FYE adapts to pandemic, helps first-years thrive

Courtesy of Monika Sweeney/The Miscellany News.

About two years ago, back when the Vassar Class of 2024 still worried about PSAT scores, Wendy Maragh Taylor, Vassar’s Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement, began to develop the First Year Experience (FYE) program. This program, designed to ease first years into college life while fostering a sense of community, support and care, was forced to significantly remodel this year due to COVID-19 guidelines and a number of students studying remotely at home. 

Regardless of the unexampled circumstances this year, those in the Office of Student Growth and Engagement remain committed to the mission of the FYE program. Their goal is to create a safe, supportive space that will provide first-year and transfer students with the resources necessary for a successful first year and beyond. A wide range of virtual activities have been planned to introduce new students to school traditions, expectations, departments and other classmates. In short, this program, along with other affinity resources such as the ALANA Center and Posse Veterans Scholars Program, attempts to engage students in ways which will guide them to intellectual and personal growth at Vassar. 

The plethora of FYE events allowed students and faculty to become much more familiar with the Zoom application. Taylor, along with Stacy Bingham, Associate Dean of the College for Career Development, and Sarah Garijo-Garde ’20, First Year Experience and Community Care Program Associate, organized these events early to provide some much needed support and clarity to anxious incoming first-year students, whether Transfer, Visiting, or Exchange, as early as possible. 

When explaining the inspiration for these events, Garijo-Garde recalled her own experience as a first year student: “For me, my first year was defined by my sense of security. I tend to be very nervous in new places—I like to know my lay of the land before I dive in and start exploring.” But she was able to go beyond her comfort level and continued to reflect, saying, “I think about this a lot when it comes to defining FYE programming. Our goal is to welcome you into a space that feels familiar and safe, while at the same time challenging you to expand your circle and grow.”

According to Garijo-Garde, the reason for scheduling events throughout the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year is to provide first-years with an opportunity to place down roots in the community. “Many of us come to college to learn and grow academically, but what you soon come to realize is that college is much more than that: Your next four years are a time to grow personally, to explore your identity and to begin to find your place in the world,” she added. 

While having a virtual orientation is definitely not what the Class of ’24 predicted, it can be beneficial in at least two ways: it allows for compliance of CDC social distancing guidelines, and it ensures there will be less of a gap in opportunities between on-campus and off-campus students. To elaborate on this point with a degree of positivity, Garijo-Garde commented, “In many ways, this shift to online is a defining characteristic of this year’s FYE: ‘What does it mean to make friends when everyone is virtual, or when you’re not even on campus?’”

The Vassar Class of 2024’s Virtual Orientation was broken up into three phases: Community and Identities; Academic Advising and Registration; and Expectations and Resources. In the Community and Identities portion of Orientation, Zooms appeared in a variety of forms, from live conferences to pre-recorded sessions with a live Q&A to follow. Questions covered a range of topics, from how to stay connected to one’s religious identity while at Vassar to what a StuFel is. To kick things off in mid-July, Taylor, Dean Luis Inoa, and Dean Jennifer Herrera hosted two Zoom meetings to connect students from across the globe with one another. A number of offices followed suit, including The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practice, the Office of Residential Life, the Career Development Office, the Office of International Services and the Vassar Student Association. As if meeting future professors, deans, and students over Zoom wasn’t awkward enough, participants had to deal with lagging audio and unstable internet connections as well. 

Phase two, Academic Advising and Registration, was a busy time, filled with pre-major advisor meetings and pre-registration for classes. This phase was topped off with a series of departmental Zoom meetings and powerpoints to introduce students to specific areas of study. They answered a myriad of questions like “What is the St. Petersburg Program?” and “What kind of prerequisites are required for NEURO 105?”

Expectations and Resources, phase three of this year’s virtual orientation, took only three days. It began with a Zoom meeting titled “Community Care: An Overview,” which focused on exploring and explaining the VassarTogether pact, Vassar’s guidelines on how to safely live on campus in the midst of a pandemic. Sandwiched in the middle was another Community Care-focused meeting about dorm living and dining options. Finally, to wrap up this phase and this year’s Virtual Orientation, a number of health- and advocacy-oriented offices explained how their services have adapted to these stressful times and remain accessible to all. 

In addition to the Zoom meetings and webinars, Garijo-Garde’s weekly emails helped connect students to the existing Vassar community. This light-hearted newsletter was something to look forward to at the end of every week, with each chock full of information on upcoming events. One email even included a photo of Garijo-Garde’s adorable dog, Pretzel. Others spotlighted were student leaders, a number of offices and a handful of on-campus organizations, including Beauty and the Beats (a Disney-infused acapella group), VCEMS (Vassar’s student-run EMS organization) and the Vassar Jewish Union. To wrap up each email, students were invited to try their luck at some Vassar trivia for a chance to win Vassar merch, including a mug, baseball cap and t-shirt.

