not.”
“I don’t know anything different. I feel that as a group our ability to socialize and make friends was impacted the most. It’s incredibly hard to make friends with a name on a black screen during a zoom call. Making friends during class wasn’t an option for many,” Koehl said. “From what I understand about in-person classes, everyone was seated six feet apart. It was difficult to talk to people and make friends without yelling across the room.”
She was fortunate to become friends with her teammates, “so I didn’t feel entirely alone. I know many people who did feel that way, which is very sad,” she added.
Koehl isn’t a Laker Leader, but plays a role in the Newman Club and is part of its peer ministry team.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time planning ways to welcome new sophomores and freshmen who are coming to campus and excited to meet new people,” she explained. “The Newman Center was such a blessing to me during my first year. I’m excited to welcome new people and share that gift with others. I know we are all excited to enjoy our events and mass without masks and actually seeing smiling faces!”
Photo: Abigail Lashinsky, Isabelle Keefe and Calista Sassalos pose outside the hockey rink.