First-Year Island

While upperclassmen typically serve as an informal yet invaluable resource for first-years, this year, freshmen have been robbed of that experience, and we must work to make up the lost ground.

By Sylvia Ebenbach

Like everything else, the dynamic of how the different classes interact with each other on our campus has been fundamentally altered during the COVID-19 pandemic. As hard as it is for first-years to meet each other during this time, it is even more difficult for first-years to meet older students. This is a huge loss in terms of creating a supportive, cohesive culture on campus. Furthermore, resources that are normally accessed through casual conversations with peers are not nearly as accessible now. The environments that facilitated integration in college life that benefited upperclassmen when they first arrived at UChicago should be extended to first-years.

As the oldest sibling of three, I’m used to being the first one to try something new. Even so, looking back, I think the transition to college life during my first year would have been extremely different if I did not have upperclassmen in my house to bombard with questions about UChicago. One of the most comforting feelings is knowing that the challenging journey you are about to undertake has been overcome by people before you. Whether in the hall of my dorm, in RSO meetings, or as a class was wrapping up, chatting with upperclassmen has been an important part of navigating the academic, social, and even the physical structure of life at UChicago. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked the other day when I realized I don’t know many first-years.

While UChicago tries to supplement casual house-based interactions with organized activities, these are mainly targeted at first-years and don’t necessarily create situations in which first-years have a chance to meet people in other years. Furthermore, the deficiency is not necessarily of activities, but of comfortable spaces to have social interaction. During my first year, it was not uncommon to see other people studying in the house lounge and join in. On weekends, the house was almost always buzzing with activity. This gave me the opportunity to casually discuss a wide range of topics with students who had already gone through the learning process themselves, like social life on campus, the workings of the housing lottery, and even questions as simple as where to get a good coffee. This form of social interaction is much harder to replicate under COVID-19 restrictions because all interactions require far more effort to organize in a safety-conscious way.

In order to realize the full benefit of interactions between different class years, there need to be more opportunities that include a wider range of students. Some older students are taking this duty upon themselves—for instance, the hosts of Across the Hall, a podcast on the newly established Midwave Radio asked its listeners, “What do you wish you knew when you were a first-year?” More opportunities for these kinds of discussions could be incorporated into already existing structures that have transitioned to a virtual platform. For instance, virtual “happy hours” through RSOs that don’t have a specific purpose other than to hangout and talk would help facilitate interactions between students of different years. As the weather improves during the upcoming spring quarter, houses should facilitate these casual hangout spaces outdoors.

In terms of academics, it's no secret that asking upperclassmen about their recommendations for majors, specific classes, and professors can be incredibly helpful in feeling empowered at UChicago. The knowledge of the vast variety of options is important in shaping a fulfilling path at this school. One way to facilitate these conversations is through classes that students are already taking. It is already standard to have additional discussion sections in many classes, sometimes in small group formats. There could be additional smaller groups dedicated to general discussion of the themes and department as a whole, almost like office hours but with peers. This would allow for conversations between students from multiple years about academic and professional topics based on individual lived experiences rather than relying solely on info sessions and department websites during this largely virtual time period.

Another option is simply reaching out to upperclassmen from a class if they are in a major that seems interesting. While taking the initial step of sending the message may feel uncomfortable, the chances are that the person you reach out to will be more than happy to respond and chat.  From my firsthand experience, these interactions have always been positive. Learning about other students’ experiences and perspectives can be incredibly helpful when making decisions for oneself. The worst that could happen is that the recipient of a message might not respond, but most people will probably be flattered that someone values their opinion. It might even be an opportunity to gain a new friend.

As challenging as it is to meet people during the pandemic, it would be a shame to lose out on the meaningful passing-down of knowledge that upperclassmen can offer first-years. Especially when the college experience is anything but normal right now, we must maintain a supportive environment within the College as a whole. As in-person activities slowly return to normal over time, these issues will hopefully be less pertinent. However, in the meantime, in order to extend as many opportunities to first-years as possible, we must actively create opportunities for conversations among class years.

Sylvia Ebenbach is a third-year in the College.