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The First Semester of College Has Never Been Stranger

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Elle Fleenor didn’t know a soul when she first set foot on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis — wearing a mask, of course — and hunkered down for two weeks of quarantine.

She attended orientation and lectures on Zoom, picked up food from the dining hall to eat in her room, and barely interacted with anyone beyond her dorm building’s walls.

Ms. Fleenor, a first-year student from Scottsburg, Ind., knew college wouldn’t be what she had imagined. But she wasn’t prepared for how the precautions her school was taking to slow the spread of the coronavirus would complicate her efforts to make friends, and how isolated that would make her feel.

Sometimes, she said, she would meet someone in an online class but wouldn’t recognize the person later wearing a mask around campus.

“It’s been very hard, very lonesome,” Ms. Fleenor said. “As a freshman, being hit with all this is extremely difficult.”

Across the country, millions of first-year students are adjusting to college during a pandemic. That means classes conducted mostly online, dinners in dorm rooms and a hard time getting to know professors and peers. Some look forward to fleeting moments to be with others, like elevator rides. Others force themselves to take walks to be sure they see sunlight.

The first semester of college is challenging even in normal times, as students get used to being away from home, their families and lifelong friends. This year, psychologists and other experts fear that the necessary precautions taken by colleges and universities, many of them coronavirus hot spots, will increase the loneliness and isolation.

“We’re receiving recommendations and restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus that also limit our ability to connect with others,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham