Vanderbilt’s campus looked different for students returning this fall, with classrooms set up for physical distancing and ubiquitous signage reminding everyone to wear face masks/coverings and follow other safety procedures including new patterns for entering and exiting buildings.
Students had been aware of the changes since the plans for the fall semester were announced over the summer. But now that many of them have returned to Nashville, they are adapting to the new reality of campus life—and learning to thrive and support classmates while doing so.
In August, Vanderbilt Student Government President Veer Shah and Vice President Shun Ahmed released a video encouraging students to support one another and not be afraid to reach out for help when needed.
“There are going to be times where you think the world is collapsing around you, but someone else may be going through the exact same thing,” Ahmed said. “Reach out and support this community that wants to support you.”
From following health and safety guidelines to finding new ways to interact with their fellow Commodores who are learning remotely, Vanderbilt students have taken up the call to “Anchor Down and Step Up.”
Ross Rubin, a sophomore human and organizational development major from Dallas, Texas, who returned to campus for in-person classes, knows that coping with the many changes is a unique experience for everyone.
“This is new for all of us, and that’s something that I keep reminding myself; we’re all in the same boat,” Rubin said. “My friends want to be safe, of course, and we’re wearing masks and doing the whole guidelines and everything, but we also want to see each other because it’s been so long. So, we’re trying out new ways to do that. It’s still really nice to see them regardless of what facet that’s in, so I think we’re all working around it in our best ways possible.”
Rubin volunteers as a tour guide with Undergraduate Admissions and works with the’Dores for a Day program for prospective students. Both programs have shifted their operation to follow campus safety guidelines while still reaching their intended audiences.
“In those two groups, we really pride ourselves on our work in person with high school and prospective students,” he said. “We’re finding our way around it and we’re adapting. That’s the whole thing right now—adaptation. We’re trying our best and we’re going to get it done. I think you can still power through it despite the circumstances.”
Briahnah Streeter, a junior from Cleveland, Ohio, majoring in engineering science and studying on-campus this fall, was excited to see her friends in person. “That was exciting because it had been five months and I was just at home bored,” Streeter said.
“Even though we had to maintain the distance, just being able to see everyone again was really exciting.”
Vanderbilt’s nearly 130 acres of outdoor space have been the focal point for most physically distanced activity. Students are enjoying meals together and using the circles on campus lawns while hanging out, listening to music or just relaxing. Students can be seen playing Spikeball or Frisbee—with their face masks on. Others have formed a running group, in part to explore Nashville.
“Just looking right outside my window, I can see students doing the right thing,” said Melissa Gresalfi, dean of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons and professor of mathematics education, who lives on campus with her family. “It’s been so rewarding to see our students interacting with us and also coming up with new ways to spend time with their fellow classmates. Although this year is different, I continue to see our students stepping up in truly amazing ways to ensure we still have an exceptional experience this semester.”
Residence halls have begun hosting weekly programming that includes fitness classes, outdoor art classes, baking groups, study hours and movie nights. Students are also forming interest groups within their residence halls.
Students who have chosen to not return to campus for the fall have also been able to connect with on-campus peers. Several groups have already begun meeting virtually, including ones focused on fitness, gaming, jewelry making, jigsaw puzzles, photography, sewing, slacklines, writing, board games, wood crafts, movies and film, and music.
Katey Parham, a first-year student from Fort Worth, Texas, who intends to major in public policy and indigenous studies, knew that this year might be difficult for some students because of COVID-19 so she launched the @vandysocial Instagram account in February as a way to promote events and share information about organizations and to meet other first-year students.
“We knew it would be difficult when we got here, but it’s turning out to be easier than expected,” Parham said “@vandysocial is just a way to connect with people and connect people to each other and I thought it was important during this time.”
Frank Dobson, associate dean of The Ingram Commons and faculty head of Gillette House, thinks these new ways of interacting show the spirit that exemplifies the Ingram Commons community and the overall campus community.
“It kind of invokes the spirit of the community creed, which we’ve all talked about. One of the values of the creed is neighborliness. What does that mean to be one another’s neighbors?” Dobson said. “Well now I think that old adage about how we are one another’s keepers is that we are keeping one another safe.”