As colleges across the country have worked to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic, students have been forced to grapple with the new normal of a socially-distanced social scene, awkward Zoom breakout rooms and growing pools of peers competing for a shrunken number of internship opportunities. With thesis deadlines having come and gone, Vassar’s Class of 2021 is taking the time to reflect on a senior year riddled with memorable highs and unprecedented lows.
For many college seniors, the pandemic has amplified the stress of attending school and job hunting. Employers are expected to hire 7.2 percent more recent graduates than the previous year, but this rise is by no means a return to pre-pandemic hiring numbers (CNBC, “New college grad job outlook looks promising for Class of 2021” 04.07.2020). Moreover, Vassar seniors will miss out on certain Senior Week traditions, such as a trip to a local winery and dinner at Shadows on the Hudson. Families will not be invited to the socially-distanced graduation ceremony on June 6.
Cait Lewis ’21 expressed disappointment about her senior year experience: “The low was definitely the winter this year,” she said. “It was so hard to not see friends and have nothing to do besides class and nowhere to go because it was so cold. I love the snow, but this was the first time that the snow and cold meant I couldn’t see my friends.”
Perri Goodman ’21 agreed that maintaining relationships during the pandemic has proved challenging, adding that missing out on many of the little things has also been difficult. She stated, “From being in the Deece at night, or running into professors at the Retreat and sitting to talk with them, to being in the library with a big group … the last time we did that was in March of junior year—we’ll never get to do that again, and that’s been pretty sad.”
Writing collectively as members of Vassar’s administration, Dean of Studies Debra Zeifman, Assistant Dean of Studies Casey Trocino, Office Specialist Betty White and Advisor to the Class of 2021 Professor Peipei Qiu explained that given the trying circumstances facing the graduating class, they have been hard at work developing specialized support. “During the spring semester of 2020 when the pandemic broke out we also extended NRO options for all courses and allowed students to withdraw a course after the final grade became available,” they explained. Going on, they added that “Although in person meeting became impossible, we have continued supporting students with one-on-one meetings via Zoom throughout the pandemic. We’ve offered academic coaching to students struggling to complete assignments. And on the Fellowships front, we’ve allowed students to defer some awards until international travel warnings are lifted.”
Other groups have also worked to provide support, such as the Vassar Student Association’s Health & Wellness Committee, which sends out a Wellness Wednesday Newsletter to “give regular updates on the various health related events, programs, and resources offered at Vassar College.”
Many seniors, such as Zoë Turner-Debs ’21, have felt that these support systems have had meaningful impacts. “I’m honestly not sure how the school could have offered more support,” said Turner-Debs, adding that many professors took meaningful added measures—such as lightening up workloads—to ensure that their expectations for seniors were flexible enough to accommodate many of this year’s unusual circumstances.
On the other hand, Lewis felt that she did not receive enough institutional support. “Other than the usual suggestions to go to the CDO, we didn’t really get any extra resources,” she said, describing her desire for the school to be better about setting realistic and clear expectations for students. “I would have liked better communication,” she concluded.
The administration members noted that they are still working on ways to improve student support. “We are working on strengthening areas such as Vassar’s alumni network, Career Development Office, academic support for students whose first language is not English, students struggling financially and graduate fellowship opportunities,” they explained.
Students have managed to persevere and adapt themselves, looking on the bright side even in these trying times.:. “Of course, with everything bad, there are silver linings. The biggest one that comes to mind is that this has forced me to just slow down so much,” Goodman remarked. “Our weekends are usually so packed … I was constantly feeling like my social meter was just out of steam, and now with nothing to do on the weekend it’s actually been very nice to have everyone be free and spending quality time with each other. It also makes every [social] connection so much deeper because they’re so much less frequent.”
Lewis added that such a dismal winter made the coming of spring—both the weather and social events—even more welcome. “It’s also so lovely to have watched the campus slowly come back to life as the weather got warmer—I missed getting to see [everyone] sitting outside all the time.”
As the Class of 2021 enjoys the perks of the warmer weather, they also have the Senior Class Council’s newly-released Senior Week schedule to look forward to. Some events, such as the annual trip to a local winery, have been brought on-campus in adherence to COVID-19 guidelines, and others, including the MASK-erade themed Senior Formal, will be partitioned into smaller groups in order to make social distancing possible. Nonetheless, a Champagne Reception in the Shakespeare Garden and a mixology course on the Library Lawn are just some of the—often boozy—ways that the senior class’s leadership have found ways to overcome the challenges posed by a pandemic.
Goodman, who is a member of Senior Class Council, expressed pride in the Council’s general success in recycling many well-loved annual events into challenging, COVID-safe packages. “It has not been easy and we definitely are not going to get it right all the way. And that’s life. We’re just going to try to make it fun for as many people as possible,” she said.
The members of the administration acknowledged that the Class of 2021 has experienced significant loss and been ever more exposed to mental health vulnerabilities, but ultimately expressed hope for the futures of this year’s seniors. “Many of our students are resilient and demonstrate remarkable strength […] we are inspired by the fact that our students have made the best of a challenging situation, and will draw on these skills when they meet future challenges. We’ve all learned a great deal about ourselves,” they remarked.