Pretzel. Courtesy of Monika Sweeney/The Miscellany News.

The Transitions Program, as highlighted by Garijo-Garde’s weekly newsletter, hosts Foundations Week to kick off the academic year. Foundations Week, a pre-orientation program, provides first generation college, low income, and/or undocumented students at Vassar with resources and opportunities to help them thrive throughout the next four years. “This year we have six amazing faculty from across the College who will join us, which is more than we’ve had in my time at Vassar for a single Foundations Week,” Berry commented. When asked which aspects of the program typically stand out to students, Berry replied, “The welcome by the President and various Deans in our opening session with parents and other supporters always brings a certain seriousness and adds something special to the atmosphere.” They concluded by saying, “Our new students will have their Foundations Week experience be special in a number of ways that have nothing to do with being in the same physical space.”

After completing months of virtual preparation, students finally began arriving on campus starting Aug. 21, with the exception of international students who had come earlier to self quarantine. Complete with an on-campus COVID-19 test and a chart assigning fellow groups times to head over to the Deece, in-person interactions (six feet apart) were underway.

A series of core events with a handful of optional meetings officially started on Aug. 23. Through Zoom, students were able to meet their House Fellows, House Advisors, Student Fellow Group and House Team. After a dense few hours of introductions and icebreakers, students were able to engage once again with their House Teams, but this time to learn more about its history, mascot, colors and house pride. To conclude this first day of virtual (physically on-campus for most) orientation, students were given a challenge that encouraged them to research their house in order to earn points to kick off this year’s Brewer House Cup. After fellow groups came together, over Zoom, to choose the best fact about their house, those facts were submitted to a panel of judges, who awarded points for both participation and to the overall winner.  As both electronics and students needed some time to recharge, events wrapped up around 10 p.m. 

The following days included virtual family and friend meet and greets with the Deans, house staff, and other various offices while students on campus were able to participate in a labyrinth walk, trivia games and more Brewer House Cup challenges. Among the challenges, some student favorites were making Tik Toks to represent their house and a tie-dyeing competition on the lawn of the library. The tie-dyeing competition was broken up into three categories: House pride, technique, and wild card. House highlights include Davison’s cow printed socks and Jewett’s intricate tie-dyed owl design. Other opportunities to earn points for one’s respective house included making up a house chant and recording it, writing a mission statement, and flooding the Zoom chat function with house pride at each judging ceremony. As of now, Jewett is in the lead, closely followed by Davison and Main.

No Vassar Orientation would be complete without first years signing the Matriculation book, and pandemic or not, this year was no exception. Signing the book, a tradition which has been upheld for over 150 years, signifies a student’s official commitment to a Vassar degree and to the community. Placed on a table right outside President Bradley’s house between Vassar pens and stickers, the Matriculation book was outside for students to sign all throughout the day. Some excitedly snapped a picture, six feet apart, with President Bradley after signing, while others immediately snagged a sticker for their reusable water bottles. 

Some final events included a virtual Org fair and the College’s upperclassmen, per tradition, serenading first years. First years were then given an opportunity to showcase their own talents, over Zoom, and wow their peers with both singing and instrumental skills. The Fall Convocation wrapped up the New Student Orientation Program, marking the formal beginning of the coming academic year. 

Last year’s FYE program included Hudson Valley Adventures off-campus and Conversation Dinners with faculty, events which are now impossible. However, that has not stopped Taylor from working to provide first-years with something comparable. Instead of eliminating these events all together, they are instead reimagined and brought to life in ways we can all enjoy. For example, while students may not be able to physically leave campus, Taylor is determined to set up virtual meetings with off-campus artists and other members of the Poughkeepsie community. 

Acknowledging that in-person interactions, such as sharing a meal at the same booth and hugging, are very different from what can be done over a Zoom call, Taylor reminded those on campus that we can and will be connected, despite physical distance. Whether the distance between two students is six feet apart on Noyes Circle or the thousands of miles from a triple in Main to someone remote learning in Florida, Taylor states, “ We will have multiple opportunities for new students to bond with one another, to bridge to peers they might not typically connect with initially, and to link with their more experienced classmates, administrators, alumni and faculty who might serve as incredible resources.”

The primary goal of the FYE program is the goal of the Student Growth and Engagement Office as a whole: to help students thrive. Undeterred by the challenges that coronavirus has placed in our way, doing everything with a personal touch and determined attitude is how Vassar has and will continue to thrive. In the words of Taylor, “A pandemic will not change that.”

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