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    Engaging Ithaca College first-years during the virtual semester

    Overcast view of Cayuga Lake and the currently dormant Ithaca College fountains
    Phoebe Harms/Ithaca Week

    In a typical fall semester at Ithaca College, offices and organizations on campus would be working to engage first-year students with the campus community through new-student programs, events and group activities. But because Ithaca College has operated virtually for the Fall 2020 semester, the process of involving the class of 2024 has taken place through a lot of Zoom calls and email chains.

    There are still opportunities for first-year students to interact with their peers through classes and on-campus organizations. In addition, the Office of Residential Life continues to offer events specific to different on-campus housing clusters as it would if students lived on campus. However, while they recognize the college’s efforts, some first-year students said they are finding trouble in making connections without being in-person. First-year Fiona Lory-Moran said despite having made some connections through class and on-campus organizations, there’s a lot missing from the virtual experience.

    “It’s been disheartening to have to see everyone on screen and not get to walk out of class together and that kind of thing,” Lory-Moran said.

    A lone student walking towards the Towers: typically first-year-occupied dormitories on Ithaca College campus.
    Phoebe Harms/Ithaca Week

    “A sense of normalcy”

    However, there have been many attempts from organizations at the college to keep first-years involved despite operating remotely. The Office of Student Engagement—or OSEMA—works to connect students with the campus community from the moment they arrive at the college to when they graduate. For first-year students in particular, OSEMA has resources like Jumpstart, a program, held in the days before the beginning of school, through which students experience the local and campus community by taking part in activities while interacting with one another in small groups. OSEMA also focuses on on-campus organizations and works to involve first-year students in them with events like the annual Organization Fair.

    These resources were still available to first-year students this year but were adapted to fit a virtual experience. For instance, the Jumpstart program occurred in multiple different virtual sessions that lasted less time. The Organization Fair took place as well. Michele Lenhart, Director of OSEMA, said student organizations found unique ways to make it work, by recording video introductions of their organizations.

    “The student organizations have been super creative in the ways they’ve done things,” Lenhart said.

    For many first-year students, these organizations have offered a sense of normalcy for their first semester since they haven’t been able to interact with the campus. First-year student Jessica Moskowitz got involved with the college’s FM radio station WICB and said this has helped with making her feel a part of the college.

    “I kind of like the routine of that, feeling like I’m still part of the Ithaca community even though I’m not there,” Moskowitz said.

    Lory-Moran said not only did being a part of different organizations on campus introduce her to new friends, but it also provided her with a lot of information about the college in general. Being a part of Discord, the IC ESports team has answered a lot of her questions about admissions, housing and the campus community.

    “They have been really, really good at kind of like, anchoring me in this community,” Lory-Moran said. “I’ve met a lot of really nice people.”

    “Connections over a screen”

    However, while these tactics have given first-year students a taste of campus life, not all students are well engaged in virtual activities. Mike Lindgren participated in a few events— like the Organization Fair and a few with Residential Life— but found it difficult to consistently attend them.

    “It’s hard to give that time up when you’re not actually there,” Lindgren said. “I welcome the efforts that have been made, but my motivation just isn’t really there.”

    Lenhart said that while they have seen a decent turnout in these first-year n events, numbers are significantly lower than they typically are during a normal semester. Lenhart said the students who do choose to show up tend to be very engaged in the activities.

    “They’ve been really excited about the programming because they’re really making a conscious choice about how they’re spending their time,” Lenhart said. “So I’d say it’s more of a quality participation versus quantity participation.”

    Despite this, some first-year students recognize the college’s efforts to engage them, but find it difficult to move past the unfamiliar aspects of virtual operation. Moskowitz said she’s looking forward to the day when she can be on campus connecting with people in-person.

    “I do appreciate taking the necessary precautions to make sure that we’re healthy, I value that,” Moskowitz said. “But it is hard to kind of form human connections over a screen.

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