By Ivy Attenborough
When I first visited the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law for Admitted Students Day, the word of the virus had just begun to reach the East Coast. Half of the students
were in-person for the event and the other half were online. I wanted to see the school in person and meet with faculty to decide if UNH would be a good fit. The intellectual property programs and faculty made it an obvious choice, but I needed to experience the aura of the school as confirmation that it should be my home for the next three years.
Uncertainty filled the summer. Will class and events be in person or online? What rules will we have to follow? How often will students and staff be tested for the virus? Should I wait a year to start law school to ensure I receive all the things I want out of the experience? Each time I assumed I had answered my questions, another arose.
Eventually, I decided that the benefits of a strong faculty and the opportunity for growth outweighed any reservations I had. UNH held nearly all orientation events online to ensure students followed pre-arrival protocols, and weekly townhall events allowed students to hear directly from the various administrators. Along with confusion about the future came excitement with my decision to attend.
The first few weeks of the semester brought an endless supply of reading and relearning how to learn. Many students, including myself, came to Concord directly after receiving their undergraduate degree; many of us had received our degrees over Zoom and adjusted from in-person to online classes on the fly. Other students worked before attending UNH, so many have never attended university online classes.
Coda Campbell, mom of two and fellow 1L, wanted the traditional, in-person experience, but she says that, so far, the online “experience has gone much smoother than expected.”
I feel that those of us who attended college during the start of COVID have a distinct advantage. While some may have stressed about how the online format would be, any prior practice with remote learning serves as comfort. Any amenity, I can say, from prior experience to a helpful classmate, is welcome.
The administration and professors have gone far beyond my expectations. Constant affirmations that there is light at the end of the tunnel have crept into all our brains. I came into school with legitimate pessimism about the future, and after a short time at UNH, I have begun to collect small pieces of optimism about life post-graduation.
This semester, I’m taking the usual requirements: Civil Procedure, Contracts, Torts, Legal Research and Information Literacy, and Legal Analysis and Writing. Our teaching assistants understand the fear, stress, and collective isolation we experience, and they commiserate with us. My torts teaching assistant, 2L Nicole Demas, goes far beyond her required duties by providing extra opportunities for our class to collaborate and collectively learn how to answer our own questions.
As an undergrad, I never needed to talk with TA’s beyond the occasional question, but as 1L’s, we all utilize their advice weekly and appreciate their expertise and willingness to help.
While TA’s can help with academics, they cannot—nor can anyone really—understand the difficulties of starting law school during a pandemic. Some students, like 1L Niki Camateros-Mann, have struggled with Zoom and balancing IT issues on top of classes. She says she never took online classes before her time at UNH Law and that “[T]he most difficult aspect of online learning is not the class itself, but rather the logistical and technical issues that arise. I have unfortunately missed an entire online class because of a hardware issue with my computer.”
Beyond the obvious observations about the importance of the Socratic method in law school and the bonding experience that suffering through cold calls brings, no one who is not currently in their first year can understand how strange it feels in class. Every day, I am in a room full of people whose full faces I have never seen. With restaurants opening to greater capacity, many of us find ways to safely meet over dinner or drinks to form connections outside of the classroom. Still, there exists an internal distance.
As the majority of my classes will never meet in person this semester, I will never sit in a room with the people I see on the screen every week. Nor can we form the bonds the 2-and-3L’s reference when talking about the closeness they feel with their fellow trench-mates. Moreover, groups formed during the only in-person event have become fundamental to the social environment. As classes have begun, it is increasingly difficult to meet new people with the barriers of Zoom and the necessity of masks. Digital communication serves as a method to maintain relationships already formed, but it does a poor job of letting students build personal bonds. The distance, and the fact that all our classes are on the same formats as we would use socially, creates a sort of awkwardness.
Another 1L, Ivy Enneking compared the traditional classroom dynamics to Zoom, saying:
“There aren’t the same opportunities to say ‘hi’ to the people that you sit next to. Knowing that any verbiage you put into the chat or a private message is [not private] makes it more uncomfortable to pick out a random classmate to introduce yourself.”
Indeed, there is nothing natural or organic about asking a virtual stranger to video chat when there have been few conversations in person, especially when privacy is eliminated.
With all the potential problems, from Zoom technological issues, to the threat of the coronavirus, the social aspects of the 1L experience seem to be the avenue of most difficulty. Physical distance compounds the “fish out of water” feeling of the new Concord scenery and the entirely foreign type of learning that legal education brings. I thought I would spend this semester stressed about the academic rigor of my first year of law school directly out of college. I never expected that a pandemic would affect my ability to learn nor that the coronavirus could bring about a whole different type of social stress.
The life of an incoming law student in the time of COVID-19 is one of collective stress experienced in isolation. Privately, I manage with extensive planning of every hour of my schedule, down to 15-minute intervals. My schedule affords me time to spend on personal relationships and leaves ample time on the weekends to decompress. I also play soccer weekly with a group of students to have something active and distracting from school.
Ultimately, I’m looking forward to the relief I will hopefully feel after turning in my last final December 18th. Until then, I will have plenty of hours of homework and Zoom meetings to fill my time.