Admissions Blog: Reesa Artz ’22 shares the Sweet Briar experience during COVID

Reesa Artz '22By Reesa Artz ’22

It would be an understatement to say that these times during COVID-19 have been stressful and unprecedented. I, for one, would never have guessed that my relaxing and much-needed spring break of 2020, would turn into such a long and extended stay back in California. That semester was one of my busiest yet, and initially, I thought that being at home would be just what I needed to unwind and recharge. But what began as a unique start to my spring break, turned a tumultuous time into one of the most fulfilling seasons of my life. This has truly been the year of revolutionary change, not just for my own life, but for society and beyond. 

On the many tours I have given as the current vice-chairwoman of admissions, one aspect I always make sure to feature about Sweet Briar is our community. Yes, it has been said thousands of times, by thousands of people, but the community and support here at Sweet Briar is undoubtedly unmatched. The connections you make with friends, faculty and staff are nothing short of spectacular. Everyone you come in contact with truly wants the best for you and will go the extra mile to make sure your needs are met. At Sweet Briar, you are not just a number, and you are not just a name, you are a worthy person that people genuinely want to meet and help in any way possible. Something that I always say in my vice-chairwoman position is that you are only in class for a relatively small portion of your college career. The rest of your time is spent cultivating relationships and making an impact through leadership positions, internships, work and more. And yes, while Sweet Briar’s innovative academia frequently tops the charts of national publications, our strong sense of identity, rooted in the acceptance of true authenticity, makes us a truly unforgettable place to be.  

It’s this exact sense of camaraderie that is crucial that is kept at Sweet Briar, despite these changing public health times. Many larger universities, while yes, may seem appealing for many due to their football, party scene, or famous city they are in, were not able to maintain their in-person classes during this time. Even if some of them did go back, they were not able to maintain a healthy environment as COVID-19 quickly spread across their campuses. Back at home, the California State University system announced over the summer that their 23 campuses would be all virtual until fall 2021. All students had to immediately leave, many leaving college altogether to pursue different opportunities. I know many people attending a CSU college, and the common consensus I hear time and time again from them, is that they miss the college experience. They miss the times they were able to roll out of bed in pajamas to get coffee from their dining hall. They miss having meals with their friends and classes with their favorite professors. They miss playing on a varsity athletic team with teammates who have become their family, and they miss beloved traditions that their college holds dearly. 

While yes, some universities were able to return safely in-person, those students are having the same experience they would if they were quarantined at home. They are severely limited on what they can do on campus, if anything, and are mostly just stuck in their dorm room bored out of their minds. At Sweet Briar, even though many regulations have been implemented on campus that does change how our academic and social lives run, they have all been put in place for a reason. They are here to protect the health and safety of ourselves and our community. But despite our new guidelines, we have still been able to maintain a strong sense of positivity and kinship. Just like in our beloved “Holla, Holla,” there is truly nothing that we cannot do.

Step Signing
Step Singing

Traditions are one part of Sweet Briar that undeniably makes us stand out from the rest. They tie generations of Vixens together in these beautiful shared experiences. One favorite tradition of mine is Step Singing. This joyous event brings together the entire Sweet Briar population for an evening of both humorous and sentimental songs that truly embody the unique relationships between each of the classes. While just like everything happening today, fall 2020 Step Singing had its modifications. Students were able to sign up for a spot to attend on our LibCal Calendar. Prior to Step Singing, students checked in at designated locations. Their temperatures were checked by trained COVID Captains and everyone was given a wristband. If students were feeling unwell, showing symptoms of COVID-19 or registered too high of a body temperature, they were asked not to attend. Attendees were able to find a spot at designated spots across the Quad, marked by small pink flags in the grass. From there, Step Singing commenced as normal with boisterous songs ringing out from all of the classes. With these small changes made, a cherished tradition was still able to commence, despite COVID-19, in a safe and socially conscious way. 

