Houses Adapt Rotation to Online Format

Events took place on Discord, Gather.Town

By Ankita Nandi, Aditee Prabhutendolkar & Rahul Chawlani | Published 02/04/2021

As Caltech’s students continue remote learning in the midst of the pandemic, rotation, the most pivotal event for first-year students, was converted to an online format. This year, rotation consisted of video receptions on Discord, as opposed to the usual in-person dinners with each house, as well as house-specific events on the online socialization platform gather.town.

Rotation was planned from very early on in the pandemic. As Kriti Devasenapathy (CS ‘21, Ricketts, Ruddock), IHC Chair, explained, “Our initial hopes were to be able to run some limited version of rotation with social distancing in the fall. By July, it became clear that very few students were being invited back for classes, so we abandoned that model entirely and had to decide whether we wanted to wait until winter term (in case things improved) or have virtual rotation fall term. When it became clear that no one was coming back to campus, we had to choose between planning virtual rotation in 1 month or waiting for winter to see what the situation was. The pro of waiting was that we could have in-person rotation. The cons were that houses would have no new frosh and that frosh would be at Caltech for a full term without the support of the house which provides a lot of the academic services and social support.”

The impacts of postponing rotation were mitigated by the greater role Frosh Camp Counselors (upperclassmen assigned to mentor a small group of incoming students) played in providing support for freshmen in the first term. IHC Secretary Adam Abbas (MS ‘21, Blacker) explained that a lot of student input was necessary to make a decision about rotation and plan it accordingly: “We held town halls with students and sent out surveys to see what people's preferences were. We spent pretty much all of first term actually planning rotation (scheduling, events, working with ORE etc.), and I found that the main challenge was balancing a full rotation experience with burnout. We would've loved to have 2 straight weeks of just rotation, but combined with Zoom fatigue and classes, that wouldn’t have been a good idea. So we settled on a week and a half of rotation, with dinners spaced out, and two days of big events (vs. having each house do a big event on a separate day).”

The Discord discussions provided a way for freshmen to meet members of each house and learn about each house’s unique culture and traditions. To recreate the traditional dinner setting as much as possible, each house had a dining-hall channel for everyone to start the reception. There were also multiple table channels with different upperclassmen that freshmen could rotate between; having conversations in small groups with different people provided a more holistic view of each house’s members.

The gather.town events, hosted the weekend of rotation, were a highlight for prefrosh and upperclassmen alike. Students created avatars of themselves and walked around a digitized Caltech campus, going to house events and talking to upperclassmen. Hope Arnett (‘24, Lloyd), likened it to Pokemon, saying, “It was fun to walk around and talk to people.” Sasha Tolstoff (‘24, Blacker) agreed, “Because it allowed us to feel more like we were actually walking around campus and getting to know the scenery inside and outside the houses.” Tolstoff was also impressed with the level of detail involved with the digitized campus and individual houses.

One of the key components of gather.town was how each house was able to host a rotation event at staggered times so that prefrosh could experience the culture of each house as much as possible. Page held Kahoot trivia games, Lloyd had Capture the Flag, Dabney had puzzles and trivia, and Blacker had a live Twitch stream. Ricketts hosted their traditional Open Mic Night near the end of gather.town on Saturday. Kimia Hassibi (‘24, Lloyd) said, “I liked how the types of performances were varied, and each one revealed a side to the performer that you wouldn’t usually see in Zoom calls, Discord, etc. I learned that Caltech has talented musicians, dancers, and even haircutters.”

Although gather.town was interactive and engaging, it was still prone to the awkwardness that accompanies virtual meetings. Emily Zhang (‘24, Lloyd) said, “I stayed at Lloyd for a while, sitting at the table with a bunch of upperclassmen after they stopped playing capture the flag and then the other frosh slowly just left and I was the only frosh left there. It was nice but it was awkward.”

This sentiment carried over to the Discord receptions, where both upperclassmen and frosh were affected by zoom fatigue and the overall sense of a house was harder to come by. As Abbas said, “I think one of the best and most important aspects of rotation is being able to walk into a courtyard and just walk up to people and talk/do something fun. Losing that was really hard, because so much of the houses’ cultures are spontaneous and not "pre-planned" events. Getting to know frosh was also harder, since we only got to see/talk to some for an hour and even then it was mostly answering questions about the house vs. just hanging out.” Dabney President Logan Apple (CS ‘21) had similar thoughts regarding the connection between upperclassmen and frosh, as “the barrier to conversation is so much higher in a virtual environment because there's a natural disconnect between you and the person on the other end simply because of a screen.”

But despite all the Zoom fatigue and awkward social interactions, there were some benefits to having rotation virtual rather than in-person. Blacker President Irene Crowell (CS ‘21) said that an online setting “made it a little easier to keep track of everything. Sometimes there are nametag issues or you forget someone’s name in person, but it’s easier to remember if it's right in front of you on Discord. It also meant we could share information and answer some of the standard questions once in a text channel, and then let frosh reference them at their own leisure.”

Rotation was certainly a fulfilling experience for many students, providing different classes the chance to officially meet each other for the first time. Tolstoff said, “I spent upwards of 11 hours in a call with some of my friends and moles in the Blacker dining hall and we had a blast!” And as Apple put it, “I hope the people who haven't found their voice or footing in this virtual world will soon engage more and become better integrated with their house culture!”


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