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New Penn State Students Missed Out on Much During Pandemic Year

A high school diploma is the gold standard for public education in this country. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for the 2017–18 school year the national graduation rate for public high school students was 85 percent, the highest it has been since the rate was first measured. 

Once a young person graduates from high school, the choice of what to do next is pretty obvious: two-thirds of them choose to enroll in college. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that of the 3.2 million young people who graduated from high school between January and October 2019, 66.2 percent enrolled in college by October. 

And here in Happy Valley, that makes us happy because college education is our business. 

This past fall, Penn State welcomed back 45,901 students to the University Park campus, including 8,465 new students who had never attended here before. That’s 8,465 students whose introduction to our area and subsequent entire first-year of college will have occurred during the COVID pandemic, because classes for the spring 2021 semester end on Friday, April 30.

And what kind of introduction and year has this been for those students? Abnormal, obviously. But mostly it’s been about missing many of the wonderful things that make the college experience truly enjoyable. As the longest tenured employee of Penn State once said about college, “I want them to learn art and literature and music and all the other things college has to offer… College should be a great time. It’s the only time a person is really free.” 

But what exactly have these new students missed as their freedom was mostly co-opted? As the parent of a college student who transferred to a different university last fall and therefore is more like a first-year student in campus knowledge, we have some personal experience with this “what-am-I-missing?” phenomenon. Here in Happy Valley these new Penn State students have missed just about everything that makes college a great time.

The first thing they are missing is, shock of shocks, classroom learning. The experience of having to leave your dorm, walk around campus with thousands of other students at appointed times, getting to know the buildings, the shortcuts, the lay-of-the-land as it were, is almost completely gone. Just the visual that the mass of humanity of 45,000 students moving about campus at the same time creates is an integral part of the fabric of Penn State and is non-existent for these new students. 

Then the social opportunities they are missing.

College athletics are a great opportunity for the student population to create a kinship and fandom for their school and Penn State is a perfect example for this dynamic. Here in Happy Valley there are 29 NCAA Division I teams for whom we – and these new students – can root for and cheer on. And not only cheer on, but appreciate getting to watch the best of the best in some of these sports. Penn State has won 79 national team championships in its history. But not a single athletic contest this year allowed student fans in the games. 

Which is even more glaring during the seven home football games each season as Beaver Stadium becomes equivalent to the fourth-largest city in the state when it’s filled to capacity. The camaraderie among 20,000 students in arguably the greatest student section in college football is an unparalleled experience that not a single student had this year.

But college athletics isn’t only about the cheering. With 46 club sports and dozens of intramural sports the chances to participate in sports themselves took a hit during the pandemic and limited the social and physical opportunities for these new students. 

Another group of social opportunities that were impacted by the pandemic are student organizations. Lots of students aren’t interested in athletics and at the University Park campus there are 937 student organizations to fit almost any other interest. Almost a thousand student organizations! But the ability of these groups to get together and function was made difficult, limiting that social interaction that helps new students find friends with similar interests and become more connected to their school.

One of the signature beauties of Happy Valley is the dichotomy of the massive student population located next to an idyllic small-town atmosphere. Students can walk across College Avenue and be in the heart of one of the best college towns in America. Usually hustling and bustling with activity, it has been a ghost town this entire year. These new students have no idea what downtown normally looks like on a football weekend, on a Friday night, or even during a regular sunny day when restaurant doors and windows are open welcoming everyone to come in.

Then, of course, there are the annual events that take place in Happy Valley that have been cancelled or reconfigured the last year. THON – the largest student-run philanthropy in the world – has raised over $180 million in its history and is a live experience every Penn State student should take in just once, but did not offer that glimpse of thousands of students dancing on the floor of BJC this year. The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts (the Arts Festival), a favorite summertime event that brings students back to see what town is like during the summer, has now been cancelled twice. 

All these things that the students, and in particular all the new students, have missed out on. And since time is a resource that once lost can never be retrieved, these new students will never have that opportunity for a normal first-year again. So let’s hope the excitement and potential of all these future non-pandemic opportunities make them decide to come back next year and find out what they missed. Because Happy Valley missed showing you its best and looks forward to your return.