Resilient students make up class of 2024

Skills of adaptation and perseverance make this class truly unique

Traci Westcott/RIT

Despite starting college in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, Seth Grottenthaler, left, Michelle Snow, and Iain Roach are graduating from RIT this week. Their resiliency is a testament to their adaptability to accept change and succeed over obstacles they may encounter.

Graduating from college is a major life accomplishment that is usually filled with joy, some uncertainty, and years of memories.

But for many who started their college experience four years ago, those memories didn’t include traditional transitions from high school to college. Thanks to the global pandemic that began in the spring of 2020, many endured quarantine, isolation, COVID-19 testing, and remote learning when they started college.

Sandra Johnson, Rochester Institute of Technology’s senior vice president for Student Affairs, said students who started college in 2020 managed to not only overcome the challenges brought on by the pandemic, but learned to thrive.

“They persevered and are stronger for it,” Johnson said.

More than 4,100 RIT students are graduating this weekend. Those in four-year programs started college in the fall of 2020, when being closer than 6 feet from anyone else was discouraged. At Friday’s commencement ceremony, the Gordon Field House will be filled with 8,000 students, faculty, staff, friends, and family members celebrating the students’ achievements.

Iain Roach, who is graduating with a degree in game design and development and a minor in Japanese, will be there with his older brother, Orion, and his parents, Wade and Heather, who are coming from their home in Anchorage, Alaska.

Roach recalls that flight in 2020 when he came to Rochester alone to start college. In order to attend RIT, the New York State Health Department required students from designated states not bordering New York to quarantine for 14 days before coming to campus.

Roach stayed with a friend’s grandmother in nearby Canandaigua, N.Y., mostly staying inside, taking classes remotely, and spending time at Canandaigua Lake.

“While Iain’s freshman college experience may not look like what we envisioned or had experienced with our other child, it will be a journey on which he can leave his own unique mark,” Heather Roach said at the time. “I think it is going to allow our students to build essential character traits such as independence, problem solving, and resilience. And what a story to tell in the future.”

Almost all of Roach’s classes were online during his first semester, which was an easy transition since his final months of high school were also online.

“There were a lot less people on campus, and it was a lot more open,” he said. “There were very few people out and about. There were no crowds or anything. Now if you go out during the day, there’s a very stark difference.”

He actually credits COVID for helping him transition to college.

“If COVID didn’t happen, I would have just showed up and be thrown in the thick of things,” he said. “It would have been more chaotic perhaps. But mingling and interacting with everyone came later, so it may have benefited me, so I didn’t get overwhelmed.”

Roach admits he wasn’t happy about the isolation required by the pandemic, but he knew it was not unique to RIT and something to keep people safe.

“At some point I was annoyed because that first year is the most important for getting connections and making friends,” he said. “Because everything was online, it was hard to interact with people. But the orientation group that I was in, I met a couple of people who had similar majors and interests that I had, so that helped the first semester, and they remain my friends today.”

Roach is applying for jobs back in Alaska and after graduation plans a long road trip home.

But first, his family plans to have a graduation dinner in Rochester this weekend, which will include his friend’s grandmother from Canandaigua, who played a significant role in launching his college experience.

For Seth Grottenthaler, a finance major from Corning, N.Y., this week’s graduation also gives him a chance to reflect on his four years at RIT, including the untraditional start in 2020.

“Coming to RIT, it definitely was a new experience for me, but I wasn’t alone. Everyone was going through it,” he said.

A member of RIT’s varsity lacrosse team, Grottenthaler says he felt lucky he had his fellow teammates to hang out with his first year in college.

“I had 50 or 60 automatic friends,” he said. “It was good getting to know them, and there was always the team to hang out with each other. It was our only social group, because the coach didn’t want us to hang out with anyone else so we wouldn’t get sick.”

Several of the team’s games got canceled because their opponents became sick. Meanwhile, weekly COVID testing was done for RIT students to monitor illness.

“It became pretty routine, honestly,” Grottenthaler said. “And it definitely made me happy to know I wasn’t sick.”

His team that academic year had a 14-0 record and won the NCAA Division III lacrosse national championship. Scoring a goal in that championship game was one of Grottenthaler’s best memories of college.

“Looking back now, we made the most of the situation we had,” he said. “I feel the experience definitely made me stronger, and better socially, talking more to friends and my family on the phone more often.”

Grottenthaler plans to return to RIT in the fall to play more lacrosse and attend graduate school to earn an MBA.

Michelle Snow, a film production major from Stafford, Va., also plans to pursue her MBA at RIT after graduation. And she says she’s heading into her new chapter of life with more confidence.

She remembers “a lot of uncertainty” in 2020, when she had to leave home two weeks earlier than she thought to be in isolation.

Snow, her mother, and younger sister stayed at her grandmother’s house in Massachusetts for two weeks, where they did a lot of hiking in the Berkshires and ate a lot of take-out meals.

While in isolation, Snow used some creativity to figure out how to make friends, mostly on Discord and through a Facebook group for newly admitted RIT students.

“I made a vlog of myself, introducing myself just to meet people at RIT,” she said. “I was always posting random ways to meet people with plans to meet up when we got to Rochester. I was constantly on Discord.”

Some of those friends she made then remain her friends today, she said.

On campus, Snow even designed a custom mask with a snowflake on it to match her last name. “I made it a fashion statement. I had fun with it.”

And she thrived as her time at RIT grew. She became an Honors student, president of the RIT Field Hockey Club Team, director of operations for Student Government, and was a four-year president of the Film, Video, Animation Student Association. Overall, she says she enjoyed her RIT experience.

“It wasn’t fun in the beginning, but my college experience would have been different without COVID,” she said. “I’d rather look at the positives rather than what happened. I’m a little more flexible, and I’ve had a lot of growth.”

Roach also believes he has become stronger in college, and certainly has his share of happy memories, such as playing intramural soccer and developing a video game, Ninjas on Trampolines.

“I think I’ve improved as a person,” he said. “I used to be very bad at speaking with people, and now I’m better with that. I’ve learned a lot. A lot of the scare has definitely gone away with most people vaccinated. But I take illnesses more seriously now. If I get a cold, I’ll wear a mask.”

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