As freshmen lined up for the annual Van Wickle Gates Walkthrough at Opening Convocation this year, they were, for the first time, joined by a group of sophomores. Some members of the class of 2024 experienced an unconventional first year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many students did not have the opportunity in their first year to participate in this age-old tradition that signifies their entry into Brown.
Despite being “returning students,” many sophomores are arriving on College Hill for the first time. 170 students who enrolled in the class of 2024 studied entirely remotely last year, according to Assistant Dean of the College for the First-Year and Sophomore Experience Anja Lee.
For Catherine Niu ’24, who did her freshman year remotely from Ottawa, Canada, moving into Caswell Hall this semester was a challenge.
Because she never studied in person at Brown, she needed to pick up her ID from the Brown Card Office. But arriving on the first day of the long weekend meant that the office would not be open until Tuesday. Not knowing that she could get a temporary card to use over the weekend, Niu had to resort to waiting for a passerby to swipe her in.
Students agreed that arriving on campus as a sophomore after having had an unconventional first year presented challenges beyond just simple logistics.
One of the biggest concerns held by Zachary Boston ’24 is finding friend groups to join this semester. It is difficult “to come in as somebody that’s new and trying to find a friend group where some people may not still be trying to find a friend,” Boston said. “Everybody here is very welcoming … it’s just harder when you know you’re going into your sophomore year, but you feel like a first year.”
Since Niu wasn’t able to have in-person orientation, “trying to figure out resources and finding support” is a primary concern for her.
Simone Klein ’24.5 echoed Niu’s sentiment about trying to find on-campus resources. Fall 2021 will not be her first time on campus, but because she took leave during the summer semester, she still worries about accessibility of resources given that she is not a “new” freshman.
“I don’t know what to say when people ask me what year I am,” Klein said. “Am I allowed to have a first-year advisor? Can I register for first-year seminars? All of that was just not communicated to me.”
Klein added that she “felt pretty alone in not knowing what to do.” Unlike upperclassmen who take gap semesters, Klein explained that she did not have enough time to navigate campus and fully establish herself as a student before she took leave since she had only experienced one semester under COVID-19 restrictions.
“To any sophomore students who may be struggling with this transition, please know that we are here and available to support you. Just reach out wherever you are comfortable doing so,” Anja Lee, assistant dean of the college for the first-year and sophomore experience, wrote in an email to The Herald. She added that the Division of Campus Life has “organized a robust set of programming to build community among the class of 2024 and to help orient them to the Brown community.” Sophomore programming listed on the Division of Campus Life’s web page includes events held by the Brown RISD Hillel, LGBTQ Center and the Global Brown Center, along with numerous “SophomOrientation” events being hosted by the Class Coordinating Board of 2024.
Even for those who lived on campus for the past year, the fall semester will be their first semester with significantly loosened COVID-19 restrictions, offering an entirely different experience than previous semesters.
Boston arrived on campus in January of this year, but he went back home one and a half months into the spring semester and did not return for the summer semester.
“Just like many other people, I had all my classes online … though I was in a suite, I felt so isolated in that room and constrained,” Boston said. “I really am a people person, so it’s really hard for me to get through without being able to interact with people.” He ultimately decided to go home because he determined that his college experience would be the same given the remote format, and he would at least be able to spend time with his family.
Like Boston, Niu is also looking forward to a very different college experience this fall. She decided to study remotely because the spring semester was the height of COVID-19 cases in the United States. “It was just not really worth it for me to cross the border at that time,” Niu said.
Filbert Aung ’24 also decided to study remotely during both the spring and summer semesters. Aung explained that because he lives with two elderly grandparents, he did not want to risk bringing the virus back from campus when he returned to his home in California during the break.
Despite vaccine availability in April, Aung still chose to study remotely for the summer because of the reduced living costs as well as the prospect of being able to see his friends in California.
Even though they had concerns about coming to campus because they lacked on-campus experience, many students expressed that studying remotely was the right choice.
Aung said that, as a remote student, his schedule was more relaxed, allowing him to take five classes both semesters of freshman year. He is glad that he was able to get many of his prerequisites out of the way and focus on the smaller classes now that he is on campus.
“I stick by my decision of what I did,” Boston said. “I just think it was best in terms of mental health for me.”
Boston added that the difficult decisions he made during COVID-19 have given him the opportunity to grow in maturity. “Just because of the decisions I’ve had to make, weighing options and also putting safety over fun … I’ve been able to make what I think of as respectable decisions, I stand by those, and being able to stick by your decisions feels nice.”
Due to the isolation she experienced, Klein also mentioned that she did not feel “fully present” during the spring semester. But this fall feels different.
“I’m treating this fall as another try of the first semester,” she said. “Part of me is like ‘yes it’s gonna be difficult’… so I’m just sitting in that discomfort for a while, believing that it will be better because I want to be here.”