April 29, 2021
The pandemic introduced a new variable to our data this year, one that fundamentally shifted the rhythm of Middlebury students’ existence. While previous Zeitgeist surveys asked students about belonging and how identities coalesce, this year we pondered what tethers Middlebury students together — even when we’ve been asked to keep our distance.
Separated by masks and unable to congregate in the ways we know, it can be difficult to get a read on the pulse of the Middlebury community. Did the policies enacted to protect our physical health affect our interpersonal relationships? How many hours per day do students spend looking at a screen? Has the pandemic changed sexual behavior? Does Middlebury feel like home?
In the third annual Zeitgeist survey, a project that interweaves data and the written word to paint a picture of life at Middlebury, our theme is “connection.” With a 43% response rate, the results represent a cross-section of the student experience, though some student voices — namely students of color — are underrepresented in these results.
Though the struggles of this year have been collective, every individual has learned, languished, and lost differently. As a world beyond the pandemic seems more possible than ever, we hope these Zeitgeist results provide insight about what we should carry into a post-pandemic Middlebury — and the things we should leave behind.
This year, 1,041 students completed the third annual Middlebury Zeitgeist survey. This represents 43% of degree-seeking undergraduate students, according to the Spring 2021 Enrollment profile, a compilation of demographic data collected by the Registrar’s Office this spring. The 903 on-campus learners in the sample size represent roughly 45% of the student population on campus this semester
Participants in Zeitgeist 2021 were divided roughly equally among classes. The class of 2024 had the highest number of participants, with 208 respondents.
This year’s survey allowed students to select all racial groups they identify with, meaning that some students are counted more than once in analyses that break down responses by race.
Seventy-one percent of respondents identified as white, compared to 59% of domestic student respondents who identified as white in the Spring 2021 Student Enrollment profile — though the student profile separates international students into a distinct racial and ethnic category.
The second-largest group of respondents — at 12.6% — was students who identified as Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. About 7% of respondents identified as Hispanic or Latinx, and about 2% of respondents identified as Black or African American, while 5.4% of respondents identified as biracial or multiracial.
Respondents were also given the option to indicate multiple gender identities in this year’s survey. Nearly 56% of respondents identified as cisgender female, while only 36% of respondents identified as cisgender male. The remaining respondents identified as nonbinary (nearly 5%), transgender male or female (0.85% combined), or chose not to respond to the question.
The Spring 2021 Enrollment profile, which used a binary classification of gender, reported that 53.4% of degree-seeking students were women and 46.6% were men.
Nearly 40% of Zeitgeist survey participants are on need-based financial aid, and just under 9% of respondents are first-generation college students.
There was also an uptick in the number of queer respondents — students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or questioning — at about one-third of respondents, compared to 28% from last year’s survey.
Nearly one in three respondents hail from New England states. One in five students are from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or the D.C. area. Twelve percent of respondents are from the South, 12% are from Pacific states, 9% from the Midwest and 5% are from the Great Lakes region. Nearly 8% of respondents selected “International” as where they are from.
More than half of respondents consider their hometowns to be suburban. Twenty-eight percent are from urban hometowns and 18% are from rural areas, results that are consistent with last year’s Zeitgeist.
More than half of respondents (52%) attended public high schools, and a third of respondents attended private/parochial day schools. Nine percent attended boarding schools, and 5% attended a charter/magnet school. These demographics are roughly consistent with last year’s results.
Fifteen percent of respondents were varsity athletes. Notably, nearly 40% of all varsity athletes respondents attended private/parochial schools, compared to 31% of non-athletes.
Ten percent of this year’s respondents reported having one or two parents who attended Middlebury College. The class of 2024.5 had the highest proportion of legacy or double legacy students, at 15% in total.
Nearly 13% of participants identify or have identified themselves as differently-abled. According to the Disability Resource Center (DRC), one in every six students at Middlebury contacted the DRC for a form of disability-related accommodation during the 2019–20 academic year.
