Unsure of what to expect, first years grapple with a college experience marred by the pandemic

By Hannah Bensen

MiddView orientation leaders greet arriving students on August 26. (Benjy Renton)

As upperclassmen returned to a campus that felt foreign in many ways, first-year students embarked on a college experience shaped by Covid-19 — a reality that is the only one they have ever known.   

During first-year move-in on Aug. 26, students heaved boxes and suitcases into their dorm rooms alone while parents waited in their vehicles and said their farewells wearing masks. A 36-hour room quarantine replaced the square-dance and the ice cream party frenzy that traditionally characterize the first days of Middlebury. Upon their release to campus quarantine, they attended socially distanced meet-and-greets and took sunset strolls to the Knoll in lieu of three-day MiddView trips. 

Ella Bode ’24 had never been to Middlebury prior to move-in. After receiving her negative Covid-19 test result the morning of Aug. 28, she ventured onto campus for the first time with her roommate. 

I was just so excited to finally be outside and see everything for myself. I was surprised at how similar a lot of the buildings looked and by how much green there is. There’s just grass and trees everywhere,” said Bode, who hails from North Carolina. “My favorite place on campus has to be the Knoll or by the athletic fields where you can see all the mountains.” 

First-years only have second-hand knowledge of college life, acquired from movies, books and the stories of those who have come before them — all of which were conceived in a pre-pandemic world. These are their only reference points by which to compare their limited time in college. Many first-years interviewed for this story expressed “typical” first-year-of-college anxieties, but compounding these concerns is the ever-present fear that campus could be shut down, or evacuated, at any moment. 

“You’re worried about making friends, you’re worried about acclimating to a new academic environment,” Sarah Miller ’24 said. “But then there’s, of course, the added worry of Covid-19. Am I going to be sent home? Am I going to have to take these classes online? And how [do I] make connections with people in classes when they’re online, and professors too?” 

Other students expressed concern that the Covid-19 policies enacted by the college will restrict opportunities to foster social connections. Bode said she experienced the uneasy feeling known as “fear of missing out” (FOMO) after seeing photos on social media of her friends from home going to parties and meeting new people. 

“Nobody wants to get kicked out of Middlebury, but everyone wants to make friends,” Bode said. “We just want to be able to experience as much as possible.” 

In the past two weeks of orientation, first-year students had significantly more free time than during the typical week-long orientation. Several students said they wished for more scheduled opportunities to intermix with their peers. 

“I feel like I never see the people on my hall,” Miller said. “It’s not the kind of environment where people have their door open and you can just wander in.” 

“I wish they had more optional programming, like a socially-distanced dance party outside, or projecting a movie on the quad, just stuff where you can meet people,” Bode said.

With college life colored by the limitations and general strangeness generated by Covid-19 restrictions, Matthew Fish ’24 felt that remaining on campus was not worthwhile. Fish was attracted to Middlebury’s history and its reputation as a prestigious liberal arts college, and he was excited to be part of a college community. 

Fish was frustrated that he had to remain in his room for 36 hours while waiting for his Day Zero test results after completing a two-week home quarantine. He did not care for the vegan food and had never had a roommate before. Upon his release to campus quarantine, Fish was discouraged by campus limitations regarding where students could go and what they could do. 

“I was having a high degree of anxiety,” Fish said. “I was having a real hard time with the situation. The isolation was certainly part of it — the fact that I was spending 90% of my time in my dorm room because there was nothing else really to do, besides the MiddView orientation group.” 

After talking to family members and friends about the situation, Fish ultimately made the decision to return home to complete the semester remotely. He left campus on Sept. 2. 

“I just don’t think you can treat people like caged animals,” Fish said. “That’s how I felt. I think they should have been more open. Socially distancing and all, obviously, but have buildings open. Have more events outside. Have more in-person gatherings than just orientation groups.” 

Fish said he is confident in his decision to take classes remotely. He plans to take a deeper look at the college’s plan for the spring semester and to ask more specific questions before making the choice to return to campus. 

“I’m not somebody who throws in the towel at the earliest moment,” Fish said. “I made what I feel was an informed decision and a tactical retreat.” 

While there are restrictions regarding the size of group gatherings and what activities are permissible, many first-years have contented themselves with smaller group gatherings or online Zoom meetings. First-year students have been convening in dorm lounges as well as through activities such as frisbee or Spikeball. 

“At least for me personally, I find the social scene to be very fitting,” Edwin Fan ’24 said. “ I think [President] Laurie Patton herself said at convocation yesterday that an introverted student came up to her yesterday and said that the social scene for introverts has been better.” 

Fan watched convocation, an event that normally takes place in Mead Chapel, with his hallmates on the fourth floor of Stewart Hall. The group viewed the ceremony in their hallway on a T.V., and everyone wore masks and was socially distanced. To older students and alumni, an online convocation might seem strange. Fan, however, described the strong sense of community during the occasion as one of those “cliché college moments.” 

“We were just chowing down on ramen upstairs while watching convocation, cheering with our [Middlebury] mugs,” Fan said. “I guess I don’t know what a normal convocation would look like, but from the atmosphere that was up there, I definitely do feel formally welcomed to Middlebury.”