The excitement of the first day of college is undeniable, even when it happens while social distancing during a pandemic. On September 8, Barnard’s first day of class for the 2020-2021 academic year, first-year student Audrey McNeal ’24 shared how she and her peers were still able to enjoy meaningful experiences together from different time zones. 

As McNeal moved through her first-year core courses, she quickly settled into Barnard’s new online normal, where breakout rooms created space for group discussions, and friendships made during the previous week’s Orientation programs meant some familiar faces showed up in classes. While hiccups did arise as a result of computer freezes, McNeal said she was also learning patience and adjusting well to the culture of online learning. Sometimes people spoke while still on mute, and when the occasional black screen popped up, it usually meant that a sibling had just barged into a room.  

Such disruptions are understood as being par for the course now, as the College continues to create unique learning experiences for students, such as the first-year course Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020. “We’ve come to accept that staying home and putting the collective good before individual preference is the safest method for protecting the public’s health,” McNeal said. 

From early morning coffee runs to end-of-day peer check-ins, McNeal shared her first day of college at Barnard below:

Girl in mask holding iced coffee

8 a.m.: To prepare for my first day, I charged my computer last night, then charge myself the morning of my first day by going for a coffee run.

Close up shot of plant leaves and tiny cucumber

8:45 a.m.: As I return home, I remember to water my plants, specifically the one that has a little cucumber on the way!

I begin my new frontier of attending college online by logging into Zoom classes and meetings that start with a symphony of “Good mornings” and a reminder of “unprecedented times.” I am adapting to college life during a time in which the College is also adapting. 

Bike handles with tree-lined bike path in background

9:15 a.m.: To prepare myself for any Zoom exhaustion I might encounter, I drive to a local trail for a brief bike ride in nature.

Side profile of girl sitting with legs outstretched

10 a.m.: I’ve flipped the sign outside of my door to read “On a Zoom!” I’m on the floor learning about the P.E. requirement, and although we escaped a workout in order to go over the P.E. syllabus, I still decided to squeeze in a stretch.


10:50 a.m.: After P.E., my schedule is open until much later in the day, when I’ll take Spanish and Chinese. Many of my other classes — which mainly concern politics and political theory, since I intend to major in political science — will take place tomorrow. 

Desk facing windows

4 p.m.: I never thought my first college experience would be online, but fortunately my desk, which will be my place of study, receives much natural light. It also features my whiteboard, tackboard, to-do list, and some plants, among other things. 


7:30 p.m.: As the day comes to close, I reflect on the activities that led up to the first day and how they may have made all the difference: playing charades online during NSOP, spending time with members of my Orientation group, searching my way out of “Escape the Zoom” with friends, and attending Open Mic Night. So on this first day, I actually recognized familiar faces and names on Zoom calls or classes. I also learned how to stay connected with people who may have seemed a world away. Now, many of my relationships do not know distance or time zones. 

Girl on phone

8:45 p.m.: For my last event of the first day, I catch up with new friends about our experiences. Hopefully, in the future we’ll be able to establish connections that are stronger than our Wi-Fi.