College and the coronavirus: The first semester student

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following the lives of faculty and students like Yara Manasrah at various colleges and universities in Georgia throughout the first full academic year since the coronavirus pandemic began. We will publish periodic reports about them. This is the second of these articles.

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ATHENS ― Yara Manasrah needed to have an important talk with her parents.

She was accepted to her first college choice, the University of Georgia, but wondered if she should go.

The 18-year-old was born with an iron deficiency that makes it tougher to overcome a cold. She worried about staying healthy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. She also worried about burdening her parents financially.

Go, they said reassuringly.

Manasrah recalled the conversation on a recent Friday, hours before the university celebrated its spring 2020 commencement that was delayed by five months because of the pandemic. The first-year student was astonished by the number of people on campus for the ceremony.

Manasrah found a quiet spot on a bench near a neatly-manicured stretch of grass next to Reed Hall dormitory, where she has sunset picnics with her roommate. It is one of favorite places on campus.

“It reminds me why I came,” Manasrah said of the serenity she feels when she is here.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Manasrah believes she made the right choice to attend UGA. She’s made friends and joined the Redcoat Band. Through her new friendships, her band participation and campus activism, Manasrah has found her place on this campus of about 50,000 students and employees.

“I am a Georgia Bulldog,” she likes to say.

Sarah Manley, a first-year student who’s become friends with Manasrah, has watched her change since they arrived on campus in August. Yara now seems less stressed, she’s more into football and is more “free flowing.”

“She’s happier,” said Manley, 19, who is also in the band.

But Manasrah isn’t completely content about life at UGA. She joined protests against some of the university’s COVID-19 plans and against racial discrimination. Manasrah says she will work on efforts she believes will improve life for classmates and her siblings, whom she’s already trying to recruit to come here.

A difficult adjustment

Manasrah took some college courses at the University of West Georgia during much of her last two years at Chapel Hill High School in Douglas County. She was concerned that many high school classmates weren’t taking the pandemic seriously.

“I’ve viewed a few of my peers sneaking out to see their friends/significant others on social media websites (TikTok is a big one), but a vast majority are actually staying home, which is good,” she said in an interview as part of a special AJC report in July on how a group of high school and college seniors adjusted to the pandemic.

The AJC decided to continue to follow her educational and personal journey, interviewing her several times over the first three months of the semester, along with her friends, and meeting with Manasrah several times on campus.

Attending college this fall was a difficult decision for many other first-year students. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently reported 16% fewer freshmen have enrolled this fall compared to last year. The university is collecting final data, but believes the number of first-year undergraduate students at UGA is similar to last year’s total of about 4,500.

Manley, who graduated from Gwinnett County’s Brookwood High, recalled the romanticized vision she and Manasrah had about college life before they arrived.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

UGA had several thousand positive COVID-19 cases at the start of the fall semester. The New York Times last month in September reported UGA had more positive cases than any school in the nation since the pandemic began. The initial numbers — down significantly in recent weeks — troubled many students, faculty and university administrators.

Manasrah spends a lot of time in her room to avoid exposure. She takes a COVID-19 test on campus every other week. She hasn’t tested positive.

Most of her classes are online. Manasrah earned the HOPE Scholarship, which helps pay about all of her tuition. She thinks she’s doing well academically. Her toughest class is German.

Like any first-semester college student living away from home for the first time, Manasrah is experimenting. Her straight, black hair that was well below the shoulders in high school is now shorter, and sometimes blue, or purple, or most recently, pink.

She groused about one issue new students often talk about on college campuses. The cafeteria food, particularly the rice, was “problematic.”

“It needs more seasoning,” Manasrah said on the first day of classes.

New experiences with her ‘homies’

UGA has several programs to engage first-year students. They’ve added new ideas to ease the transition in response to the pandemic. One is called Dawgs Together, a peer program that connects first-year and transfer students with the veterans on campus for support and to help the new students “find their place,” said Beau Seagraves, the university’s associate dean of students and the director of Student Care and Outreach.

