‘Am I doing enough?’: 5C first-year class presidents reflect on a virtual year

Six students pose in front of colorful backgrounds and smile at the camera.
First year class presidents reflect on the 2020-2021 online academic year. (Courtesy: Alina Hu, Blessing Roland-Magaji, Lila Feldmann, Rosy Chen, Andy Xu, Michael Gadinis)

The 5C first-year class presidents — Lila Feldmann PZ ’24, Andy Xu PO ’24, Michael Gadinis CM ’24, Blessing Roland-Magaji SC ’24, and co-presidents Alina Hu HM ’24 and Rosy Chen HM ’24 — knew from the beginning that they would be representing a class separated by states, countries and time zones. 

Community-building became an urgent priority and a daunting task. 

“The whole being online thing really shifted the focus of being class president from senate initiatives to just getting to know everyone,” Feldmann said. 

Making friends online, as many members of the class of 2024 are painfully aware, isn’t easy. The presidents found themselves struggling to make events accessible, while simultaneously combating Zoom burnout and fatigue. 

“Traditional Zoom calls can only be so fun,” Gadinis said via email. “… I noticed that eventually the participation rates for these calls decreased … trying to produce asynchronous events or synchronous events that were accessible and fun for everyone was the biggest challenge I faced.” 

Despite the limits of Zoom communication, the presidents needed to be helpful and energetic for all their social events. Although the job is a time commitment — in some cases requiring over 10 hours per week of planning, office hours, meetings and emailing — the real toll is an emotional one.   

Roland-Magaji formed natural connections with her classmates during casual 5C Zooms over the summer. When hosting official events, however, she found that even when they went well, the experience was draining. 

“When you host events you’re not a part of the event, honestly,” she said. “… You’re always hyper-aware of everything that’s happening during the event … you’re monitoring everything and trying to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

Chen said that the burden of socialization during many of these events fell on the shoulders of the presidents leading them. 

“Because everyone’s online, it’s hard for people to initiate their own conversation, so we have to sort of lead through it,” Chen said. 

Though she and Hu combatted this discomfort by organizing Zooms for smaller groups where it was easier to converse naturally, natural conversation remains a challenge. 

Serving in a student government position typically means receiving a lot of feedback from the student body, in formal and informal settings. For this batch of first-year presidents, those personal interactions, offhand comments and expressions of gratitude are difficult to come by. Without that, keeping faith in their performance has been difficult. 

“You don’t really get to gauge … how [your efforts are] positively or perhaps not positively impacting students,” Xu said. “That lends itself to me and [the Pomona College first-year committee] feeling as if maybe we’re not doing enough … and that’s a really bad feeling. Because we know more than ever, probably, being online, we should be doing our best to provide unique, fun experiences for our peers and to be there.” 

Roland-Magaji said she could understand why students might struggle to be engaged, especially in a fully virtual world where they are constantly inundated with notifications and invites. “If [I] send emails, I can’t blame you if you didn’t see mine, because you get like 35 from the college … and then if you’re not engaging on social media, because obviously social media is what it is, I can’t blame you.”

Nonetheless, that lack of engagement weighed on her. She struggled with uncertainty regarding whether a personal failing or the nature of online connection was to blame. 

“You’re like, ‘Am I doing enough? Is this enough? Because not everybody’s participating at everything, do they see I’m trying?’” she said.

Despite the challenges, the presidents do feel like they have been able to contribute to something meaningful. Xu recalled an incredibly successful Pomona Halloween party, hosted at two different times to accommodate as many students as possible and featuring a costume contest judged by school deans.

Roland-Magaji single-handedly compiled and distributed over 50 packages of envelopes, stamps, stickers and other materials for a Scripps College pen pal exchange. 

“When I got to see that people were communicating through the pen pals, or when I got DMs from my classmates that were like, ‘Hey, I got my package, thank you so much!’ … that really made me happy,” Roland-Magaji said. 

Feldmann made an effort to host a Pitzer College joint Zoom with every other college in the 5Cs, and Gadinis worked with his eventual successor, Zane Yamamoto CM ’24, to create and distribute a 24-page guide to Claremont McKenna College’s affinity groups and institutional resources to the first-year class. Hu and Chen organized an ultra-detailed weekly digest, which contains homework, midterm and office hour schedules for the Harvey Mudd College core classes. 

When they did get the chance to hear from their peers about their programming, these interactions were ultimately what made the presidents’ jobs fulfilling. 

“When we get feedback from people … when we feel like we can actually help make people’s lives a little easier — the most successful moments are just those small moments, being like, ‘Oh yeah, we did actually help someone. Maybe in a very small way, but it was helpful,’” Hu said. 

Though the work is challenging, the first-years each expressed immense gratitude for the position — for the people they had met, the students who elected them, and the leaders they had been able to collaborate with. Being visible to their entire class is occasionally a tricky space to navigate. 

“It’s weird, because [my peers] have never met me in person, but a lot of them probably have ideas about … the way I’m running the class and thoughts about me as a person,” said Feldmann. 

The flip side of this prominence, though, is a real familiarity with the student body, a groundedness which most of the class of 2024 hasn’t experienced. For Xu, this experience has made the work of building community even more urgent. 

“[The presidency has] been immensely helpful, probably more than I deserve. I haven’t had to do the tough work of cold reaching out to people and introducing myself because I’m lucky enough to have people know who I am. And if they don’t recognize my face, they recognize my name. So I’m eternally grateful for that,” he said. “But at the same time, too, I recognize that it’s been easier for me to meet people. That’s why it’s even more important that I do good work in helping other people meet each other.”

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