When I was choosing where to commit to college, the social life I envisioned for myself was probably disproportionately important to me. I left high school with really good friends, and I wanted a college experience that would let me match or exceed that. But when I arrived on campus for the fall semester, I didn’t immediately find those people. I was disappointed, even though it took me most of high school to arrive at the fulfilling relationships I had on graduation day. Going home for winter break felt like leaving summer camp. In August, I moved into a new space and met some new people. The new classes were over, the new acquaintances were dispersed across the world, and I was back with my old friends in New Rochelle.
Now that I’m well into my second semester, though, things have changed. I’ve noticed new groups forming around me, as people look to expand their social lives beyond their fellow groups or work to extend relationships that didn’t go beyond the classroom last semester. The transition to college is so much more than an academic shift, and I think many of us underestimate the degree to which we’ll be affected by our social surroundings when we’re living away from home for the first time.
The First-Year Experience (FYE) program is one of the steps put in place by administration to make this transition easier. Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement Wendy Maragh Taylor runs this program as part of a team of administrators who plan orientation, including Dean of First-Year Students Jennifer Herrera and Associate Dean of the College for Residential Life and Wellness Luis Inoa. Maragh Taylor considers orientation to be only the first step in the First-Year Experience (FYE) program, which follows students throughout their first two semesters. “Once [orientation] ends, we continue on in supporting our students and making sure that we’re involved and interacting with them in a way that helps them to thrive,” she said. The FYE program hosts events throughout the year aimed at helping first-year students adjust to college life. For instance, the program recently sponsored a conversation dinner with Professor of Psychological Science Abigail Baird where students discussed using psychology to navigate their first year.
Maragh Taylor told me that some of the most frequent challenges she hears about at FYE events involve social life. Those who are close with their fellow groups value those relationships but want to explore more. Many of those who aren’t struggled to form a social group at all during the first semester and hope that they can change this during the spring. Soumik Saha ’23 and Peter Dull ’23 were both in the latter situation. “[Orientation] was kind of not worth it if you don’t really get along with your fellow group,” Saha said. “I feel like I would benefit more if I met other people from other dorms [during orientation],” Dull added. They both wished that they had had more of a chance to branch out socially and meet people from other houses at the beginning of the fall semester.
This echoed a common theme that came up in my conversation with Maragh Taylor. Maragh Taylor hopes that FYE programming might mitigate the lack of social experiences outside of fellow groups. “That’s part of the reason that we’re doing first-year experience programs, because they’re not student-fellow specific,” she told me. Instead, each program is open to all first-years. At the most recent event, she told me, most students had not met each other before, but did not hesitate to share their personal struggles from the first semester. She hopes that the honest conversations fostered in these environments will help students grow closer to people they might not otherwise have gotten to know.
Although I can see the value in the spontaneous conversations with peers that are facilitated by FYE events, most first-years I’ve spoken to have found most of their social fulfillment in other ways. The continuity of shared experiences seems more conducive to deep connection than a one-off encounter. Rose Trammell ’23 told me that she’s made good friends through group projects in her drama class, while Saha and Dull both mentioned the importance of affinity spaces such as the Asian Students’ Alliance. I have made some friends through chance meetings at campus events, but most relationships in which I feel comfortable are ones developed through repeated exposure in classes or at meetings for organizations.
For Maragh Taylor, however, the most important element of FYE is allowing first-years to feel that they are not alone in their experiences. The creation of close friendships is a good bonus, but not essential for the experience to achieve its goal. Maragh Taylor also focuses on fostering relationships between students and faculty. Most FYE events are hosted by a faculty member or administrator, and she hopes that the opportunity to interact with these staff members in a relatively casual environment will help students connect with potential mentors on campus. “I have found that there’s a different level of comfort and ease [between students and faculty] that happens in these small spaces,” she said.
Not every first-year met lifelong friends during orientation, attended every FYE event or found a faculty mentor. Somewhere along the line, though, an adjustment has happened for most of us. First-years have made their way onto club executive boards and into close friendships. It’s still easy to feel overwhelmed by the reality of college, but many of us are now looking toward putting down roots at Vassar. I’m not sure exactly what systems made this happen, but I’m grateful that they did.