To incoming first-years:
As you prepare to join our campus ranks in a semester like no other, we write to share words of wisdom (we hope) that may help guide you through the months ahead. When you were completing your applications last fall, we imagine none of you envisioned spending your first semester away from home in a moment such as this — a moment starkly different from the one we, a group of mostly seniors, experienced our first year on campus.
Our first week on College Hill, we held awkward conversations at the Main Green ice cream social, all overeager to make friends. We took pictures with people we met just two days prior next to a giant blue lamp bear, who was only a bit less new to campus than we were. We spent most of shopping period getting lost in Barus and Holley on our way to class.
We’re saddened that you won’t get to experience these same cringeworthy rites of passage. But we are confident that, in the shared experience of navigating this strange freshman year with your peers, you will develop your own new traditions and memories, making your unique mark on College Hill. As you do so, we hope you’ll find comfort in the guidance that we share with you from our own haphazard navigation of college — both in normal times, and in this unique year.
There is no denying how much the pandemic has cast a shadow on the college experience — especially for you. Not only has it delayed your arrival to campus, but it has redefined the way we share in this experience with each other. This was difficult for every single one of us to accept, but we can tell you firsthand that adapting to the heightened challenge — always wearing masks (yes, even in dorm hallways!); maintaining distance from people outside our pods; only ordering takeout — has paid off. It has allowed us to remain on campus, keeping positivity rates remarkably low, when others have had to remain home. As tiring as it is to limit and adapt our social interactions and to remain so vigilant, we have maintained this behavior not just for our own protection but also for the faculty and other members of Brown’s community who will be impacted by our actions. We are confident that you will be able to do this as well.
Navigating the first few weeks — really, months — of the first year of college can be really difficult for everyone, even without the added complexities (and oftentimes isolation) of virtual courses and social distancing. Here’s some advice: Shopping period is a wonderful tool, but there’s no right way to take advantage of it. In many ways, Zoom has made it even easier to pop between courses in a given hour, but don’t overindulge. Keeping up with 13 courses for a week until you figure out which ones to drop gets overwhelming quicker than you’d think!
Many of us found this advice difficult to internalize, but try not to worry too much about concentration requirements; you will never have as much flexibility to explore as you do now. Encourage yourself to learn more about the world around you by taking language classes and DIAP courses. Work on your writing — it will pay off. Take a first-year seminar. While we’d encourage you to join a small discussion group in any semester, we can also assure you that seminars are some of the best courses to take over Zoom, as well as one of the best ways to foster connections virtually with peers who share your interests.
And now, perhaps more than ever, investing time in clubs and other extracurriculars will be highly rewarding. Social connections likely won’t be able to occur as organically as they would have in the dorms or dining halls, but we can promise you that finding people with similar passions working on a joint initiative — like, say, the newspaper! — will be a meaningful way to form new connections, even in Zoomland. But don’t feel pressure to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. Your existence at Brown is more than enough to inspire a fulfilling, memorable and productive life after College Hill.
Nevertheless, we know our best advice will only go so far in this environment. While some classes and activities have transitioned well to Zoom, others have not. Courses may not be as stimulating as you had hoped. Don’t use this as a definitive benchmark for your whole Brown experience or even the quality of a particular department you are interested in. Instead, reach out to older peers to seek their insight: Departmental Undergraduate Group leaders, your course teaching assistants, your Residential Peer Leader, upperclassmen in your clubs. Sending a random email may seem weird, but trust us, we are more than happy to find these sorts of messages in our inboxes.
And be kind to yourself. We have all found that this new way of living and learning has left us drained in new and unexpected ways. Avoid stacking too many virtual classes or activities together. As many of you know by now, existing in a virtual world for hours on end can be more exhausting than it seems.
Ultimately, there are pain points to this experience that are difficult to avoid. Do not blame yourself if you are struggling more than expected. In isolation, it may seem like you are the only one. Please know you are not: This is a lesson we upperclassmen are struggling to internalize as well. Resources exist to support you in these struggles, such as deans, whose job it is to provide support when you are uncertain where else to go, or Counseling and Psychological Services, which a quarter of all Brown students take advantage of.
You will almost certainly feel behind at some point in the coming semester, if you do not yet already. The truth is, even under normal circumstances, it’s natural for a first-year to feel behind. We felt it, too, during our first few weeks — that frantic urge to find friends, plan schedules, join clubs — and sometimes we still do. And it’s even harder to do these things over Zoom.
We’re here to tell you that it’s okay to feel behind and to feel lost. You don’t need to know exactly what to do or what a “spicy with” is. In fact, when you look back on your four years at Brown, you will realize that it is often the unplanned moments that you will treasure most. Those unexpected detours to India Point Park. That surprisingly delicious Ratty meal. The time you shopped a random class and finally discovered what you want to concentrate in.
This year, however, those memories may look different. You will have to sacrifice crowded parties for Zoom calls or small pod gatherings instead. You won’t get to enjoy the sticky tables of the V-Dub and will have to dine in your dorms instead. But you will make memories nonetheless.
Maybe you will look back fondly on your housing pod, having serendipitously found your friends for the next four years. You might even enjoy the non-sweaty Zoom and pod gatherings of this year more than the (overhyped) frat parties of normal years. Or perhaps you’ll find that you enjoy having more time to yourself without the typical fear of missing out.
But we do not mean to say that the way things are right now is perfect or ideal. The truth is, you may not get to experience the most meaningful social interactions this semester. You may feel isolated sometimes. Even under normal circumstances, many of us did not meet our best friends or feel at home at Brown until after our freshman year. This semester will not define the rest of your college experience.
The pandemic has impacted all of us differently and at different points in our college timeline. Because this will be your first exposure to campus, we know for you the impact may be that you will face greater obstacles to figuring out your place here and what Brown means to you.
But we are so glad that, at long last, you can come to the campus you have been waiting to make home since May, or even longer. In the coming years, you will have plenty of time to join in on the normal festivities of college. Just not yet. For now, even under these circumstances and with these restrictions, being physically here on College Hill is enough for you to have a real beginning.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board, whose members encourage you to read The Herald’s 2019 First-Year Guide to Brown for a glimpse of Brown as it was. This editorial was written by its editor and assistant editor, Krista Stapleford ’21 and Johnny Ren ’23, and members Lola Olabode ’21, Vicky Phan ’21 and Dylan Tian ’21.
To incoming first-years: