Bonding. It’s one of the most essential psychological needs of human beings, and is especially critical to those who are new to a community. Meeting new friends, building connections, and fitting in to the culture of a new school can be challenging and intimidating. For this year in particular, the issue of freshman bonding goes to both the school and the students—How can we make it happen safely? And how can we make it effective, as well as natural, to 150 self-conscious newcomers?
Before the pandemic, we made friends at the beginning of the year by running into random classmates in the lunch line, the library, and the student center. But now, the frequency at which these scenarios occur will be significantly lower than before, since social interaction will be largely through online classrooms, virtual assemblies, and other such gatherings. Although one can always attempt to message random classmates via Microsoft Teams or the Zoom chat box, this will be more likely to garner confusion or skepticism than bonding or friendship.
Many past in-person social events, such as summer potlucks and the freshman retreat, were designed to stimulate and strengthen freshman bonding. This year, however, how these events will happen is still in the air, and online replacements may be less effective at producing the level of social interaction that a real, in-person event would have.
The ongoing pandemic makes it even more worthwhile to think about what we can do in this situation. Are virtual activities merely ersatz versions of their in-person counterparts, or is there some value in them after all?
Remote social activities are not necessarily without their upsides. First, human beings have the tendency to subconsciously group people, although we may regret doing so after noticing it. Getting this sort of “feel” mostly happens at first sight, even before our brain completely processes all sensory signals. According to a July article in Psychology Today, the virtual barriers of online encounters can actually block our brains from making a quick judgement, helping us to “establish our relationships more honestly—that is, not influenced by appearance, age, socio-economic class,” and other factors. In other words, online meetings can prevent us from making premature stereotyping errors.
In addition, the virtual experience this year will create new ways of bonding. For example, organized virtual movie or game nights may see a spike in attendance rates. With everyone eager to know more peers, and traditional gatherings being limited, more students may wish to participate in such online gatherings. Attendance rates to these events can also increase because commuting difficulties and schedule conflicts will be less of an issue. Who knows? Some of these virtual events might be worth keeping even after the pandemic is over.
Before the pandemic, every freshman participated in a series of orientation events on the first day. Although they are well-intentioned, these events can also feel stressful to some students. This year’s virtual setting can give students an opportunity to pace themselves through packed back-to-school social events, and also give them some room to breathe and stretch out.
The gap between new freshmen and those from the Middle School is another challenging issue. Our student government president, William M. ’21, says, “As someone who did not come up from the middle school myself, I can certainly appreciate the need to help facilitate whole-class bonding.” When anyone sees a group of familiar faces, they can easily join the conversation; those who don’t know anyone will have to put up a brave face to introduce themselves and say hello, hoping some conversation-starter will miraculously surface. This is a typical scene for in-person freshman gatherings. However, the virtual school setting this year can increase some new students’ confidence and provide additional channels for students to socialize, giving more opportunities for each freshman to meet new people and start new friendships.
For all the freshmen out there reading this article right now, don’t panic: the school is working hard to give you a fresh and exciting experience this year. According to Rachel Maiorano, our Upper School Assistant Director, Lakeside’s freshman advisors will be meeting on a “regular basis this year to share ideas for how to promote and facilitate bonding in advisory and the class as a whole.”
Ms. Maiorano also says that the school administration is working with the Senior Leaders to provide “both an on-campus and a remote new student orientation”; Senior Leaders will also be coordinating a remote Freshman Retreat. There will doubtlessly be other creative events as well; William says that “between StudGov and the Senior Leaders, we have started devising ways that we can incorporate Lakeside traditions and ‘normalcies’ into the truly unique 2020 freshman experience.”
Grade-level coordinators Mr. Bonar and Ms. Yorks are also upping their game to coordinate remote activities on a regular basis, including “game nights, Zoom ‘speed-dating’ lunches, trivia, and maybe a book and/or movie club,” according to Ms. Maiorano.
So, what advice does Lakeside have for this year’s freshmen? Jamie Asaka, Director of Student and Family Support, says advisors are a great resource for help when things get confusing or overwhelming: “Students shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to them with any/all questions…advisory group is also a great place to go for to make new friends and find connections.” In addition, “assembly, affinity groups, class meetings, club meetings, etc. are going to be really important for people to participate in,” says Ms. Asaka.
Ms. Maiorano suggests new students to “expect and if possible, embrace the awkwardness. It is a normal part of 9th grade and any transition to a new environment.” She also encourages students to “force themselves into some unfamiliar and new situations… all of those decisions involve some risk and the potential for initial awkwardness, but all great friendships start with someone being brave enough to take a first step.” William M. summarizes the sentiment: “Difficult though it may be, we all need to do our part in making an effort to build a vibrant Lakeside community rather than just wishing it could exist.”
A virtual school year may present many obstacles to freshman bonding, but it also can open up new opportunities. Lakeside’s Senior Leaders, faculty, and administrators are implementing innovative ways to facilitate and stimulate freshman bonding. Class of ’24: you’ve arrived at Lakeside during a unique and uncertain time, but one thing is for sure: this will be an exciting year to look forward to.