Major Groups of Respondents
Nearly 20% of respondents have yet to declare their major(s). The most popular majors among respondents are Economics (8%) and Environmental Studies (Joint Majors) (8%), followed closely by Neuroscience (6%) and Political Science (5.5%). About one in four students indicated that they have a second major.
On-campus learners are overrepresented in Zeitgeist results. Eighty-seven percent of Zeitgeist respondents were on-campus students, 7% were remote learners and 5% were taking the semester off. According to the Spring 2021 Enrollment profile, 436 students are studying remotely, comprising 18% of the student body. With 76 remote respondents, 17% of remote students participated in Zeitgeist.
The Fall 2020 semester saw 2,210 on-campus learners, a figure that dropped to 1,998 students this spring, according to the Registrar.
Middlebury students have spent only a fraction of the last year on campus compared to pre-Covid semesters. They finished the spring 2020 semester online, returned to an abbreviated fall term or took classes remotely, and spent J-Term off-campus. Yet the time spent at Middlebury was spent in Middlebury — students developed a new awareness of the borders of Addison County as travel restrictions kept students near campus and isolated from the rest of the world. Life on campus changed too, with everything from social life to exercise altered by a long and evolving list of rules meant to keep Covid-19 prevalence in the community low.
The pandemic transformed college life, and alongside it, students’ relationships with Middlebury. This year, we asked students whether Middlebury felt like home and how the ways they thought about Middlebury have changed since the beginning of the pandemic.
Almost 90% of students said Middlebury at least sometimes feels like home, but there were significant disparities between how white students and students of color viewed Middlebury. While one in two white students said Middlebury felt like home, the same was true for only one in three Hispanic or Latino students, one in three Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander students, and one in five Black students. Black students said Middlebury did not feel like home more than twice as often as white students.
Seniors felt far more at home at Middlebury than any other class year, with nearly 60% saying it was home and another 33% saying it was sometimes home. On the other side of the spectrum, first years were a notable standout — only 30% said Middlebury was home, while just over 50% said it sometimes was.
Legacy also made a difference in whether students felt at home at Middlebury. Students with two parents who went to Middlebury said they felt at home almost 25 percentage points more than students who had no parents attend Middlebury.
How has the way you think about Middlebury changed in the last year?
Respondents gave a mix of responses on how their thinking about Middlebury has changed, ranging from “I love it even more than I did before I got here,” to “f*** this school.”
Students wrote about how being sent away from Middlebury and later confined to Addison County changed their attachment to the college. Several people referenced stability: “After the school kicked us off campus last year, I’ve felt nervous. I don’t feel like I have a secure home here,” one said. Another wrote that being on campus made them realize “how important having friends nearby and a stable working environment are.”
Some mentioned finding new appreciation for the natural beauty of Middlebury, while others spoke about feeling trapped. One student said, “It’s a bit less like home when you’re stuck here and can’t leave.”
Connection came up in dozens of responses. Some students wrote about building stronger relationships with their “close contacts,” and how being more intentional with their time helped forge deeper connections to friends. Remote learners wrote about feeling disconnected from the college and from friends, having not been on campus in over a year. Many students both on and off campus wrote about feeling isolated from the community at large. “I just feel less connected to the students here because I never leave my section of campus,” one said.
Seniors were especially keen to finish the year. Responses included, “I cannot wait to get out of here, which is something I have not felt to this degree in previous years.”; “I will be glad to be gone.”; “I no longer want to be a student at Middlebury and feel no connection to the school or campus.”and “It won’t be my home forever. It will move on and I will move on.” Several people spoke about Middlebury as only a stepping stone in their life — a fleeting, transitory moment on their way to other goals.
Many students spoke about changing perspectives, from lowering expectations for college during Covid-19 to becoming more aware of inequities throughout the pandemic. Rose-colored glasses came up often, as students described losing the idealistic view they had of Middlebury in their first year.
Of course, students also spoke about home. “Often when you think about whether you like your college, you think about it as a school, in comparison to other schools,” one student said. “Now I’m thinking of it as a home, in comparison to other homes, and realizing I may never have a home like this again.”
