First-year students have faced many changes and cancellations this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on large group gatherings have pushed treasured first-year experience (FYE) in-person traditions, such as Songfest and Carter Town Hall, to an online format that aims to offer a similar bonding experience for new students. 

“Given University and state guidelines for in-person gatherings, FYE events have been limited to residence hall-only programming,” Complex Director at the Office of Residence Life (ResLife) Jacob Horvath (19PH) wrote to the Wheel. “Residents continue to request in-person programs, but managing a large number of people in a space is challenging, even when everyone is wearing masks and we are within space capacity.” 

The Carter Town Hall will take place on Oct. 21, but former U.S. President and University Distinguished Professor Jimmy Carter will not be the keynote speaker for the first time in 39 years. Carter’s grandson, former Georgia state senator Jason Carter, will headline the event with a message from the former president.

Most halls have a significantly reduced living capacity this semester to accommodate one person per room so ResLife will continue to focus on programs centered around residential floors. 

Another of the semester’s most anticipated first-year events, Songfest, was reformatted on Sept. 17 to a new virtual event donned with a name in the same vein, Skitfest, which will take place on Oct. 23.

“After much discussion, the [complex coordinators] determined that even in a virtual format, Songfest would not resemble the traditional event we all enjoy,” Horvath said. 

Rather than a sing-off between residence halls, Skitfest will fuse the same appeals toward teamwork and friendship that Songfest forges. All dorms, including those traditionally for second-years like Woodruff Residential Center, Harris Hall, Few Hall and Evans Hall, will create a short video performance on why they love their residence hall. This may include elements such as music, cinematography, interviews or day-in-the-life clips. 

“We’ve taken what used to be packing 1,500 students into a gym to sing and shout together,” Associate Director of Residential Education Linda Bachman said. “But Skitfest will be a great event to capture that same sense of connection to your building, doing something fun and having a kind of video premiere.” 

The video submissions are due on Oct. 21. As with Songfest, VIP judges will participate in the event and determine the winners for the categories Creativity & Originality, Following Rules, Resident Engagement and Building Pride.  

“I think it’s a great strategy to grasp the energy of Songfest in a way that’s safe … it’s going to set a new standard for things that we might want to continue post-pandemic,” Bachman said.

Along with Skitfest, other major FYE initiatives to engage residents are ongoing in a revised virtual format. These initiatives include the Six-Week Kickoff weekly floor meetings facilitated by a Resident Advisor (RA). ResLife staff are continuing to address a diverse sweep of topics in hopes of providing first-year students with a sense of community, such as academic and student support, personal identity exploration and interpersonal violence. 

“In addition, a new FYE Tip of the Week section has been added to address questions, such as how to print, add money to your EmoryCard, etc., based on feedback from last year,” Hovarth said. “Both virtual and on-campus residents will participate in two Swoop Chats (one-on-one conversations) with their RA this semester.” 

Complex residents celebrate their 2019 Songfest victory./Ayushi Agarwal, Managing Editor

Despite the formatting changes in FYE events, the ultimate learning and academic goals have not. These missions, such as developing individual and social responsibility, creating a sense of belonging and engaging academically outside of the classroom, have been further emphasized by ResLife during this time. 

Similarly, Horvath believes that these programs will help foster a sense of communal belonging within the halls. ResLife student staff is continuing to find new ways to engage residents, such as the incorporation of outdoor activities as well as hybrid in-person and virtual programs. 

“There is no one size fits all where we say everybody must do X thing,” Bachman said. “We turn them loose and they do wonderful and creative programs that connect them.” 

For instance, Bachman noted that halls have initiated unique activities that connect to the civil rights movement based on their shared passions for social justice. Given the abundance of resources available on campus, residence halls can collaborate with the Office of Racial and Cultural Engagement, the Carter Center or the Woodruff P.E. Center to host more interdisciplinary, intimate programs. 

Despite the 10 person gathering limit, students have discovered ways to safely bond with each other beyond their residence halls. Popular activities include strolls through Lullwater, scavenger hunts, outdoor workouts, art history programs at the Carlos Museum and painting sessions on the Quad.

Students and faculty members have also paired up to foster academic learning outside of the classroom setting. This ranges from virtual movie nights where faculty members initiate discussion, to online workshops hosted by a psychology professor to talk about stress management. 

ResLife intends to remain flexible through the uncertainty of the pandemic. While spring semester plans have yet to be determined, Hovarth hopes that events such as the Freshmen Semi-Formal at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History will be able to take place. 

Meanwhile, the office will continue to work in collaboration with faculty and student leaders to keep the community connected through the learning and academic lens. 

“I know there are hopes and dreams of doing some larger-scale programming when the environment allows us to gather more than 10,” Bachman said. “A food truck festival, movie nights on the quad [and] silent disco are a bunch of ideas that are out there where plans and safety guidelines are poised and ready to go as soon as we get the green light.”