Step Signing
Step Signing

As the current CEO [Campus Events Organization] president, risk management is at the forefront of my leadership. I have planned a multitude of in-person and virtual events this past semester, hopefully creating an environment that encourages bonding in a COVID-19-aware way. This year started off with a successful Dell Party, continuing along with a bonfire and a showing of Princess Diaries II in September. Frequent virtual bingo and trivia nights were held on Tuesday nights, with themed nights including Sweet Briar, Disney and Hamilton the Musical. Additionally, my executive board and I planned our 2nd annual Oktoberfest back in October. This event was open to students as well as faculty and staff and was complete with pumpkin painting, a candy and trail mix bar, live entertainment, a beer garden and outdoor lunch. At night, we had a showing of Halloweentown in addition to delicious hot cocoa, cider and s’mores. To finish off the year we held a holiday-themed relaxation night. Meriweather Godsey again provided delicious hot cocoa and cider, along with some special holiday desserts. There were a variety of themed crafts, along with a showing of a holiday movie. While it was definitely different planning socially distanced events, I have found that part of the excitement of planning them is the challenge. It is so much more rewarding to create these events during this time when human interconnectedness is so needed and valued.

Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest

In addition to CEO events, overall campus events have skyrocketed. Despite the pandemic, this has been the busiest semester for events. Events were planned multiple times a week, so there was always something exciting happening on campus. But these events would not have happened if not for our COVID Captains. COVID Captains were a result of the many discussions between the Student COVID Task Force during summer 2020. They are composed of many student leaders on campus, ranging from class officers, SGA cabinet and executive board members, and trained student volunteers. My position as the current CEP president allowed me to become a COVID Captain. Me as CEO president, Sydney Campbell as Inter-Club Council president, and Jess Austin, director of student engagement, all assisted in initiating the COVID Captain program. 

This is a completely voluntary position and I, like all COVID Captains, went through proper training to ensure students attending campus approved events are correctly and safely following appropriate COVID-19 guidelines set forth by the Student Events Committee, Sweet Briar as a whole and the CDC. COVID Captains have a check-in area at all events and are tasked with taking students’ temperatures, providing them with wristbands, ensuring they are following proper social distancing and mask-wearing procedures and checking all attendees out of the event.

COVID Captains with their temperature check guns

By having COVID Captains, students were not only able to have an important leadership role on campus, but they also were able to be involved in a way that is making a clear, positive difference for our campus culture. By having COVID Captains, Sweet Briar was still able to hold many club and organization events but in a safe and healthy way. Additionally, I believe that all students, no matter if they are involved on campus as a COVID Captain, share similar views. I think that most of us on campus are thankful to be here but understand that in order to keep each other safe, we must undertake necessary changes like having additional health and safety measures at campus events. Our role as COVID Captains is crucial to student engagement on campus. Without our seemingly small work, events that bring the campus community together for much-needed bonding, relaxation and fun would not be able to happen. 

By the time of my writing this, it is November. I came on campus at the end of July and have been following College guidelines for so long, it feels like it is second nature. I believe why Sweet Briar has been able to be so successful in continuing with athletics, arts, student life and traditions is due to the fact that students are taking it seriously. Being in quarantine for many months prior to coming back to college showed many of us the importance of human connection, even if it is six-feet apart. As a whole, I am incredibly thankful to be at a college that is taking COVID precautions seriously while ensuring important traditions and academics are still able to commence. While COVID-19 times have been a wild and ever-changing ride for all, the members of the Sweet Briar community have shown to be perseverant and flexible with the changing guidelines, qualities that are important to have in such unknown territory. I am a strong believer in when something goes wrong, it is up to us to find solutions to make a positive impact. 

As a final statement on how Sweet Briar has handled the pandemic, I would like to reference that fateful day back in 2015. While at that time I was a mere high school student with no idea that in 2018 I would begin the time of my life in college, I still understand what a massive shock that news instigated. Despite being faced with an uphill battle, thousands of fierce Vixens showed up to the fight. Even though five years later our struggle might be different, our tenacity, grit and determination remain the same. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know we are in it together. It’s also ironic, in a beautiful kind of way, that the size of Sweet Briar was cited as one of the reasons we were not viable as a college, but now because of our small size, we are not only able to survive but flourish and thrive. Sweet Briar truly exemplifies the idea that the very things that hold you down will lift you up. This is only just the beginning for Sweet Briar, and I am so honored to be a part of this historical journey.