In an academic year altered by the pandemic, only 10% of respondents reported being extremely satisfied with their Middlebury experience this year — and more than one in four respondents reported being somewhat or extremely dissatisfied. A vast majority — nearly 80% — reported that Covid-19 had a negative impact on their academic learning.
But in general, respondents who had more in-person classes were more satisfied with their experience at Middlebury. This is consistent with the anecdotal responses in the Fall 2020 survey, where many students wished for more in-person classes.
The data also show that the class of 2024 and class of 2024.5 — the only classes with no pre-pandemic Middlebury experience — were the most satisfied with their experience at Middlebury this year. Seniors, after first-year Febs, were the most likely to say they were “extremely satisfied” with their experience.
More than two thirds — 68% — of students reported experiencing some degree of impostor syndrome while at Middlebury, and 31% of respondents said they have experienced impostor syndrome often.
Impostor syndrome, the experience of doubting one’s abilities and feeling like a fraud, is reported with greater frequency by certain groups. Respondents who identified as racial minorities felt impostor syndrome far more than others: almost half of respondents who identified as Hispanic, Latino, Black or African American experienced impostor feelings often.
In addition, discrepancies emerged along the lines of class and hometown. Forty percent of students receiving financial aid said they felt impostor syndrome often, compared to 25% of students not on financial aid. Students from the Southwest and Southeast reported experiencing impostor syndrome most often, at 46% and 35%, respectively.
Changes to learning have also shaped students’ academic habits and routines. Almost two-thirds of respondents said they spend seven or more hours on a screen everyday. Academics, however, remained a relative priority when students were pressed for time. Respondents indicated that they sacrificed sleep, exercise, chores and social activities (each selected by more than 60% of survey-takers). Notably, 300 students, roughly 29%, also reported that they sacrificed meals.
This year’s data show a significant uptick in honor code violations, with 58% of respondents saying they had broken the code at some point—up from 46% in 2020 and 35% in 2019. As in 2020, the most common reason students broke the code was using unauthorized aid, which once again comprised more than half of the honor code violations.
With the pandemic upending many of the typical features of social life, students have looked for new ways to connect — and struggled to adapt to altered formats. This fall, 80% of students who responded to a survey conducted by The Campus felt that on-campus spaces for socializing were inadequate. Though the college worked to provide new outdoor spaces for the spring, many students still struggled to navigate the social scene amid varying levels of concern about the risk of contracting Covid-19.
In this year’s survey, we asked respondents to answer questions about everything from substance use to pressure to break Covid-19 guidelines to the most difficult aspects of acclimating to Middlebury.
Nearly 90% of respondents who were enrolled as in-person learners this spring reported feeling pressure to break Covid-19 protocols to either include someone or be included in social activities, with 41% saying that they “often” felt this pressure. Only about 11% of in-person respondents said they have never felt pressure to break Covid-19 protocols for this reason. These data align with a survey The Campus conducted in the fall, which found that nearly two thirds of respondents had broken Covid-19 guidelines that semester.
Pressure to break Covid-19 guidelines varied by class year and was especially common among first-year and first-year-Feb respondents who indicated that they were in-person learners. About 94% of these first-year Febs reported feeling this pressure to some degree. More than half of in-person first-year respondents said that they “often” felt pressure to break Covid-19 protocols for the sake of inclusion in social activities — more than any other class.
The Campus asked students to indicate up to three things that were the most difficult elements of acclimating to Middlebury as a first year. Nearly 60% of respondents felt that making friends was one of the most difficult aspects. It was the most frequently selected aspect for students of all class years — except for those who matriculated this fall and spring.
Many of those first years — who went without MiddView trips, Battell Beach square dancing and other traditional orientation activities this year — expressed concerns about isolation and meeting friends in early September. In the Zeitgeist survey, a little over 65% of respondents in the class of 2024 said that Covid-19 rules and regulations were one of the most challenging parts of acclimating, and about half of all first-year respondents selected “making friends.” The same two aspects were the most frequently selected by first-year febs.
