First Years Create Community in Isolating Times

As the creator of the @swat2024 Instagram page, Amanda Roessler ’24 aimed to connect incoming first year students with each other. She hoped to use the page to get to know as many students as possible before arriving on campus. 

“Due to the pandemic, I think the page has been more widely utilized as a tool to find, follow, or learn more about future classmates than it would have been used in normal circumstances,” Roessler commented. 

She and her fellow first year students are beginning a crucial four year journey during unprecedented times, and many students who have chosen to live on campus are anticipating the difficulty of finding friends while under the measures enacted to protect against COVID-19. Roessler and other incoming students who still plan to live on campus are expected to live in single dorms, reserve a time to eat in the dining hall, and avoid large gatherings

“Coming from a small private school in Wisconsin, I hoped to get to know as many people as I could before coming to campus in hopes to reduce the inevitable homesickness,” Roessler commented. 

The class of ’24 has also utilized social media platforms like GroupMe to bond with each other as a group. 

“I’ve been making friends through the GroupMe. We’ve also used it to kind of keep each other accountable with the COVID-19 tracker and also with Swat stuff,” Eric Trinh ’24, a domestic student from Pennsylvania, wrote to The Phoenix.

The @swat2024 Instagram page also played a role in helping first years adjust to virtual learning. Fiona Stewart ’24, a moderator of the page, wrote in an email to The Phoenix that it is mostly used for students to introduce themselves to their classmates, but is also used to circulate information about clubs, petitions, and other campus activities.

The page hosts saved Instagram stories where first-year students can see and access events, such as QuestBridge and FLI Pre-Orientation. Other announcements include ones from upperclassmen about how to join clubs and organizations, for both on and off campus students.

Unlike Swarthmore Instagram pages in previous years, it has become important not just for helping first years meet each other but also for providing valuable information about campus life, academics, and mandatory events.

As first years anticipate what social life will look like this semester, they also worry about whether in-person events will stimulate COVID-19 outbreaks. Trinh voiced concerns on whether fellow first-year students will fully commit to the Garnet Pledge and how well the college can enforce it. 

“ … I’ve heard of some people who still are dead set on partying and whatnot during this semester,” Trinh wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “It doesn’t help that we’re underclassmen, who are more likely to want to socialize and put ourselves out there, since we know nobody.”

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, college students may find it challenging to remain in isolation, as they deal with a physically subdued dorm life. Students could struggle to prioritize health and safety while still wanting to adjust to campus social life as a typical first-year student would.

Trinh compared the safety of campus to the safety of Disney World: “Disney was doing constant temperature checks, forcing guests to be 6 feet apart from other parties, etc … Swarthmore isn’t the Happiest Place on Earth, but we are similar to Disney World in a sense that it’s kind of a bubble, where Swarthmore has leverage over their students/customers.” 

The leverage the college might have over students who fail to comply with the Garnet Pledge will be determined by the type of offense they commit. Lesser offenses, such as not wearing a mask in public spaces, would result in warnings except in the case of repeated behavior, which would result in suspension. More serious offenses, including participating in parties and large gatherings, will result in the student being sent home immediately.

While first-year students on campus grow familiar with the college and the health and safety policies, students who have chosen to study remotely — often due to circumstances beyond their control — face unique challenges, as they are physically distant from the social and academic life on campus. Kelvin Darfour ’24, an international student in Ghana, is studying remotely because of closed borders and consular offices and hopes to adapt to the virtual semester. 

Darfour commented, “The fact that I am studying remotely does not mean that I shouldn’t be included in social activities, so I’m thankful for Swat [for making] most social events online so that those who are not on campus can participate,” Darfour commented.

Events that have already moved online include first year orientation, which typically occurs during the first week students are on campus and includes both academic and social meetings. 

“Most orientation group meetings and orientation events will be virtual and will include students studying remotely,” Director of Activities Andrew Barclay wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “Nearly all educational content is being delivered asynchronously through videos.” 

First-year students studying remotely and on campus were able to participate in virtual orientation events such as meetings with academic advisors, online group games, and campus tours, providing an important space for students to bond and learn more about campus life. College administration has made it clear that students studying remotely will have access to vital academic information. 

First-year students were advised virtually from August 24-28 before they arrived on campus. They were expected to complete a module on the website Moodle titled “Navigating Swarthmore Academics” by August 25, and later participated in a virtual Academic Advising Fair with both synchronous and asynchronous components.

Before advising began, several incoming students expressed frustration with learning how to navigate the virtual process while still off campus.

“The navigation of Moodle and mySwat is not easy at first glance, and we often rely on each other to answer questions as we have not even met our assigned advisors yet,” Roessler commented.

As new students adjust to virtual environments, both students and administrators look towards the semester with a combination of trepidation and hope. In an email to The Phoenix, Dean of Students Tomoko Sakomura stated, “Many offices are thinking about ways to foster connections and referrals that happen organically when we are around and about on campus.”

“I think it will be a semester where we learn about different and new ways of approaching familiar tasks. This is a community that keeps learning and refining,” she wrote.

Incoming students who are planning to study on campus face growing anxiety as the semester commences. As colleges around the U.S. begin to reopen for the fall semester, there have been varying degrees of success in containing COVID-19. 

Several members of the Ivy League recently reversed decisions for undergraduate students to return to campus and are now planning to instruct completely online. Other institutions, such as University of North Carolina and Notre Dame, both decided to switch to remote learning after large outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus. 

As the fall semester progresses, first years continue to try and bond as a class and adjust to online learning while avoiding an outbreak among on-campus students.

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