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Four years later, seniors, community reflect on college, connection and Covid-19 experience

April 26, 2024

courtesy of The Bowdoin Orient Archives
A FORGOTTEN CLASS?: The chapel sits behind a row of tents placed on the quad in early fall 2020. Seniors, staff and community members reflect on the impact of 2020's Covid-19 policies on their experience at the College.

In August 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, days before the Class of 2024 arrived on Bowdoin’s campus, then-College President Clayton Rose sent a video to incoming students’ inboxes. In the video, Rose stands alone in a dimly lit Studzinski Recital Hall wearing a gray Bowdoin-branded mask. Before beginning his address, he takes off the mask.

“The Class of 2024 will begin its time at Bowdoin meeting one another from six feet apart, taking your classes together almost exclusively online,” Rose said in the video. “Each of us bears a responsibility to everybody else.”

Weeks later, the Class of 2024 came to a Bowdoin very different from what had come before. Students traded Orientation Trips for pandemic-related safety restrictions and floor dinners for socially-distanced take-out meals eaten alone. Almost all classes were online. After three months on campus in 2020, first-year students left Bowdoin, and most didn’t return until the fall of 2021.

The Orient released a survey asking the Class of 2024 to reflect upon their college experience, especially concerning the pandemic. The survey yielded 158 responses, representing around 37 percent of the senior class.

Midst of a pandemic

Fifty-three percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “The College handled Covid-19 safety protocols well.”

“I think Bowdoin did a great job of enforcing Covid protocols, and Mike Ranen was really on top of things in terms of testing and telling us what status the campus was,” one anonymous respondent said.

“They said that it was normal, that our tuition was the same because we were receiving the same level of college experience. Now I know how amazingly false that was,” another wrote.

If a student tested positive for Covid or was in contact with someone who tested positive, they were required to quarantine in Stowe or Howard Halls. Although Dahlia Siegel ’24 never contracted Covid while on campus, she was labeled a close contact and quarantined in Howard Hall for fifteen days.

“I was calling my friends and family 24/7 to stop myself from going crazy,” she said.

Students who violated Covid guidelines were kicked off campus. Siegel, who participated in a social gathering that violated these guidelines, was kicked off of campus following her stay in Howard Hall.

Although initially frustrated by the news, Siegel ultimately found a silver lining: after leaving campus, Siegel lived in Boulder, Colo., where she discovered her passion for the outdoors. After graduating, she hopes to work in the outdoor industry.

“It totally changed my life, I think, for the better, in retrospect,” Siegel said.

Transfer and change

In June 2020, Bowdoin Admissions sent an FAQ sheet to incoming students discussing gap year requests for the fall of 2020. The FAQ sheet said students hoping to defer in the fall may have to defer for two years.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents reported considering taking a gap year prior to matriculating to Bowdoin. Of those who considered taking a gap year, 85 percent said Covid was the reason they considered it.

Forty-four percent of respondents indicated that they had considered transferring during their time at Bowdoin, with only five percent of those students attempting. Of those who considered transferring, 60 percent said the College’s Covid policies impacted their decision.

Claire Beck, who matriculated with the Class of 2024, transferred after her sophomore fall semester. She said that she began considering transferring in September of 2021, citing both academic and mental health reasons.

“The factors that really gave me the motivation and bravery to actually transfer were purely emotional. I found that, from my perspective, mental health in Bowdoin’s student body was abysmal during that fall of 2021,” Beck said. “Ultimately, I chose to transfer to protect my emotional wellbeing.”

Some 2024 athletes plan to take advantage of their final year of NCAA eligibility. Shark-diving enthusiast and defensive lineman on the football team Mike Randall took the 2023 spring semester off to participate in a marine conservation program in rural South Africa.

“The decision-making process started with me wanting to come back and play my fourth year of eligibility that we got back from the NCAA,” Randall said. “I basically gave myself that extra semester because I wanted to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which I think that I did, so I’m pretty happy with that decision.”

Shihab Moral

Socially … distant?

Social life has been a struggle for the Class of 2024. Survey results suggest the stunted first year on and off campus left many feeling forgotten.

