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Student Focus

Building Community in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Brynn Wilkins

Virtual coffee hour with VitEnol students
Virtual coffee hour with VIEN students staff and faculty

It is safe to say that the spring 2020 semester did not go as planned. With students, faculty, and staff sent home in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornellians have had to quickly adapt to new schedules, priorities, and ways of life.

The Viticulture & Enology students are certainly not exempt from this.  They have been overcoming academic challenges related to distant learning since the beginning of quarantine. The stress and uncertainty that accompanies the global pandemic takes a toll on all and is further intensified by the need to social distance. How can we let off steam when we can’t meet up with friends and peers? This posed a new challenge for the tight-knit student body of the Viticulture & Enology program. With the need for a strong sense of community now more than ever, how can we create programming to maintain our connection to students, and share in our experiences together- yet apart?

Virtual coffee hour. The Viticulture & Enology program has always been a uniquely close community, where students and faculty know each other on a first name basis. It quickly became a priority to maintain those crucial connections outside of the classroom by creating regular programming.

Almost immediately after lockdown, the program instituted an innovative virtual bi-weekly event held every other Friday to bring together faculty, staff, and students. These bi-weekly coffee breaks have been very well attended by students as well as faculty. They have used that time to decompress, get to know each other better, and—last but not least— to have some fun.

Each coffee break has a different theme, from “Flashback Friday” where students and faculty showcased photos of themselves from childhood, to our upcoming virtual toast to celebrate the graduating class. Students have gotten involved in the planning, pitching new ideas for virtual engagement including wine and grape-related trivia. These events have been so successful that the program will continue them into the summer, and is looking into hosting other virtual events including career nights and professional development opportunities for students.

In addition to maintaining the healthy sense of community among our current students, many efforts have been made to virtually yield future students as members of the Class of 2024. Even though all admissions events were cancelled this spring, including the popular Cornell Days, the Viticulture & Enology program worked hard to cultivate a strong incoming class of students. A virtual “Meet & Greet” allowed incoming students to get to know faculty and staff, as well as connect with a current student to ask any questions they had. New promotional materials, including a highlight video, have been produced and implemented to visually feature the program in an engaging way.

Brynn Wilkins is the undergraduate coordinator for the Cornell viticulture and enology program.