As pandemic recedes, student service organizations navigate re-engagement with Middlebury community

By Viraj Shankar

After a year of Zooming with community partners and redesigning college-community interactions, service organizations have started transitioning back to in-person work around Middlebury. With over 98% of the student population vaccinated, normalcy is slowly returning on campus.

During the pandemic, student organizations were largely required to operate online — a stark change for many organizations working with partners around Middlebury. This presented significant challenges, as well as some unexpected benefits; as student organizations readjust to in-person meetings, many are finding ways to synthesize what they learned from the pandemic with what has worked well for them in the past. 

Abigail Tinsley ’23, co-president of the Middlebury College Access Mentoring program, which advises primarily low income or first generation high school students in Vermont on writing college applications, is familiar with the challenges that came with the transition to online meetings: she was a second-semester freshman when the pandemic hit. 

“In some ways it was helpful, because it’s easier to hop on a Zoom call, but it does impact the relationship that you have with your mentee because you’re not physically present,” Tinsley said. 

She said that advantages that students previously had, such as going to the library or dining hall, were no longer available, which removed a key element of the mentor-mentee relationship. During the pandemic, MiddCAM was unable to train new members or hold any in-person events. 

“Everyone kind of stepped back and realized that meeting in-person really is important,” Tinsley said. 

But the drawbacks were ever-present. Tinsley pointed out that the physical barriers present during the pandemic adversely affected the ability to build community within the organization and work with mentees.

“Wi-Fi — that was a consistent problem for us,” Tinsley said. “Maybe students can’t have their video on, or they keep cutting in and out, and so it’s really tough to get that connection going and sparking in one way or another.”

Charter House Coalition, an organization that provides transitional housing, shelter, and free meals to individuals and families in the area that need assistance, also had to navigate through major challenges during the pandemic. 

During the peak of the pandemic, students working with Charter House were not able to volunteer in person and had to find other ways to support the shelter, said Sarah Fry ’22, the president of the Charter House Student Organization. 

She also said that the Charter House Student Organization saw a steep drop in student participation last year.

“It was really difficult; we usually grab people’s attention at the student fair, as not everyone knows Charter House off the bat. But since the student organization fair was on Zoom, people interested had to join our specific meeting,” Fry said, adding that the decrease in volunteers coincided with an increase in demand for services provided by Charter House, further compounding their pandemic difficulties. 

But organizations are moving forward — and taking what they learned from the pandemic to help strengthen their connections to the community.

“It’s nice to know that there is that option of FaceTime or Zoom”, Tinsley said, of meeting with students for MiddCAM. “One of my mentees has practice, and it gets out really late, so meeting at 8 p.m. in person is very difficult; however we can FaceTime at 8 p.m. and it is much easier. I think realizing that there is that option is helpful.”

As for the Charter House Student Organization, Fry emphasized that the pandemic has highlighted the need for the organization to focus on the town of Middlebury as a whole, in order to maximize community benefit. 

“Before Covid, we were really focused on what we could do specifically for Charter; there was kind of a change that came with the pandemic in the way that we viewed community, and community at a distance; we realized it was important to provide other avenues of support that aren’t necessarily directly involved with Charter,” Fry said. 

Charter House was also able to reach out to partners that they had never worked with before, forming new, potentially long-lasting relationships.

“We partner with a lot of local restaurants usually, as well as sports teams, and while we definitely saw the impact the pandemic had on restaurants helping us out due to staffing shortages, sports teams and even just members of the Middlebury community in general who were able to be on campus, really stepped up to help us provide for Charter,” Fry said. 

MiddCAM is also back to in-person meetings, and Tinsley said that mentors are happy to be meeting with students in person again, but the organization is giving the option to continue with remote mentoring. Charter House is also operating on a hybrid model of providing services in person and online (largely through social media engagement).

Both organizations are hoping to return to in-person events and activities by the beginning of next semester, although, as with many things in the pandemic, that goal can only be tentative. But the prevailing feeling of service organizations is one grounded in optimism. 

“It definitely feels great to be back in person,” Tinsley said.