“I genuinely do think Bowdoin has forgotten about our class and never really made up for the lack of support and abnormal experience we had,” one anonymous respondent wrote.

During the fall of 2020, first years were placed in core groups. These groups comprised eight to ten first-year students and two proctors who lived in the same dorm or College House. During the beginning weeks of the semester, students were only allowed to socialize in these core groups.

Atticus Rosen ’24 said these core groups were both a detriment and a boon. He believes that the Class of 2024 is uniquely bonded.

“[Core groups] reduced the social mobility within our class—the ways in which we could meet people. But, they strengthened the bond between the people we met in our class,” Rosen said.

For a lot of students, following rigid Covid prevention protocols meant for a lonely first semester and limited socializing.

Will Byrne ’24 remembered arriving on campus his first semester only knowing his peers on the lacrosse team.

“I love my friends and I’m sure we would be great friends regardless. But I think a lot of my friends are my teammates and I think that that was largely because for that whole entire semester they were who I knew,” Byrne said.

Despite the unconventional start, Byrne remembers his time at Bowdoin fondly.

“I was really frustrated in the moment and I was very anxious and stressed … But I think now looking back on the experience, I understand like it was really tough for a ton of people and I don’t know. I think my last three years at Bowdoin have been awesome and I’ve made lifelong friends and had a great experience,” Byrne said.

“Socialize responsibly”: ResLife reflects on fall 2020

Fifty-three percent of respondents indicated that they strongly agree or agree with the statement, “Residential Life Staff adequately supported me during my first year.”

“My first-year proctors were amazing and went above and beyond for my core group. They made my first-year experience much better than I think it would have been without them,” an anonymous respondent said.

Will Hausmann ’22 was a proctor assigned to Appleton Hall in the fall of 2020. He said that he and the rest of ResLife tried their best to give students a normal first-year experience. Hausmann would take his proctees on socially-distanced walks and trips off-campus when he could.

“I saw a lot of value in being able to socialize responsibly,” Hausmann said. “The ways in which you connect to Bowdoin your first-year fall were limited.”

A Professor Perspective

Associate Professor of History Sakura Christmas noted a feeling of “unmooredness” among the Class of 2024 in her classroom. She said the pandemic and its related restrictions may have caused this.

“I think not just the pandemic, but the policies that came out of the pandemic, really kind of made students feel a little bit unmoored,” Christmas said. “They kind of struggled to find a place for them[selves] within the college socially, but also academically.”

Christmas said that she noticed that current seniors were ready to graduate and didn’t have any nostalgia for the College like other years. Still, Christmas said, the pandemic may have made the Class of 2024 stronger.

“This was a horrible period of our lives and in history. You all came out stronger for it, but it is not something I would wish upon any one,” Christmas said.

Like Christmas, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies Tess Chakkalakal has noticed a sense of disgruntlement and believes the pandemic profoundly shaped the Class of 2024.

“I think it’s kind of on you. I don’t think you should be looking to them to fix your problems,” she said. “You’ve had a very unique experience, not a great experience, but certainly unique. Knowing this, I think it will affect the way you operate in the world.”

Building trust?

Randy Nichols, executive director of the Office of Safety and Security, reflected on the difficult position that security was put in during fall 2020. Although the enforcement arm of College policies, the office was not the decision-maker on the consequences of breaking these policies.

“It was really tough for us because of the success that Safety and Security has with the student body,” Nichols said. “Traditionally, over the years, it’s taken years and years to build [trust]. And we took a hit with this class. And I don’t think we ever completely recovered from that because you only get one chance to make a good first impression, as you know. And so, the first impression of security was these big, scary people wearing uniforms and big black masks. And all of a sudden, if they write you up, you might be going home.”

Nichols expressed multiple times the effect that a group of students being sent home for sharing a vape pen had on his and the office’s morale.

“I love my job, but Covid made it not fun,” Nichols said.

While Nichols had previously met with each first-year brick to introduce himself and the role of his office, he was not allowed to have this in-person interaction with the Class of 2024. He believes that this affected the rapport between security and the current seniors.

