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New Student Orientation
Monday, August 24, 2020

President’s Welcome for Family & Friends

Hello Families and Friends!

So nice to be here with you (thanks to the internet).

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 pandemic, 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. This is a big deal, and adapting to life today with a college-age student is itself an accomplishment.

I want to begin my remarks by recognizing that COVID-19 is changing just about every aspect of how we work at Vassar, so a lot is new to all of us. And we know it will not go perfectly, but we are committed to listening, catching issues early, and innovating along the way to adapt to these dynamic challenges. I also want to emphasize safety. Everything we are doing is driven by health and safety, which means that sometimes (and often more than we want), we are going to have to say no to requests that would be perfectly typical in another year. And it will take time to adapt to the new expectations, but we are monitoring this daily with our Community Care Team—just as we are monitoring testing, COVID-19 incidence, and the speed of contact tracing on a daily basis. These numbers will be posted weekly on our VassarTogether website.

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 every Sunday evening, and students email to sign up, and I will write to them every Sunday evening about the week ahead.

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 challenges of this year are familiar, but also always new. I teach two seminars 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. And whether they are studying remotely, living at home, or living here on campus—they are preparing themselves to be fully independent. We all need to give them that space. And that is hard, particularly if they are still living with you! And with text and cell phones, to really give space is hard 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!! 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! And 95 percent of students have jobs, fellowships, or graduate school acceptances 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, and accessible remotely, we have student fellows, house advisors (administrators), and house fellows (professors) 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 Zeifman. 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 extremely 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 is challenging us in unprecedented ways. We know that our systems are not perfect and that we will face difficulties, but we are dedicated to responding to make students’ experience better. I believe this year is one in which we can develop new 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: EBradley@Vassar.edu

Take care.

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College