The COVID-19 pandemic sent the nation’s high schoolers into virtual classrooms when it hit in spring 2020. The effects of that massive shift continue to play out. A group that has in particular struggled to adjust socially and academically as a result is this fall’s class of college freshmen. 

The students who are entering college this year are a group who saw the bulk of their high school experience significantly altered because of the pandemic’s restrictions. Typical rituals like senior-year sports seasons and music competitions weren’t possible, or limited. They’re still grappling with lost  time with friends and peers.

An inter-institutional study led by Emory University and published in Psychological Science in November found that many students affected by COVID-19’s academic restrictions have dealt with higher rates of depression, anxiety, eating concerns and academic distress. 

We asked freshmen at the University of Texas El Paso, who are in finals week and wrapping up the fall semester, about what they missed out on in high school as a result of the pandemic and how that has impacted their transition to college. These interviews — in their own words — have been lightly edited for clarity.

Hector Flores, a UTEP freshman, says the pandemic made him a quieter version of himself, but the university brought him out of his shell. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

Hector Flores, 19

Eastlake High School

Media advertising major

The thing I missed out on most in high school because of the pandemic was time with my peers. I spent a lot of time at home in my room alone. I felt isolated. 

I did meet with some of my high school teammates in football and baseball during COVID, but players and coaches were getting sick, so our practices were less than normal, and we traveled with fewer players than normal. Our baseball season was canceled because of COVID when I was a sophomore.   

The transition to college was a little rough initially. I was trying to figure out where I fit in. It was hard mentally to transition to college. I was out of my comfort zone. I needed to rebuild myself and my identity. 

I go through mood changes and my emotions are transparent. When I started at UTEP I was nervous and shy and didn’t want to talk with people and that frustrated me because I wanted to be more outgoing. I figured that if I wanted a change, it was a matter of me wanting to do it. In class, I would blurt out answers to keep classroom conversations going and the professor would ask me to elaborate on my initial answer, which helped me bring out my old personality from my younger self.  

Now, a couple of months into my freshman year, I am more comfortable with my peers and professors. I’ve restarted my approach and now feel more at home in my classes and more willing to open up to my peers to make new connections. I think we all have a role, and I’m the kind of guy with positive energy who likes to make people smile and to laugh.

UTEP philosophy major Maximo Mendoza says he was outgoing, but COVID got him used to virtual learning. He’s now adjusting to in-person classes and is involved in student activities. (Photo courtesy Maximo Mendoza)

Maximo Mendoza, 18

Pebble Hills High School

Philosophy major

I missed out on a lot of high school competitions and community service activities because of COVID-19. Our science fairs at the district and regional levels were virtual so I only could send a video of my presentation about cellular molecular biology. I missed out on connecting with a lot of other student researchers, but am grateful that the awards ceremony was in person at the district level. Also, I usually help collect clothes for the needy, but that was canceled because of the lockdown.

Those losses affected my college applications. Three colleges rejected my applications and I think it was because my application was not as strong as it could have been. Some asked about my activities outside of academics such as community service and science fair.

I was the outgoing type, but COVID forced me to spend a lot of time at home indoors and isolated. I got used to virtual learning and online testing, but then I had to take the SAT in a classroom setting after months of isolation. That was extremely challenging. 

Now I’m around a lot of people at UTEP and have started to get involved in student activities such as the Student Support Services Organization, which is mainly a social club that watches movies and has game nights. Our goal is to have fun, make connections and support each other.

University of Texas at El Paso freshman Destiny Torres says the pandemic set her back socially, academically and emotionally, but that the more time she spends at the university is making her feel like her old self. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

Destiny Torres, 18

Parkland High School

Aerospace and aeronautical engineering major

I think the pandemic set me back academically, socially and emotionally. I missed hanging out with my friends and classmates on academic teams such as robotics and with the JROTC Armed Drill Team, but just as important were preparation activities for the SAT. I am not a great test taker so I really looked forward to the in-school, face-to-face tutoring. To me, this was crucial. The online tutoring wasn’t the same. As for hanging out with friends, text messages and phone calls weren’t the same either. 

I returned to Parkland for my senior year and got involved with my teams and friends, but I felt like I had missed out on a part of my life. 

I started at UTEP and was intimidated by the size of the campus and reverted to my pandemic self. I wasn’t as social or as talkative as I was before COVID. I felt lost and overwhelmed. It was as if I was in a hole and trying to get out of it. What helped me was getting a job as a College of Engineering student ambassador. I learn new things about the campus every day and meet a lot of people on and off campus. I am becoming more outgoing. Now I ride my scooter around campus and have a “what do I have to lose” attitude.

UTEP theater major Aleyana Flores enrolled at Texas A&M after high school, but only took online classes her first two semesters. She took a year off school then enrolled at UTEP this fall. (Photo courtesy of Aleyana Flores)

Aleyana Flores, 20 (no relation to Hector)

Horizon High School, Class of 2020

Theater major with concentration in musical theater

I was clarinet section leader for the school’s marching band and missed out on a lot of senior performances, including UIL (University Interscholastic League) competitions, and our senior trip. I became disconnected from my closest friends, people who I had grown up with. 

After graduation I enrolled at Texas A&M, but never attended a class there. I took online classes for my first two semesters, but that just accentuated my mental decline brought on by COVID quarantine. I wasn’t motivated, so I took a year off. I worked at two fast food restaurants and that got me back into a routine and helped build my self-confidence to the point where I wanted to go back to school. I enrolled at UTEP and my semester has gone pretty well. I’ve found academic support and opportunities to build personal friendships.

Leonardo Enriquez, a freshman at UTEP, says he was not a fan of online courses in high school having spent most of his sophomore and junior years staring at a computer screen. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

Leonardo Enriquez, 18

Horizon High School

Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering major

Life changed out of nowhere. I struggled with classes after they went from in-person to online. I missed participating in face-to-face classes and school activities like being on the school’s robotics and baseball teams. I had no relationship with classmates or teachers. I spent my sophomore and junior years staring at a screen. I didn’t get a lot out of my classes and the change also impacted my preparation for the SAT, ACT and the TSI (Texas Success Initiative). 

The online courses put me a little behind where I thought I should be academically at UTEP with physics and calculus. If my grades had been better, I would have been able to take more advanced courses. As it is, I am retaking pre-calculus. I took a job with the College of Engineering’s student ambassadors and one of my duties is to coordinate robotics competitions. Now I plan the high school contests that I was once part of. Now I get to teach and encourage students about the amazing things that can be done with engineering.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus. He has written on military and higher education issues in El Paso for more than 30 years.