“People don’t tend to come to people they don’t trust,” Nichols said. “So, we always want students to never hesitate to come to us for help … I think the students generally have confidence in security, but it will never be the same for [the Class of 2024].”

Building trust on campus was a challenge for many administrators on campus. Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Dean of Student Engagement and Leadership Katie Toro-Ferrari found this to be a product of starting off the fall 2020 semester with a more transactional relationship.

“I think it’s because we didn’t have the ability to create a transformational relationship with students right away…. That’s not how that’s not how we do things at Bowdoin. I mean, that’s not how a lot of schools do it. But I think about it in particular, like we are such a relational place,” Toro-Ferrari said.

Associate Dean for Academic Administration Mike Ranen also felt this dissonance and tapped into his communication methods in an attempt to mitigate the uncertainty. A self-described “over-communicator,” he made it his goal to make clear all of the College’s decisions around the pandemic and mitigating the spread of Covid-19.

Still, Toro-Ferrari sees this as a transient relationship that has improved this year, especially in the Class of 2024’s approach to leadership positions on campus.

“One of the things that I think, has been so amazing about this senior class is that I’ve seen this arc of really having a challenging onboarding … and feeling pretty unhappy with the administration and feeling challenged by the administration, but then seeing some of the bright spots. Students who have just [said] ‘I’m tired of having that experience, and I want to have a different experience my last few years,’” Toro-Ferrari said.

Ranen in the years

When Ranen began the 2019–2020 academic year, he was still working as the associate dean of Student Affairs and director of Residential and Student Life.

On July 9, 2020, in addition to his associate dean position, Ranen was named the College’s Covid-19 Resource Coordinator by Rose, a temporary role he would hold in various capacities for the next two years. Given the rapidly changing landscape of Covid information at the time, Ranen couldn’t have predicted the course the position would chart.

Ranen’s day began the minute Covid test results started flowing into the office, usually around 6 a.m., and often ended once he responded to the last email in his inbox.

“I don’t know if I had expectations, except that I knew that it would be wild,” Ranen said.

Speaking to the Class of 2024, Ranen emphasized the importance of acknowledging the challenges of that year.

“I don’t think we could have changed what we did with the knowledge that we had at the time. But I think we can acknowledge that you guys lost a lot,” Ranen said.

Student Affairs looks back

During the lead-up to the Class of 2024’s arrival on campus in the fall of 2020, Senior Vice President and Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann handled much of the College’s public-facing announcements.

Four years later, Lohmann stands by the College’s 2020–2021 academic year plan.

“We did the best we could. I hope that students realize this was a bigger issue than just a Bowdoin issue and that the decisions we made, while I recognize were not the decisions that other schools made, we felt were in the best interest of our community and the Brunswick community. That’s all we did,” Lohmann said.

While Lohmann believes Bowdoin made the best decisions at the time, given the information at hand, she retrospectively understands the College could have done things slightly differently.

“If I had to go back over and do it again, I would maybe have more than one class here in the fall. Some schools had first years and seniors or first years and sophomores. I think it would have made it helpful for our first years if we had some connections other than ResLife staff for their first semester here,” Lohmann said.

For Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Dean of Student Engagement & Leadership Katie Toro-Ferrari, the Class of 2024 holds a special place as she started at Bowdoin in July 2020.

“I feel very connected to this class, because they’re, my class,” Toro-Ferrari said.

Toro-Ferrari said she had hoped that the students, staff, and faculty who spent that fall semester on campus together could have shared a space to “metabolize it out as a collective.”

She also said while the days of quarantining on campus and swabbing your PCR in Watson are over, the impacts of Covid still reverberate in other class years who experienced the pandemic in their high school years. Still, Toro-Ferrari got emotional discussing the impact of the past years on the class of 2024, and class years since.

There is hope for the Class of 2024, however. Over seventy percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “I am happy with my college experience.”

Andrew Cohen, Lucas Dufalla, Clara Jergins, Jane Olsen, Sam Pausman and Juliana Vandermark contributed to this report.


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