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First-years at Brown find connection, community through BRANCH, despite virtual setting

BRANCH First Year Experience discussions, values provide special opportunities for bonding

When Jessie Deschenes ’24 opened yet another Today@Brown email early this fall offering a “community building opportunity for first years,” she was unsure about joining. The first-year virtual bonding events she’d been to already hadn’t lived up to their purpose, and she was tired of attending these events only to walk away with few true connections.

“I was so sick at that point of just the same surface-level conversation,” Deschenes said, in reference to her experience with other virtual community events. “You don’t actually know anybody.”

But this opportunity, the Community Dialogue Project’s Building Relationships and Nurturing Community Healing First Year Experience, seemed to offer something different: A genuine chance to connect in a non-typical fall. Its webpage describes conversations about love, joy, self-care and disappointments, among other broad themes.

“I almost didn’t sign up (for) it, honestly,” she said. At first, Deschenes was skeptical of how well a program like BRANCH FYE would work virtually, and she was concerned that participants would remain “disconnected” from each other.

But now, as a member of one of the program’s two cohorts, BRANCH FYE is “a highlight” of her week, she said. “I’ve actually found it to be fantastic. Everyone is so kind and open and it’s just really relaxing.” 

BRANCH FYE was designed for first-years to think “about how we translate our broader values (and) visions for the world into our interpersonal relationships and communities,” said CDP Student Coordinator and BRANCH FYE co-facilitator Zoe Kupetz ’22.5.

The program was first developed in spring 2020 to provide “a space that feels good, where we’re thinking all the time about building supportive community and what that actually looks like,” said Morgan De Lancy ’22, a CDP student coordinator and another co-facilitator of BRANCH FYE.

This year’s program also aimed to create an experience for first-years that would make “adjusting to Brown a longer process as opposed to just crammed in the first week,” De Lancy added. 

BRANCH FYE evolved out of conversations Kupetz had with Assistant Director for Community Dialogue and Campus Engagement Marc Peters on a program for first-years that would serve as “a more substantial deep dive into community building and thinking through dynamics of power and privilege and socialization,” Kupetz said.

De Lancy and Kupetz co-facilitate discussions for a cohort of 10 first-years, including Deschenes. 

Deschenes, Sarah Liu ’24 and Abby Cohen ’24, who are in the same cohort, all said that when they signed up for BRANCH FYE, they were looking for close-knit communities and meaningful connections.

Liu, who zooms in from Dalian, China, was nervous at first about the virtual format of the meetings. “Sometimes on Zoom, it’s awkward to have a group conversation, especially when you're trying to build connection,” she said.

But if anything, BRANCH FYE’s virtual space — unlike others — may be as conducive to community building as an in-person experience, Cohen said. 

“I feel like one thing that I've really valued about BRANCH and Zoom is the breakout room option,” Cohen said, who joins from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s so private … and you get to really focus on what (the other person is) saying.” 

Deschenes echoed that the weekly conversations provide especially valuable opportunities for connecting with her peers. “It’s intentionally deeper conversation,” she said. “We all signed on to being vulnerable and supportive. We can just be more honest and it’s been a more efficient way to get to know people.”

Conversations have included one-on-one discussions on empathy, conflict in relationships, personal accountability, life-mapping and answering a selection of questions from “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love,” a piece from The New York Times’s Modern Love section. 

“I feel like I’ve heard so many raw stories of people of so many different identities and backgrounds, and it’s really just expanded my vision of the Brown community,” Cohen said. 

BRANCH FYE is “definitely an important presence in my life because it’s hard to find another space exactly like that,” Liu added.

While BRANCH FYE has given these first-years a preview of what the rest of their peers might be like, it also provides insight into “what the Brown community values as a whole,” Cohen added.

It is “reassuring to know,” Deschenes said, “that there’s a large group of kids who genuinely want to know people and are being so respectful about it and nonjudgmental.”

Looking forward to the spring, Liu said that she felt BRANCH FYE gave her tools to connect with fellow first-years. “Being able to practice the ability to connect with people — actually connect with people on Zoom — can be useful even when being on campus,” she said. 

BRANCH FYE is “one of the few spaces that I still actively always look forward to and come away feeling fulfilled,” De Lancy said. It’s a “testament to bonds that people have created in the space.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Building Relationships and Nurturing Community Healing First Year Experience, calling the program the Building Relationships and Nurturing Community Health First Year Experience. The Herald regrets the error.


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