The aspects of acclimating to Middlebury that students found most difficult also varied by race. One in four students who identify as Black or African American selected “being at a predominantly white institution” — a much larger fraction than students who indicated other racial identities, with only 1% of white students selecting this option.
Students did not feel that Zoom events were an important part of developing their social life, and nearly 82% said that such events were “not important.” However, learning modality had a significant impact on friendships and social activities this year. More than 700 respondents said that whether they were in-person or remote students played a role, and more than 40% said modality was “extremely important” in shaping their social life.
Only about 18% of respondents who indicated that they were white said that race or ethnicity played a role in shaping their social lives, whereas the majority of students who indicated any other race or ethnicity said that it was important.
Students were also surveyed about their substance use at Middlebury and asked to select all options that applied. Similar to last year, The Campus found that most respondents had consumed alcohol while at Middlebury, and a majority had partied where alcohol or drugs were present. But the percentage of students who said they had done the latter dropped from about 91% in last year’s survey to roughly 82% this year.
About a third of students felt that their substance use had increased since the start of the pandemic. Of those who said they frequently used substances to cope with stress, 70% said their substance use had increased since the start of the pandemic.
Most students said they were part of at least one friend group. The Campus added an option for “I have a collection of different friends” this year and saw the number of students who claimed to be part of multiple friend groups shrink from about two thirds of respondents to less than one third. Despite restrictions on gathering sizes and limits on close contacts, a smaller number of students reported feeling like they were not part of any friend group in comparison to last year’s survey.
Students also shared whether they had experienced discriminatory, insensitive or hostile behavior at Middlebury. Students most frequently said that their peers exhibited such behavior — 166 students experienced this type of behavior from other students.
Students more often witnessed discriminatory, insensitive or hostile behavior than they experienced it. About 43% reported seeing students engage in such behavior towards their peers. Roughly 22% said they witnessed this kind of behavior from faculty.
Nearly half of all respondents who indicated that they were Black or African American said they had faced discriminatory, insensitive or hostile behaviour from other students — a slightly higher percentage than students who indicated any other race or ethnicity. Black or African American respondents also indicated that they experienced such behavior from Public Safety and community members at much higher rates than other students.
More than half of Middlebury respondents — 54% — said the pandemic has negatively impacted their love lives, while just 15% said it had a positive effect. Although each student evaluates the quality of their romantic and sex lives differently, the ways people meet partners, the types of relationships they have, and the number of sexual partners they reported having has shifted since last year’s Zeitgeist survey.
Students were nearly three times as likely this year to report meeting a partner through a dating app — 21% of respondents said they had done so, compared to just under 8% in 2020.
About 44% of students reported meeting partners through mutual friends and at parties or gatherings. Those two scenarios also topped last year’s survey, which asked the same question with slightly different options for answers.
Residence halls and extracurriculars — despite restrictions on gathering sizes and capacity limits — were also a common means of meeting a partner, consistent with last year’s numbers. A lack of a notable dip may be because respondents could answer this question in terms of their full Middlebury experience, not just the last year.
Eighteen people said they had met a romantic or sexual partner through the Middlebury Marriage Pact, which had over 1,500 participants.
There was a drop in the average number of sexual partners, according to the survey data. More than a third — 38% — of students said they had only one sexual partner in the last 12 months, up 10 percentage points from last year. Respondents who indicated that they had five or more partners were down more than 50% from last year — 7% compared to 16%.
A vast majority of respondents — over 75% — responded with “yes” or “sometimes” when asked if they struggled with their relationship with food or exercise during their time at Middlebury. Nearly half of respondents responded “yes” — a sharp uptick from last years’ 35%. Almost 80% said they knew someone who had. Students have written several op-eds in the last year about this campus’s disordered eating problem and how it has been exacerbated during the pandemic.
Still, 751 respondents reported turning to exercise to relieve mental health struggles, only second to socializing as a means of coping. Additional findings show that more than one out of every 10 respondents frequently turn to alcohol to cope with stress; another 30% do so occasionally.
