New Student Orientation

Monday, August 22, 2021

Hello Families and Friends!

So nice to be here with you!

Congratulations to you. You have successfully launched your young adult into college and beyond. That is no small feat. I have done this myself three times (I have three adult children), and it never gets easier. All the hope and dreams, and then all the anxiety and potential for disappointment—and particularly in this year of the continued pandemic, with the uncertainty of it all.

So, if you are feeling a little tearful, or a lot tearful, or just a little out of sorts, give yourself a break. It’s OK. Today is a big deal, for us all.

I want to begin my remarks by underscoring that in this year of persistent COVID-19, we remain committed to the health and safety of your student and the entire Vassar community. I live right here on campus, and my background is public health. Before coming to Vassar in 2017, I was a professor of public health at Yale University for more than twenty years. I want to assure you that our plans will always be consistent with the guidance for higher education from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, and that we will be prioritizing the most effective interventions that protect people who are the most vulnerable.

The most effective strategy for protecting people who cannot be vaccinated (and therefore remain vulnerable to COVID-19) is to vaccinate everyone else—and we have mandated that. Furthermore, we will begin the school year with masking indoors, although we are hopeful this is temporary.

Additionally, we develop practices with the students’ entire well-being in mind. Thus, we want to protect everyone from COVID-19 but in doing so, we do not want to compromise individuals’ mental health or our community’s learning environment. We have a full-time Director of Health Service, Margot Schinella, and an office staffed by a supervising physician, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurses—who last year helped lead a successful COVID-19 testing program for our students, the vast majority of whom were on campus in in-person classes. The first-years then, many of whom are Student Fellows now, showed impressive resilience and creativity—and they will have a lot to offer the first-year students about how to cope as a college student in a pandemic.

You can count on us being highly responsive to the scientific literature and best public health practices as the year goes on, and you can be assured that we will be responsive to you and your student. Thus, if you have questions along the way, please be in touch directly.

I want to give you a little more information about me and my role at the College. I live here on the campus with my husband, John, and really enjoy knowing the students. I have office hours for any student who wants to come talk with me every Sunday evening; students can email me to sign up. And I will write to them every Sunday evening about the week ahead.

As I said earlier, my academic background is in public health, and I have worked all over the world—actually through a few epidemics, although nothing like the COVID-19 pandemic. I also worked for several years as a hospital administrator, so the health challenges of the pandemic are familiar, but also always new. I teach two seminars at Vassar currently and have enjoyed getting to know students as scholars as well.

Now to you—as parents and families. Your role is critically important this year. But what I have to say may not be what you expect. My reflections are not based on my role as a parent but rather in my role as person who has lived and worked with college-age students for decades and been through a lot with families and their students.

The first item to recognize is that your child is now an adult. I know—it is so hard to adapt to, but they are indeed mostly all 18 years old now. They are preparing themselves to be fully independent. We all need to give them that space. And that is hard. And with text and cell phones, to really give space is difficult for most of us. What I mean by giving space is allowing your student to make decisions without being second-guessed, without oversight, and aligned with their own emerging views and voices. Some of these emerging views and habits may be distressing to you. They may choose paths that are not what you would choose for them. But it is time. It is their moment to define themselves, to try on different ways of being, to explore new ideas and endure the consequences of their choices. You know this. I know you do. But start preparing now to commit to letting your student grow in their independence from you.

The second point is that you must restrain your natural instinct to save them. And your student will be complicit in this activity. They will call you and tell you “everything is wrong.” They will sound like they want your help. They may even ask you advice. Resist this temptation!! Do not give them advice. Instead, ask them more questions. When they say or text, “I have no friends. The faculty do not like the way I write. I am going to fail my classes. My roommate is never home, and all I do is sit in my room alone,” do not jump in to solve the problem! They may even cry, which of course is going to make you cry. But you must restrain yourself. Even if your student does not say it to you, what they really need from you is your presence. They need you to listen, not to find a solution but to ask open-ended questions that prompt more thinking. Some helpful prompts that signal your presence might be: “What do you think about that?” or “Tell me more about that.” This is so hard—because all we really want to do is make them feel better. But the ability to do that on their own, with you accompanying by your presence but letting them research the options and make their own choices, is absolutely critical. This is integral to the movement from adolescence to young adulthood, and your intervening to solve problems can stall that development.

Last, after I have scared you, I want to give you some reassuring news. Almost everyone graduates! In a typical year, about 95 percent of students have jobs, fellowships, or graduate school acceptances within 6 months of graduation. It was slightly lower during COVID-19, but still the vast majority were placed within 6 months of graduation. I also want to assure you that we have a residential and academic system here that will support your young adult fully. In the houses, we have student fellows, house advisors (administrators), and house fellows (professors) who your students may access for just about anything. We have a wonderful academic advising system through the Dean of Studies office and Deans Herrera and Porcello. And a host of other deans and directors, along with a very accessible health services and mental health service staff, who can support your student at every turn. And I am here as well; students know they can reach out to me directly, and I can connect them to support as needed. I also always have a lot of chocolate available, which can help.

I want to close by thanking you for sharing your student with us for these four years, and I am committed to doing everything we can to ensure the time is fruitful, challenging, and life-changing in all the best ways. For sure, the pandemic continues to challenge us in unprecedented ways. We know that we will face difficulties, but we are dedicated to responding to make students’ experience better. I believe in this year together, we will strengthen many capacities—the capacity to live more mindfully, to apply restorative practices, to care for one another in new ways, and to trust in community. These are bedrock skills, which are fundamental to a liberal arts education and will equip your young adults to lead meaningful lives together.

Please be in touch if you have questions; you know how to reach me:

Take care.

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College