First year students find community in club involvement

Zac Bentz, A&E Reporter

For the class of 2024, transitioning to college life was a uniquely gradual experience. Many took their first ever college class from the comfort of the same bedroom in which they did their high school homework. The opportunity to participate in clubs and other on-campus groups during 2020’s entirely virtual fall semester provided a means for first years to connect with the community that ultimately made the transition to campus life a little easier, and even in a hybrid environment clubs have continued to thrive.

In September 2020, first year Sarah Benitez received an email from one of her teammates on the cross country team asking if she wanted to join Whitman’s Mentor Program. She responded with an enthusiastic yes, but it wasn’t until coming to campus that she was finally paired with a mentee.

“I’ve been working with kids since my junior year of high school, and last semester when I was back home, I worked with the elementary school pods, which was really fun. I really wanted to stay in contact with helping children; so, I felt like this was the perfect way to do that,” Benitez said.

Since she first started Zoom calls with her mentee, Benitez has consistently looked forward to their weekly meetings. While internet connectivity can sometimes pose a problem and it can be difficult coming up with activities that work virtually, Benitez has found the experience wonderful nonetheless. 

“I definitely feel like I can connect with her despite the online setting. It’s definitely hard, because there’s a lot of people in her household, so it’s hard for her to find alone time, but despite all the struggles it’s still nice to talk to her and give her an outlet,” Benitez said.

A member of Whitman Votes and the ASWC Sustainability Committee, first year Nat Lange found joining clubs to be an invaluable experience to keep him grounded in the Whitman community despite living nearly 300 miles away.

Illustration by Lily Buller.

“ASWC Sustainability was by far the highlight of my fall. I felt like I had a connection to Whitman even from afar,” Lange said.

For Lange, corresponding with folks he might have otherwise met on campus made him feel engaged and active in the community.

“Building those connections before getting on campus was really cool, and really valuable. For example, Odin [McDermott], my roommate. We knew each other because we had previous Whitman Votes interactions; so, it’s nice to be able to get on campus and be like, ‘Oh, hey! Nice to meet you in person, finally!’ or, ‘Oh, hey! Nice to live with you!’”

McDermott, in addition to his work with Lange in Whitman Votes, devoted his spare time last semester to the Peer Listener Program, the Story Time Program and the Tabletop Games Club. While some of these groups were perhaps less suited to providing a feeling of community, McDermott still found his time with them to be valuable and has enjoyed following them into a hybrid environment.

“With some of them, it’s harder to meet people, like with Story Time. We would just record our own videos and post them; so, we would not really interact with other club members. In Tabletop Gaming Club, on the opposite end of that spectrum, it’s really nice to meet upperclassmen or people I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise who share similar interests,” McDermott said.

According to McDermott, the Tabletop Games Club has been meeting primarily through voice chats. 

“I don’t know what they look like, but I feel like there’s inside jokes… like, it’s not just new people each time. You get to know each other, and I think that’s really great.”

For both Lange and McDermott, transitioning to campus has only deepened their connections to the clubs and groups they’ve grown to love.

“I was, like… now that we’re in person, is Zoom gonna feel weird?” Lange said. “Not at all. It’s kind of nice to be able to get your dinner and then come back and not have to walk ten minutes to some location for a little while.”

As the class of 2024 gets further acquainted with campus, the Walla Walla community and with each other, clubs and campus groups will continue to adapt. For now, Benitez, Lange and McDermott have found their circles.