One out of every six students sought counseling during the fall semester, and Counseling Services has seen a marked increase in students showing signs of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts on intake forms this year. Common struggles include isolation, existentialism and grief, according to Associate Director of Clinical Operations Ben Gooch.
In the midst of their struggles, respondents overwhelmingly found Middlebury’s mental health resources inadequate, with 80% indicating they were unsatisfied.
Nearly 30% of students had already received the vaccine when the survey closed on April 12, and more than two-thirds of respondents planned on getting vaccinated as soon as possible. Vaccine hesitancy is much more prevalent nationally, where only 30% have the same plans. While only one Middlebury respondent said they would “definitely not” get vaccinated, 13% of the U.S. is dead set against getting vaccinated.
Respondents who indicated they would get the vaccine as soon as possible counted for roughly 94% of those who had not yet received it.
One in five respondents (20%) reported having survived sexual assault, and 8% of respondents reported experiencing sexual assault on campus.
Gender and race played a large role in who experienced sexual assault. More than half of nonbinary respondents, 25% of female-identifying students and 10% of male-identifying students reported that they have been assaulted. BIPOC respondents reported experiencing sexual assault at a 22% higher rate than white students.
Of the 82 respondents who said they were sexually assaulted on campus, only nine chose to report the incident to Middlebury. Several respondents chose not to report because the perpetrators were friends, teammates or intimate partners.
“I was too afraid of the social backlash because he was a teammate,” one respondent wrote. “I didn’t think Middlebury would actually punish him and I thought it would be more traumatizing than helpful.”
Others cited fears of social repercussions, worries about being victim-blamed and “self-gaslighting” about whether what happened to them truly counted as sexual assault as reasons why they did not report. Many anticipated little support or action from the school and thought the reporting process would exacerbate the trauma they were already dealing with.
Five out of the nine students who reported their sexual assaults to the school were dissatisfied with how Middlebury handled their cases.
At the beginning of this academic year, the college changed its disciplinary procedures for reported cases of sexual assault following new Title IX guidance from the Department of Education. Major changes include a more stringent definition of sexual assault, a live hearing process for those accused of perpetrating sexual violence and a new informal process for mediating cases of sexual assault when survivors don’t want to seek official discipline or cases don’t fall under the new definition.
When asked what the most pressing issue of our day is, respondents overwhelmingly mentioned both the environment and racial justice before any other issues. The term “climate” was mentioned in 377 responses and 119 responses mentioned “racism.”
Also prominent were “inequality” with 72 mentions and “racial” with 64 mentions. Notably, “inequality” was included in only 43 responses last year — not even a top 10 word — while “climate” was by far the most popular word, mentioned 535 times.
The rise in mentions of racism and inequities reflects year-long national conversations about police brutality and systemic racism after the killing of George Floyd over the summer.
Many responses emphasized the institutional nature of social issues, with 41 responses mentioning “capitalism” and 25 responses mentioning “systemic.” Others highlighted how they are intersectional: One student responded, “Racial Capitalism (it is the basis of all injustice),” while another wrote, “Capitalism, misogyny, racism, global warming… they all feed off each other and to compare oppressions is to contribute to the problem.”
“Covid” was the ninth most common response, appearing 37 times, with one student writing “Stop over-controlling us with Covid rules.” Many student responses reflected feelings of fatigue and hopelessness: “figuring out WTF is going on,” one student wrote. “Literally everything,” wrote another. One student chose a more perennial issue: “the amount of schoolwork.”
Overall, the majority of students — 56% — say that the value of cancel culture depends on the situation. Others remain skeptical, with just over 10% of students responding with “unsure.” Responses also varied to a degree based on race. Notably, white students were the least likely to think that cancel culture is valuable; black students were most likely to express that cancel culture is not valuable.
The student population remains very left-leaning, with slight variation among student populations. On a scale from 0 (far left) to 10 (far right), the student population falls at an average of 1.96. The mean for varsity athletes is significantly less liberal at 2.87, compared to the non-athlete mean of 1.80. The means of Black and white students fell near the population sample average — at 1.87 and 1.89 respectively. Asian students are most right-leaning of all racial groups, with an average of 2.53.
