Community Building, Six Feet Apart

by Christina Baris | 9/30/20 2:15am

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by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Starting college is scary enough without a pandemic looming in the background. During my own freshman fall I had a seemingly never-ending list of questions: How do I adjust to the fast-paced quarter system? Which clubs should I join? How do I meet new people? What’s “blobby,” and how do I get there? When those questions became too much to handle, I turned to other freshmen who shared my confusion. And soon enough, we all adjusted to life in the woods. We learned which classes to avoid, how to order Collis stir-fry and how to migrate in “shmobs” from the Choates to the Fayes on Wednesday and Friday nights. 

Now, with Zoom classes and a slew of confusing COVID-19 guidelines, the freshman adjustment period is even harder. But members of the Class of 2024 are finding creative ways to connect with their peers, despite the unusual circumstances. 

Max Breuninger ’23 and Diego Perez ’23, both freshman undergraduate advisors, noted that many ’24s are confused about Dartmouth’s COVID-19 restrictions. Many of the students’ questions — particularly around where and how they can socialize — do not have concrete answers, which can be frustrating for UGAs trying to help ease their residents’ transition to college. 

“One of the common complaints or concerns is the College’s contradictory information that’s sent out,” Perez said. “[The ’24s] get really confused about what is going on and what they’re allowed to do.” 

Max Cotter ’23, a UGA for freshmen participating in the First-Year Residential Experience, agreed that the uncertainty around social distancing and other restrictions creates confusion for the ’24s. 

“There’s definitely been common concerns of where to find information. They’ll hear one thing from one place, and then they get an email saying the exact opposite,” Cotter said. “They’re expected to follow all these guidelines, and they aren’t entirely sure what they are.”

Despite the confusing guidelines, freshmen floors have continued to provide ’24s with a sense of community. Breuninger, Cotter and Perez all noted that although floor meetings are conducted exclusively over Zoom, attendance at these meetings has been relatively high.  

Cotter added that even his residents that are not currently on campus still attend floor meetings. Living off campus during one’s first term of college can add to the already amplified feelings of isolation, but according to Cotter, these residents have an optimistic point of view. 

“Most of them have been pretty positive, and instead of being super upset that they’re missing their freshman fall, they’ve been excited for sophomore year,” Cotter said.  

However, Mimi Grozeva ’24, a freshman living on campus, noted that the virtual format of floor meetings was a bit unusual.

“It was kind of a strange feeling knowing that these people are so close to me, but we’re not together in the same space,” Grozeva said.  

Outside floor meetings, ’24s have connected virtually while in quarantine. According to Cotter, East Wheelock house uses Gather.town, an online “common room” where each user has an avatar that can video chat with other users in the virtual space. According to Cotter, his residents appreciate that this platform allows for more private one-on-one conversations, as opposed to one Zoom call with many participants.

“They can’t change the situation, so they’re finding different ways to socialize,” Cotter said. “They've adapted really well; they’ve accepted that this is a new reality.”  

Perez’s residents created a separate group chat — without Perez — to get to know each other and play online games together. They also posted their Snapchat and Instagram handles on their doors so that others could walk by and connect with them on social media.  

“I think right now, the biggest source of friends is the floor,” Perez said. “They are really bonding with the floor, which is amazing to see as a UGA.” 

In addition to their freshmen floors, ’24s had the opportunity to bond with peers and receive advice from upperclassmen during orientation.

“I am super glad that I got to talk to upperclassmen. Sometimes students have more valuable advice than professors or administration because they have experienced Dartmouth for themselves,” Grozeva said. 

Gabby Mitchell ’22, an orientation peer leader, added that while it was challenging at first to foster a sense of community, the ’24s in her orientation group were excited about the prospect of meeting up after quarantine ended. 

While it’s easy to focus on how different this fall term is from previous years, I’ve also noticed some similarities. As the ’24s break out of their virtual social spaces, there’s a strange familiarity in freshmen sitting on the Green, discussing their intended majors and hometowns. Soon the monotonous icebreakers will lead to deeper conversation and friendships. I think back to my friends’ first awkward conversations and serendipitous encounters. The nervousness, the confusion, the excitement, the awkwardness — it all feels familiar.

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