Mental health is another issue UGA has tried to address. The number of first-year undergraduate students seeking campus mental health services has increased from 77 at this point last year to 115 so far this year, UGA officials said. The uncertainty surrounding how classes will be taught, concerns about classmates diagnosed with COVID-19 and the lack of daily interaction for students taking online classes has heightened anxiety, experts say.

UGA administrators are trying to keep students healthy and happy during a pandemic with online activities. There’s virtual yoga classes and online comedy shows. There’s also been a Zoom session with one of its most popular young alumna, ESPN analyst and reporter Maria Taylor.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“An integral part of the college experience is outside the classroom,” Seagraves said. “For us, we want to recognize that and anticipate what they need.”

For Manasrah, what she needed one night was Taco Bell. She contacted her friends and they made a midnight run to the fast-food spot.

ExploreAt Georgia colleges, hopes for spring rely on keeping COVID in check

Manasrah called friends she met during the summer through a GroupMe meeting organized by the university. She and 10 other incoming first-year students rented a spot near Lake Oconee in late July. They quarantined for two weeks beforehand. There, she kayaked for the first time and went hiking.

“It was nice to say these are my homies,” Manasrah said.

Manasrah and Manley met afterward through a friend who thought they should connect because they’re in the band. They both play the sousaphone, and there are few first-year students who are women in that section. Manley thought she was outgoing and had a great sense of humor.

The two friends and others in their circle talk about boys, practice and home. They try to meet once a week for lunch, dinner or to watch Georgia football games. The band is only playing at home games. Manasrah said her first performance will be on Dec. 5, UGA’s final home game against Vanderbilt.

Manley said all of her classes are online, so the meetings bring much-needed social activity. Manasrah and her closest friends have agreed they will not meet if any of them do not follow social distancing guidelines.

Some of Manasrah’s friends are foreign-born students. She’s been particularly glad to meet them. Manasrah’s mother was born in Lebanon and grew up in Sweden, her father is from the Palestinian territories. She credits her unfailing politeness to them.

Manasrah speaks glowingly of her parents, who left their homelands with no guarantees about their future. She misses her mother’s cooking. She’s the oldest of four siblings and the family got two puppies before she left for UGA. Sometimes, she’s homesick. The family uses FaceTime to catch up.

Finding her way

Her parents took her to protests when she was a child. Manasrah took her parents' spirit of activism to Athens.

She wished UGA had required students be tested before arriving on campus. She attended a protest where students demanded more testing facilities and that the university release campus COVID-19 test results daily. A few friends on campus tested positive for the coronavirus.

During one September interview, as weekly COVID-19 case totals remained high, Manasrah suggested UGA send everyone home. Or stop all on campus activities and shut down the bars and nightclubs near the north end of the university, where hundreds of students party on weekends, many not following social distancing recommendations.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Manasrah said she’s not part of the party scene. She thought about joining a sorority, but changed her mind. The sorority she liked had a history of not being racially inclusive, she said.

“As I grow older, I want justice for everybody. Full stop. It doesn’t matter what your age, what your race is, what your sexual orientation is, what your religion is. No matter what, you are a person and deserve the same life as everybody else. Period.”

Full stop. Yara says it frequently to emphasize a point.

“All the time,” Manley said laughing.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A few weeks after the mid-September interview, Manasrah said she was feeling good. She’s completed one part of the university’s required First-Year Odyssey Program, several seminars designed to help students learn about UGA’s opportunities and its academic culture in small settings.

She’s also picked a major: interdisciplinary studies. Her goal is to continue her post-graduate studies in Sweden, where her mother once lived, and someday become a professor teaching about rhetoric and how it’s used in the mass media. She’s fascinated by how ideas are presented to people.

Additionally, Manasrah made another discovery that’s eased her adjustment to Athens.

“I’ve found out where the good food is on campus,” she said.