Amid hybrid classes, social distancing guidelines, remote learning and many other changes to campus life, the Vassar College Class of 2024 is having a different first-year experience than they may have imagined. First-years did not get the traditional college drop-off. Parent information sessions were replaced by mandatory novel coronavirus testing. Orientation did not entail hours of sitting in the sweltering chapel or endless tours around campus. Rather, most of orientation was conducted via Zoom and focused more on delivering necessary logistical and safety information. Some first-years who chose to study remotely are now experiencing the transition to college life entirely from home.
Despite these changes, Eve Dorfman, a first-year who chose to come to campus, felt like the orientation process was thorough, stating, “I definitely got all the information I needed despite not being able to do in-person sessions.” Annabelle Wang ’23, a student fellow, said, “The virtual org fair was a great way for my fellowees to become involved and begin their integration into the Vassar community.”
While the Zoom webinars offered extensive orientation programming virtually, they provided little opportunity for social interaction. Remi Kauderer ’24 worried about making friends and meeting people before arriving on campus, given the restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Similarly, Wang is concerned that the students in her fellow group might have a hard time finding their place on campus. “Sometimes I do worry about my fellowees finding communities beyond the fellow group,” said Wang. “I know that sports teams members may have an easier time finding another community, but for those who are not athletes, I am afraid they might find it more difficult to find ‘their people,’ considering the fact that most academic and extracurricular meetings are conducted over Zoom.” Some fellow groups have even organized Zoom sessions where participants are divided into breakout rooms of two, so that first-years can develop friendships one-on-one.
Both Dorfman and Kauderer explained that they have met most of their new friends through socially-distant informal gatherings outdoors rather than through orientation programming and other virtual activities. Kauderer explained, “Informal gatherings have been a lot more helpful because meeting people over Zoom is really difficult and awkward.”
While first-years on campus have had the opportunity to talk six feet apart outdoors, remote first-years do not have these opportunities to make connections. Sophie Wood ’23, a student fellow studying remotely this semester and working with a group of entirely remote first-years, has explained the difficulties of remaining off campus while on-campus students mingle. She said, “I try to remind my fellowees that they are just as valid as those in person, but it’s definitely hard when you’re on Zoom and it seems like everyone else is on campus. Social media is also challenging because we see people being on campus and it’s like, dang, I wish I was there.” Adding to these challenges was the fact that Wood’s first-years live across multiple time zones, making it difficult for Wood to organize Zoom calls.
To combat these setbacks, Wood has tried many different techniques meant to keep her fellow group engaged and connected. She has a virtual bulletin board where she posts advice and resources, and consistently emails her fellowees with reminders of virtual events that the College is holding. Wood is also planning a Zoom game night for the near future.
While many of the Class of 2024 are dealing with social concerns, the academic transition has also brought some first-years a great deal of stress before starting classes. Dorfman explained her worries, saying, “I think I was the most nervous about re-adjusting to an educational environment and an academic routine being that I hadn’t been in a physical school setting since March.” Despite this, she has found being on campus helpful in adjusting to new academic demands: “I feel really comfortable emailing professors with questions when necessary, and I’ve made a few friends in each of my classes that I can also talk to if I need assistance.”
Kauderer says the workload has been manageable for her so far, but Zoom classes are not ideal. “I think it’s much harder to focus during online classes because there are a lot of factors that can distract you from the class or lecture,” she explains. Only one of Kauderer’s classes is in person; all the others meet via Zoom. Despite this, she has found that there are enough resources available for academic support on campus.
Wood noted that some of the remote first-years in her fellow group have had a tougher transition to college academics, especially due to the difficulties of the hybrid teaching model. Many of her fellowees have been having trouble hearing and seeing what is going on in in-person classes. Wood stated that “Vassar needs to get on figuring out the technology, because not being able to hear classes is really damaging and upsetting.” Additionally, the first-years in her fellow group are concerned about having equal access to on-campus academic resources, such as the libraries and laboratories, and forming close relationships with their professors.
Overall, Wood is concerned that the remote first-years are not getting an adequate first-year experience. “I think hearing you’re a part of a community is a lot different than feeling it,” she shared.
Despite Vassar’s best efforts, there seem to be two Classes of 2024: those remote and those in-person. Only time will tell if this disconnect will define the 2020-21 first-year experience.