Non-traditional students navigate a pandemic

By Caitlyn McTier 
Staff Writer 

TUSCALOOSA — The University of Alabama’s student population has students from all across the country. Close to 60 percent of students at UA are from out of state, according to UA admissions. 

However, many forget that there are usually between 70 to 80 countries represented and a large intake of students who transfer from other universities to UA. 

With campus operations limited due to COVID-19, many non-traditional students have to navigate maintaining mental health and finding friends with classroom and social life constantly changing. 

Damian Taylor is an international student from the United Kingdom. Taylor is enrolled at UA for the spring 2021 semester. During his first weeks in Tuscaloosa, he struggled to make friends and plug into campus culture. 

“It was quite daunting when I first arrived because I was in a new country and didn’t really know anyone or the culture,” Taylor said. “After a few weeks, I started to make a few friends. I think anywhere you go for the first time it can be hard to meet people. My roommate is actually from Dubai, and he’s the only other international person I have met.” 

Taylor chose to come to Alabama to experience Southern culture and explore a school in the United States that generally students from his area don’t attend. While here, he was shocked by the amount of poverty in the United States and the way COVID-19 is handled.

“Just all the people living in houses falling down and weeds growing high in people’s yards. It was quite incredible sitting back seeing such extreme poverty. I kept thinking this is the richest country in the world. How is this even allowed to exist and happen,” Taylor said. “I also find it weird how with COVID, it’s much more open here. People at home basically can’t leave the towns they live in. I find it weird that people can do whatever they want in America.”   

Jeremy Reid, a manager in customer relations for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, said that some international and non-traditional students are attracted to UA because of how open the campus is while other universities might follow more strict guidelines.

“People are attracted to a state that is a little more hands off… I think if you are looking for a normal college experience compared to other states, Alabama is getting as close to what is considered normal. I think that is attractive to people,” Reid said. 

Reid oversees campus tours and has seen a steady volume of non-traditional students participating in official in-person tours of UA and virtual sessions. This level of demand has given way to the development of a new type of tour and admissions session specifically for transfer students. The tour will launch in the coming months. 

While some non-traditional students have adapted to the changes, others have struggled to make meaningful connections and find belonging on campus.  

Tatyanna Rice is a 2020 junior transfer student from Calhoun Community College. She has struggled with adjusting to the culture at UA. Making new friends is especially hard living off-campus, she said. 

“I’m going to be honest. This has been a really rough year. I just don’t feel like I have a place,” Rice said. “I’m slowly starting to make friends. I definitely think the pandemic has done a number on my mental health so much so that I am talking to a counselor right now because I feel like my mental health is really suffering.” 

According to the UA Counceling Center, 33 percent of the students enrolled in their programs come specifically for help regarding COVID-19. 

“With a school of 40,000 people, I have never felt so lonely… I feel like UA is trying to get people involved. It’s hard for them as an administration to do campus events and build that campus life while following social distance guidelines. Honestly, sometimes I get sensory overload. There’s so much stuff you just don’t know where to start,” Rice said. 

The Office of First Year Experience is one of the primary direct contacts for transferring students to get engaged with student life. Transfer Ifinity Groups are one specific program that started this school year to meet students where they are. These groups meet together primarily virutally and are split into three different subdivisions: first generation, students of color, and out of state students. 

Kiara Summerville, the Assistant Director of First Year Experience and Retention Initiatives, was pivotal in launching this program. Working with the UA Office of Assement and Planning, she identified the largest cohorts of transfer students and is creating plans for expansion to more groups in the future. 

“We wanted to create smaller communities within the transfer student community,” Summerville said. “We understand that the transfer experience is unique. They are not new to college, but they are new to UA. So we want to make sure that they are still getting onboarding that a first year student gets.” 

Offices like First Year Experience are continuing to provide as many resources that restrictions will allow. As the vaccine becomes more readily available, they hope to make up for lost time for students with unique enrollment to UA.  

“For all students my hope is that we maintain the spirit that we have here at The University of Alabama,” Summerville said. “I think that’s what sustains us is knowing that we all just this Bama family.”