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Building Virtual Community at Smith
A prime example, says Emma Tierney ’22, is the way that students have been connecting through virtual house meetings since the start of the semester.
“Virtual connections are different from in-person ones,” says Tierney, who is president of Jordan House and chair of the Smith House Presidents Association. “But in many ways, they are more needed and welcome than ever before.”
Zoom teas and other remote house events “are now some of the only times friends can ‘see’ each other outside of class because of family commitment and study schedules,” Tierney notes. “We Smithies are all siblings, and now more than ever, our house events serve to remind us of that.”
Maintaining a sense of community has meant adapting Smith traditions such as Convocation and Mountain Day to the current remote environment—as well as creating new campus life programs.
Examples range from virtual student organization fairs and Get Fit Smith classes, to a new Campus Life Connections initiative that links groups of first-year students virtually with staff members—and each other—to help boost a sense of belonging.
The guiding principle for this unique semester is engagement, says Baishakhi Taylor, vice president for campus life and dean of the college.
“Students come to us, not just for the academic experience—which is powerful—but also for life at a residential, liberal arts college,” Taylor says. “We’ve been focusing on how we can capture that part of the Smith experience as closely as possible in this virtual space.”
Connections Are ‘Just a CLiC Away’
At the heart of this fall’s virtual engagement efforts is Smith’s new Campus Life Connections program (CLiC), which offers students essential support in launching their first college semester. Campus Life Consultants—Smith staff members with expertise in areas ranging from wellness to time management—meet virtually with groups of 15 first-year students to offer encouragement, advice and information about how to engage in all that the college has to offer.
The full program—which also includes one-on-one sessions and special activities, such as virtual tea with President Kathleen McCartney—is available to first-year Smithies and new Ada Comstock Scholars. A modified version is being offered to all returning Smith students.
Kristin Hughes, director of athletics and a member of the CLiC design team, says her entire staff signed up to participate in the program. “It seemed like a natural fit,” she says. “Building relationships is what coaches do with teams. And relationships are the key to this model.”
Hana Otsuka ’24 says the campus life program helped ease her anxieties about her first semester at Smith.
“One of my worries about going into college this fall was making friends,” says Otsuka, who is from southern California. “The small group size of this program allows each person to get to know each other. I think it’s a great way to create friendships during this difficult time.”
House Community Goes Virtual
Student house leaders have stepped up to ensure that house community remains a vital part of college life this fall.
In addition to regular Zoom meetings, students have been sharing photos of door decorations, teaming up with housemates for virtual scavenger hunts and finding other creative ways to connect from a distance.
Smith’s residential life curriculum—house-based conversations about college-related topics ranging from gender identity to internship opportunities—is being offered remotely this fall, supported by email newsletters and digital discussion boards.
“We’ve learned that students need many points of connection, not just one,” says Becky Shaw, associate dean of students. ”The more we can offer them, the greater their chance for academic success.”
Connecting Through Smith Centers
Students looking to engage with each other and learn new skills can do so through a host of virtual offerings from Smith centers.
Amplify, a new initiative sponsored by the Wurtele Center for Leadership, for example, helps students develop public speaking skills through virtual forums, meet-and-greet sessions with experts, and one-on-one coaching sessions.
Other campus centers, such as the Lazarus Center for Career Development and the Design Thinking Initiative, have been hosting Zoom talks, workshops and even a virtual studio tour aimed at inspiring students to be creative in remote study spaces.
In addition, numerous Smith offices—from Athletics, to Religious and Spiritual Life, to Equity and Inclusion—have adapted existing programs to meet students’ needs in the virtual environment.
“What hasn’t gone away this semester are all the same amazing lectures, programs and events that usually happen at Smith,” notes Julianne Ohotnicky, dean of students and associate dean of the college. “We want our students not to feel they are losing opportunities because they are not on campus—they’re just gaining different opportunities.”
Students Lead the Way
For Ruby Lowery ’21, this semester has been “a wakeup call for thinking about what community looks like in a pandemic.”
Lowery, who is president of Smith Stitchers knitting club, came up with a project designed to bring club members—and other Smith community members—together while physically apart.
The Smith COVID-19 Patchwork Blanket collects knitted and crocheted squares from interested students, faculty, staff and alums. The patches will be sewn together in a quilt that will “tell an incredible story of our experience during this unprecedented time,” says Lowery, a history major who is studying at home in Brooklyn this fall.
Remote club meetings and knitting-circle socials have succeeded in creating community, Lowery says.
“We’ve had involvement from alumnae and lots of incoming first years,” she notes. “Because Smith Stitchers is so active on social media, we even ended up fielding questions from prospective students.”
Another Smith senior, Molly Aber ’21, who is helping with the Office of Student Engagement’s social media this fall, says she has been impressed by the strength of the college’s community-building efforts.
“Everyone is really making the best of this difficult situation,” she says. “I feel really grateful to be working for a campus office that strives to connect all students and help them find their place in our community.”