Student leaders take on an orientation like never before

By Abigail Chang

When the Class of 2024 arrived on campus on Aug. 26, they were not whisked away on the three-day trips that typically characterize the finale of Middlebury’s first-year orientation program, MiddView. Instead, they met with MiddView student leaders twice-daily in groups of 10 to 12, with some interacting in person and others covening virtually.

Covid-19 threw a wrench into the college’s standard orientation model. Planning for MiddView begins in January, so the Student Activities Office (SAO) had already booked campgrounds, reserved vans and started making arrangements for various trips long before it was clear how life on campus — and throughout the world — would be altered by the pandemic.

Amanda Reinhardt, director of student activities, said her office finished selecting trip leaders for fall 2020 about a week before students were sent home in March. The usual on-campus spring training for leaders, which gives prospective leaders an introduction to orientation and community building, moved online for spring 2020, with opt-in sessions for the roughly 150 selected leaders.

Even before the college published its Return to Campus Guide detailing the guidelines for the fall semester, SAO staff anticipated the need for a different approach to orientation. MiddView leaders arrived on Aug. 18 and underwent training during the week prior to the arrival of the first years. Groups of first years and leaders then had hour-and-a-half-long meetings twice a day from Aug. 28 through Sept. 8, engaging in the usual ice breaker and community-building exercises but also participating in conversations about school policies.

Rasika Iyer ’22, a leader who also led a trip in fall 2019, reflected on her two MiddView leadership experiences.

“Last year when I was leading a trip, the responsibilities of a MiddView leader were primarily ensuring the safety of everyone on your trip and then also building community,” Iyer said. “This year we had a lot more duties that in previous years were either that of ResLife — like FYCs and RAs — or responsibilities of faculty members.”

These included explaining the college honor code, conducting pre-advising for course registration and discussing the school’s alcohol and drug policies. 

“In years past, [first years] would have met with 150 other students and staff in a room and learned about the Honor Code, and that was definitely not an option,” Reinhardt explained.

MiddView this year was modeled after Feb Orientation, during which new students meet daily with leaders who guide them through all aspects of the orientation process, not just trips. Given this fall’s capacity limits and gathering size restrictions, hall and large group meetings could not occur in person. First years learned about school policies through a combination of MiddView group conversations and pre-recorded videos.

Though the videos were required, first years said they did not believe anyone was keeping track. Quinn Pidgeon ’24 said first years were often assigned videos that they later discussed in their MiddView groups. One of these videos was a three-hour pre-recorded webinar on microaggressions. Pidgeon noted that he believes the topic is very important but also added that he knows many students did not watch the webinar in full and that he preferred his group’s in-person discussion to the recorded video.

“I got more out of that, just sitting, talking with people face-to-face, than staring at a screen,” he said.

Brittney Azubuike ’22, a MiddView leader and president of Black Student Union (BSU), organized two days of affinity group lunches for up to 80 students per day. Because of gathering size restrictions, first years who signed up were split up into groups of 10 over two different time slots, with each group eating under one of the tents on McCullough lawn. 

MiddView leaders volunteered to organize lunches for students of color, LGBTQ+ students and disabled students. Azubuike facilitated one of the lunches for students of color and said her group has continued to meet for meals throughout the semester.

Not all MiddView groups were on campus. Miguel Sanchez-Tortoledo ’23, a MiddView leader, was unable to return to campus on Aug. 18 because of his job and was assigned to lead a virtual group. Sanchez-Tortoledo’s group increased from 12 to 15 members after a few students who had intended to study on campus faced unexpected travel complications and joined virtual programming.

According to Sanchez-Tortoledo, students’ locations ranged from China to Turkey to the U.K., and he and Rachel Lu ’23, the other co-leader of the group, settled on 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. ET meetings to better accommodate their different time zones.

Rachel Lu ’23 organized an in-person meetup with several first-years in Shanghai. (Rachel Lu)

Lu is studying remotely from Shanghai this year. She organized an in-person meet-up in Shanghai with several first years, including some from her group.

“The idea kind of came about because most people in my group are from Shanghai, and they already have a group on social media that they were connected through,” Lu said. “I think it was a really good opportunity for them to have some sort of in-person community while being remote.”

For their two-hour Zoom meetings, Lu and Sanchez-Tortoledo drew from a list of virtual activities compiled by the SAO, organizing rounds of two truths and a lie, explaining school policies and even asking group members what kitchen utensil they would be.

“I was definitely nervous that there were going to be awkward silences, and people wouldn’t want to participate, but that was definitely not the case,” Lu said. “People were eager to get to know each other, and they came up with ways that they thought would help them connect with each other, which I was really happy to see.”