Erin Oppel ’22 has taken advantage of every opportunity that Smith offered. As she looks back on her college experience, she says the support of her professors has prepared her for what comes next.
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Home Is Where the Smithies Are
House community is alive and well as students set up ‘pods’ from Alaska to Boston
As she tells it, Sophia Botràn ’22 was having a great semester last spring. She was happy with her classes and fully enjoying her group of friends in Albright House, where she is vice president of house council. Like many students, she was devastated when the pandemic closed college houses in March, sending her home to Miami. “For six months I was really isolated,” Botràn said. “I was struggling.”
Then her Albright housemate Jordan Straub ’22 said the magic words: “Come live in Montana.”
At first, it was just something nice for her and some other friends from Albright to think about. But in July, when the college announced that juniors would not be returning to campus, they started talking seriously. They got organized, and by the time classes began in September, nine Albright friends were settling into a house in Helena, Montana, where they would share costs, rotate chores, cook dinners and support one another for the rest of the semester. They call it Albright Annex.
“I love my parents, but it’s not like living with friends,” Botràn said. “With peers, they get you. Stressed about papers? We get it. Having Zoom burnout? We get it.”
The Albright pod is just one example of the creative solutions that students have come up with to stay connected with friends and replicate the sense of house community that is so central to the Smith experience. Through the fall semester, living off campus for some Smith students meant setting up housekeeping in Alaska and Connecticut, Cape Cod and even Northampton. The college reimbursed students for the room and board that is normally part of the comprehensive fee.
A foursome of juniors from Chapin House spent the late summer searching for a house they all liked and could afford. Caitlin Greene ’22 describes the beach house they settled on in Connecticut as an “amazing find.”
“We are lucky enough to have a connection to the owners of this house who use it as a second home and were willing to rent to four college students on a budget,” Greene said. “So far, the experience has been wonderful, definitely a small silver lining to remote learning and canceled study abroad plans.”
Helen Danielson ’22 of Fairbanks, Alaska, reached out to two other engineering majors—Hannah Platter ’22 and Kate Spencer ’22—and invited them to join her. “We decided that learning would be much more manageable with an in-person support system from other Smith students,” Danielson said. “A contributing factor to the challenge of remote learning was feeling disconnected from one another. Talking over Zoom isn’t really comparable to eating dinner together in Cutter-Ziskind.”
Back in Montana, the Albright group moved into a house that Jordan Straub’s parents had recently purchased. Over the summer, the students’ parents met on Zoom and helped their daughters finalize their plans and settle on financial arrangements. Then the group created an “Albright Annex COVID Agreement” that laid out rules for getting tested, physical distancing, sanitizing surfaces, washing hands and even where to hang up their masks. Each got a COVID test before flying to Montana, and they’ve repeated those tests throughout the semester. Botràn calls it their “Culture of Care,” emulating Smith’s campus rules for COVID safety.
Another quartet of juniors found a house together in Hadley, just a few miles from Smith. “Though we miss our families, the decision to leave our childhood homes is giving us an opportunity to learn and grow,” said Sophie Chertock ’22 of Los Angeles. “At Smith, we spent our free time enjoying the Pioneer Valley’s scenery and community. [Now] we continue to explore bike paths, swimming holes and hiking trails, in addition to carrying out our remote work.”
Juniors are well-versed in Smith life, and they brought that experience to their fall housing arrangements. First-year students, though, didn’t have that same advantage. For Eva Nobel ’24 of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, living with new friends— another first-year Smithie and a sophomore who is taking the year off—in a loft in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, has been a mixed blessing. “It’s a super-nice area, and it’s better than being at home,” Nobel said. “But we’re missing out a lot on the experience of going off to college.” By mid-October, she was finding it difficult to make friends via Zoom, even though she acknowledges the college, and her assigned house, have reached out. On the upside, via social media Nobel is beginning to meet more Smith students in Boston.
Through the fall, the uncertainty about whether Smith would reopen houses for the spring semester weighed heavily on students. Just as the college was considering multiple scenarios for reopening, so were students in their various housing setups.
“If Smith stays remote, I hope our pod will continue,” Danielson said in October. “We moved to Alaska to have an adventure together, our own sort of ‘study-abroad’ experience, so we may consider living somewhere else to have a new adventure in the spring.”
This story appears in the Winter 2020-21 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.