Camp Obie: Facilitating a Post-Pandemic First-Year Experience

This past Memorial Day, a group of first-year students gathered on the lawn outside of the Cat in the Cream to bask in Oberlin’s summer sunshine and partake in a beloved American tradition: a cookout. Burgers and Solo cups in-hand, the students clustered in victoriously safety-compliant circles, united by the utter singularity of their introduction to campus life. These first-years are few in number but share an abundance of strange new facets of the Oberlin experience. After a fall semester on Zoom, they are on campus for the first time ever — during Oberlin’s first summer semester ever — reveling in the campus’s first maskless moments after the pandemic took student life and flipped it upside-down. On top of all that, they are gleaning the feel of a normal first-year experience, and feasting in the grass, thanks to a brand new program: Camp Obie. 

“The goal of Camp Obie is to work with this group of first-year students who completed the fall semester remotely and are now on campus for the first time,” said Director of Peer Advising Leaders and Sophomore Opportunities and Academic Resources Programs Nathan Carpenter. “We want to recognize that, at this point, they have had the academic experience of Oberlin, but there are still many exciting opportunities to introduce them to campus and to fellow Obies. Because it is a smaller group of first-year students that’s on campus this summer, there is an opportunity to really have a cohort experience.”

Pre-COVID-19, students’ first semester at Oberlin tended to unfold like a red carpet of social and academic opportunity. Though Zoom has some capacity to preserve the vitality of academics, it tends to fall flat on its face in any attempt to nurture social life. This particular group of Obies had little chance of normal socialization within Zoom’s dissonant void during the fall. PAL cohorts continued to meet over Zoom (for both on-campus and off-campus first-years), but online communication inevitably stilted its goals of community-building. Though the program’s main goal is to provide peer support for students navigating the novel wilderness of their first-year experience, it also functions as a  space for first-years to build lasting relationships . The PAL model served as the foundation for Camp Obie, but it needed a few tweaks to look its best for the summer. 

“We have a different model over the summer to better meet the needs of these specific students,” Carpenter said. “Rather than a group of students consistently meeting with the same PAL via Zoom, we have most PALs on campus this summer, and they’re rotating through and making themselves available at these in-person events. There’s many different events and programming options, especially now with COVID restrictions shifting — including options that would not have been possible in other parts of the academic year. So my thought was: we have this great range of events that are going to be happening on campus this summer. What can we do to help make sure that this group of students who are on campus for the first time feel especially welcome?”