Middlebury students tend to care a great deal about politics, and more than 80% of students say that they “care a lot about a wide range of issues” or “care a lot about a few specific issues.” Female and non-binary students expressed greater interest in political issues: 86% of female students and 96% of non-binary students expressed “caring a lot” — whether it be a wide or narrow range of issuess — compared to 76% of male students.
In designing this year’s survey, The Campus’ Zeitgeist team reviewed questions from last year’s survey (both those that were on the survey itself and others that were submitted but did not make it into the survey) and then distributed a form to solicit potential survey questions from members of The Campus’ editorial board. After consolidating the questions and in careful consultation with other editors, members of the Zeitgeist team generated 58 survey questions in total, including 16 demographic questions.
The Campus distributed the survey in all-student email on the evening of April 4, 2021. Responses were open for 8 days, until midnight on April 12. The survey was also distributed on The Campus’ social media platforms, posting at frequent intervals until the deadline. Upon receiving the email, respondents followed an anonymous link to the survey hosted on Qualtrics. This link ensured that no personally identifiable data as to the respondent’s computer or location could be tracked. After completing the survey, respondents had the option to enter a raffle on a separate Google Form, which ensured that the participants’ identifying information for the raffle and the survey data were not linked.
Following the demographic questions, this year’s survey questions were grouped into six general categories: Academics and the Institution, Social Life, Love and Relationships, Mental and Physical Health, Politics, and Community. Survey respondents were encouraged to answer all the questions, but none of the non-demographic questions were mandatory. All demographic questions offered an “I prefer not to answer” option.
The survey data was stored on the Qualtrics platform and was distributed to a small group of reporters in sections via Google Drive. Sharing permissions for the Google Drive folder were deleted after the completion of data analysis. Data remained only on the devices of reporters and never shared externally.
When analyzing the data, the team did not examine specific entries or attempt to extract the entirety of a respondent’s data, but worked with the data as a whole to survey general trends. In order to protect the confidentiality of respondents, we have chosen not to disclose or report the responses of groups with 5 or fewer members in demographic breakdowns. In total, 1,041 students responded out of Middlebury’s degree-seeking undergraduate student population of 2,434, making the response rate 42.77%.
The findings were then compiled and published in the April 29 edition of The Campus. In total, 12 students were closely involved with the making of this year’s Zeitgeist.
A data journalism piece may tell a thousand words but requires a thousand words of gratitude.
First and foremost, we would like to thank the 1,041 survey participants for entrusting us with your stories. This project would not have been possible without you, literally.
Sarah Fagan ’22 contributed her incredible artistry with the header graphics for each section. The Campus’ leadership team of Hattie LeFavour ’21, Riley Board ’22 and Bochu Ding ’21 provided the vision, guidance, and oversight needed to make this project operative. Tony Sjodin ’23 provided excellent counsel and leadership in shaping the survey and every step thereafter. Emmanuel Tamrat ’22 breathed life into Zeitgeist with his technical expertise and creativity.
Thank you also to Benjy Renton ’21, who spearheaded Zeitgeist last year and provided the infrastructure, troubleshooting skills, technical training workshops and immense additional support. Your generosity and commitment to your work is unparalleled and critical to the success of this project.
We also want to extend our gratitude to Executive Director of Food Operations Dan Detora for generously supporting the project by providing declining balance for our raffle. Director of Health and Wellness Barbara McCall, Executive Director of Health and Counseling Services Gus Jordan and ADA Coordinator Jodi Litchfield’s suggestions and input were critical in forming last year’s survey questions regarding mental, sexual and physical health at Middlebury, which were used in this year’s survey.
Finally and most importantly, thank you to Campus readers like you who engage with our stories, tell ones of your own and push our coverage to be the best it can be. We hope that you will continue to support Zeitgeist and share your thoughts to continuously improve the project for subsequent years.