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Looking back: First years reflect on an unprecedented semester

December 4, 2020

Buildings and classrooms were closed. Dining halls only offered take-out meals. Common areas around campus, normally overflowing with talking, laughing students, were deserted. “Closed to Visitors” signs were placed across the quad, making it eerily empty and devoid of activity. With masks on, students, professors and staff struggled to recognize each other as they walked around campus.

Due to the confusing, and at times isolating, circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, first years embarked on an entirely new, unprecedented Bowdoin experience this fall.

Developed by the College to help students make connections despite COVID-19 restrictions, core groups consisted of eight to 10 first years and one or two proctors who lived in the same dorm or College House. During the initial quarantine when students arrived on campus, first years within each core group could only socialize among themselves, which fostered relationships among first years and their upperclass proctors.

“Core groups were a big part of my experience,” Cameron Coffey ’24 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “Most of my time was spent with my core group, in [our house], and that helped me make a lot of great friendships.”

Many student clubs, College offices and departments also worked tirelessly to organize social opportunities and events for first years, such as physically distant trick-or-treating on Halloween and food trucks on Friday nights.

“Student life really tried their best, and the outing club did an amazing job too,” Sophia Rutman ’24 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “They obviously knew how hard it was for students to meet each other, so they worked really hard to bring us together.”

Despite having to exercise caution, various events encouraged first years to leave their rooms and meet new people.

“Every Friday night, we would go to the food truck, and that was really fun because it gave us an opportunity to explore campus on the weekend,” Coffey said. “We always got to see new faces at the food trucks, which helped with the social aspect of [the semester].”

However, there was some disagreement among students about the success of the social atmosphere. While some left campus with a strong sense of community, others thought their social network was limited, partly due to the absence of upperclass students.

Some first years thought the restrictions surrounding students returning to campus and living together could have been loosened in order to create a stronger sense of community and normality. For example, COVID-19 restrictions forced students to live in a single bedroom by themselves, which denied first years one classic college experience: having a roommate.

“I think because we were getting tested [for COVID-19] so often, having a real roommate would have been fairly safe, and it would have allowed more people to come to campus,” Rutman said. “With a roommate and upperclassmen present, people would’ve been less lonely. It would’ve been easier to adjust socially if there had been more people on campus.”

First years also held contrasting opinions about the effectiveness and difficulty of the College’s hybrid model for classes. Some first years found online courses to be manageable, which eased their stress and assisted in their transition from high school to college academics.

“It seems like a lot of classes had a lighter workload than they would in a normal year just because they’re online this semester,” Joey Lancia ’24 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.

Others, feeling disconnected from their professors and other students in their classes struggled with the College’s hybrid model.

“I think [COVID-19] negatively impacted my experience with classes because learning online isn’t as engaging as it would be in person,” Rutman said. “You can’t get to know your professors as you would during a normal school year.”

While College mandates were sometimes inconvenient, students largely praised the College’s safety measures.

“I appreciate Bowdoin’s maturity in admitting that they couldn’t house everyone on campus safely and limiting everyone’s exposure to COVID-19 as much as possible by bringing just the first years to campus,” Coffey said.

First years may have lacked the guidance and support of upperclass students and a traditional college atmosphere, but they still found ways to adapt and bond with one another despite restrictions mandated by the pandemic.

“Dealing with COVID-19 brought [the Class of 2024] together, and we’ll be really close moving forward,” Rutman said.


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