Student Life on ‘Mars’ The challenges of student life during the COVID-19 pandemic are pervasive, but students—and the W&L staff supporting them—are rising to the occasion.
“We’re colonizing Mars right now, right? This is a completely different planet. You’re back to the basics, like how does the meeting work? How do we make social connections as humans?”
~ Kelsey Goodwin, Director of Student Activities
When you Zoom with Kelsey Goodwin, Washington and Lee University’s director of student activities, you can’t help but notice a sign over her shoulder that reads, “‘It’s the end of the world,’ said the caterpillar. ‘It’s the beginning of the world,’ said the butterfly.” The message, she says, helps set the tone for the discussions she has with students regarding COVID-19 and the changed environment of W&L in fall 2020.
The challenges of college during the pandemic are vexing and pervasive, an epoch-marking experience shared by a generation of students, from those studying virtually at locked-down state universities to those at W&L navigating changing health guidelines and a reshaped social scene. Goodwin, and the rest of W&L’s Student Activities staff, are keenly aware of this.
“We’re colonizing Mars right now, right?” Goodwin explained. “This is a completely different planet. You’re back to the basics, like how does the meeting work? How do we make social connections as humans? And it’s weird, and it’s frustrating. We have to leave room for just grieving that. It’s hard not to be able to gather and do some of the things that we all love about Washington and Lee.”
Many of the basic social interactions that help students find their footing have been reinvented. Instead of student organizations offering pizza and getting 40 people together in a room, they have to set up creative events over Zoom. In-person recruitment for Greek organizations is paused. And the informal interactions that often begin new friendships—talking to someone after class, meeting up for lunch, grabbing coffee for a study date—are harder with six feet and two masks between you.
In spite of that, students, and the Student Activities office, are adjusting.
In the first month of the semester, Student Activities hosted nearly 100 events for students. Student organizations hosted dozens of their own, and the pace is picking up as they get used to operating under COVID restrictions.
The Outing Club alone is averaging 18–20 programs a week, said James Dick, director of outdoor education. It’s focusing on small, local trips, which could mean slacklining or mountain biking on the back campus, or enjoying one of many hiking trails within a short drive of campus. “We’re hitting our bread and butter trips,” Dick said. “Stand-up paddleboarding on the Maury, House Mountain, Devil’s Marbleyard.”
With trips filling rapidly despite the Outing Club nearly doubling its usual schedule, Dick and the students who work for him are looking to do more, even as temperatures drop, including trips specifically geared for first-years. “The weather doesn’t stop us. It’s on full steam, and you can still hop on the train. It’s not just for outdoorsy people. It’s really welcoming and easy.”
On the front campus, students have played cornhole and KanJam on Cannan Green, attended virtual film screenings and album listening sessions, shared work in a virtual weekly creative writing workshop, seen comedian Seth Meyers perform live for the W&L community and enjoyed a robust Q&A after his performance. A weekly casual run through Lexington has helped build a community of mostly first-year and sophomore women.
“Our participation is more varied this year,” said Margaret McClintock, associate director of intramurals and adventure programs. “Because these activities are small and not as team focused, we’re getting a wider cross section. As a programmer, that translates to more interaction with each individual, which in turn allows them to open up and share their ideas about what activity we should do next.”
Hundreds of students have also participated in virtual Greek life recruitment events. The Panhellenic Council held a successful “Meet the Greek” event over Zoom attended by over 150 first-year women, who learned about the sororities on campus and spoke with members in breakout rooms for more than an hour. The informal “rush dates” that are a keystone of sorority recruitment have moved online as well.
“Building connections is more difficult when paralinguistic cues are taken away,” said Ayo Ehindero ’21, vice president of Rho Gammas (recruitment counselors) for the Panhellenic Council. “However, we have worked very hard to create a comfortable environment for people to get to know each other and start building relationships. For the first time, we can guarantee that all potential new members who opt into the programs will have the opportunity to engage with every single sorority. We are at a crossroads where we are compelled to do better as a Greek community, and virtual events have actually helped us with that charge.”
W&L’s fraternities, regrouping after their initial focus on small in-person events was disrupted by shifting COVID-19 guidelines, have distributed contact information for chapter presidents and recruitment chairs to all first-years and are planning their own virtual events. Students worried they’re missing out on recruitment can also contact their residential advisors, who received training on Greek recruitment processes before the year began, or members of the Panhellenic Council (for women) or Interfraternity Council (for men).
Students, administrators and parents have been particularly worried about first-years, whose risk of experiencing homesickness and isolation is higher than usual this year. To help, Student Activities has planned a number of first-year-specific events, advertised in a daily email and via residential advisors. Overall, said Jason Rodocker, associate dean of students and dean for first-year experience, “The vast majority of first-years that I have interacted with have said that they’re okay.”
For Tiwaniya Tyler ’24, “Washington and Lee is aligning with my idea of the college experience, even within a global pandemic. Though student activities are not as lively due to social distancing guidelines, the interactions between small groups of people during an event are a wonderful experience.”
“The semester has been very hard for some first-years, understandably so,” Rodocker said. But time on campus seems to be helping, with students finding groups of friends or organizations that help them get their footing. Facilitating those connections is one of the key functions of his office. Rodocker regularly helps students who reach out to him find an organization on campus that matches their interests.
Student leaders are helping make those connections as well. W&L’s residential advisers conduct both passive programs, like passing out goodie bags and posting encouraging notes on dorm room doors, and active programs, like hall trips and outdoor activities.
“We’ve tried to focus our efforts on passive programming,” said Donald LeCompte ’21, a residential advisor for first-years. “The Outing Club and intramural sports have also been great programming partners. I brought my hall up the Alpine Tower one night and everyone absolutely loved it! We had about 20 people attend, all following safety precautions, and we treated them to some Sweet Things ice cream afterward.”
Rodocker, the first-year dean, knows there’s more work to be done, but believes in the resiliency of the students and staff building this new iteration of the W&L community. “There are people who are losing a little bit of morale, but there’s plenty of reason to still be positive and optimistic. More and more student organizations are finding their footing. Those resources are going to kick in, and there are already hundreds of opportunities on campus.”
This year is more difficult than most for college students around the world. If you know a W&L student struggling to adjust, please encourage them to reach out to their class dean for help: Jason Rodocker for first-years, Megan Hobbs for sophomores and juniors, or Tammi Simpson for seniors.