Lexi Punishill ’24 chose a small liberal arts college like CMC, in part, because she “wanted to be friends with everyone” on campus. Craving community with her new classmates while stuck in quarantine since early spring, the Connecticut native decided to give her social calendar a boost by doing the most 2020 thing she could think of.
“Let’s start a Zoom and just see how it goes,” she said with a laugh.
Understandably, Punishill worried that no one from her class would show or that everyone would stare at each other awkwardly. Turns out her Class of 2024 peers were more than ready to break the ice and form friendships. “It was a hit,” Punishill said proudly, with around 60 class members connecting on her initial Zoom call in March.
Student-led outreach has since extended to a regular series of summer Zoom calls and daily GroupMe chats with participation in the hundreds. The virtual meet-ups can go big or small, too—with students using breakout rooms to set up individual conversations as part of what they’re calling “speed dating” exercises to get to know one another better. “Those have been a lot of fun,” Punishill said.
It’s all part of the unique backdrop for a group of high school seniors whose graduation year celebrations were abruptly cut short—and who have now seen their first semester of college further upended due to COVID-19. Those unpredictable elements, along with an uncanny resolve to keep pushing forward amid disruptive circumstances, have led several members of CMC’s Dean of Students and Admission offices to refer to this first-year cohort as the “closest incoming class at CMC ever.”
“Usually with first-years, we have to do a lot of empowering. But this is a group of students who has been more than comfortable creating opportunities for themselves,” said Devon MacIver, who oversees Orientation events with first-years as associate dean of students for student engagement. “And if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. They didn’t close out their high school experience with the typical rituals. They haven’t had a normal summer break. They’ve had a lot of time on their hands. They’re very comfortable with technology. I think it’s helped them bond faster and assume the identity of a CMC student a lot sooner.”
“I’m tremendously impressed by their strength, character, perseverance, and willingness to adapt,” added Jennifer Sandoval-Dancs, associate vice president for admission and financial aid. “Obviously, the Class of 2024 is not starting its first year at CMC under the most ideal circumstances, but they refuse to let it get in the way of how they want to define themselves and their CMC experience with one another.”
Michael Gadinis ’24, like Punishill, not only helped organize several early Zoom calls; he’s eagerly joined virtual sessions with the Admission and Dean of Students offices as a way to get his bearings before the fall semester. In student-led Zooms and GroupMe chats, Gadinis has been especially grateful for resource support and outreach, which has since extended to sub-groups based on interests and even the entire 5C’s student community.
“Everyone has been so helpful already. It’s unbelievable,” said Gadinis of Long Island, N.Y. “People are taking notes so they can share information with others who can’t be on a call. Or as we’re going through something like course registration, there have been so many questions, but you’ll always find someone who’ll say, ‘Oh, this is what my advisor told me,’ or ‘I bet so and so can help you find that answer.’ We’re navigating this situation together. There’s a sense of unity.”
While making virtual connections requires “a bit more effort than making friends in person,” Jocelyn Jimenez ’24 of Whittier, Calif. said her CMC conversations have been strengthened by shared, personal experience. “This has been an emotional past few months because of current events,” she said, referring to both the pandemic and this summer’s social justice protests. “But I feel like It’s made us come together as a class. We’ve had a lot of discussions that are pouring out of our own hearts.”
Jimenez noted one group Zoom call where students talked openly about identity, diversity, and changemaking as a class. She was impressed by how her peers were already thinking about the impact they could have together as a CMC family.
“The fact that it happened naturally, without any outside prompting, gave me a big sense of relief,” Jimenez said. “It felt very welcoming.”
For Punishill, making the Class of 2024 feel welcome has been her months-long priority. While she is certainly “counting down the days when we’ll all be allowed on campus,” Punishill said Zoom calls and text threads are preparing everyone for a higher level of comfort and familiarity when their Claremont arrival finally comes. She also expects class bonds to solidify even more during the virtual fall semester. After all, this is life now—and the Class of 2024 is proving that meaningful conversations and friendships don’t have to wait for the dorms.
“Just knowing I had a CMC-related Zoom call to look forward to always made my week,” Punishill said. “Even something like posting on Instagram, and seeing all of these comments from my new CMC friends, it makes me smile. It’s been so helpful during this time, a real reminder that we all want the same thing—to be close, to have fun, and to make the best out of this situation.”