On a warm August day, the Gettysburg College campus is a familiar scene—the orange and blue banners hanging from the portico of Pennsylvania Hall and the sounds of the marching band signaling the start of a new academic year.
However, this year, the beloved Convocation tradition was masked with a new look. Those banners flew to a recording, and the ceremony was split into 15 smaller events to allow for physical distancing. But the Gettysburg community welcomed 644 first-year students and 17 transfer students with the same passion and commitment to helping them launch a transformative college experience, as in any given year.
When the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded at the beginning of 2020, our College—and the world—faced many unknowns. As President Bob Iuliano welcomed the Class of 2024 in small groups, he acknowledged the long and winding road to the first day of classes on Aug. 17.
Families, students, and staff remained masked during move-in to uphold safety guidelines, and testing was completed as the entire campus body adjusted to a new normal. Wearing T-shirts inscribed with “Better Together” on their backs, the Orientation team led both virtual and in-person—but physically-distanced—activities to build community, including running the battlefields, campus tours, club meetings, and a special welcome video on the lawn between Musselman Hall and Christ Chapel.
“For some of you, due to the pandemic, these past few days represent the first time you’ve had the opportunity to set foot on this beautiful and historic campus,” Iuliano said. “I just want to underscore from the outset how excited we are to finally have you here with us and for you to join this remarkable community.”
Facing challenges head-on, the Gettysburg community is one marked by its unwavering commitment to provide an unparalleled education in a residential, liberal arts and sciences setting, starting on day one.
First-year students who matriculated in person sat six feet apart, and—in just one of many ways the College has approached this academic year differently to prioritize health and safety—those who chose to study remotely during the fall semester joined Thursday evening’s ceremony via Zoom.
“As a College, we felt it was best to give all of our students an authentic choice in how they approached this fall, given the unique set of circumstances we face,” said Iuliano before turning to the camera to address the remote students directly. “As you know, our community is about far more than just the grounds we share, as inspiring as they are. At its heart, our community is about the people and all that we have to offer one another. Let me be clear. You are full members of this College, and you have been accepted here because we know that you have much to offer and to contribute. ... I’m sure you’ll soon find that, although we are separated by distance, the close bonds you will forge with your faculty and with your classmates are equally as transformative.”
To open each Convocation ceremony, Orientation coordinator Julianna Pestretto ’21 recounted her spontaneity one day during her study abroad trip to Tunisia this past spring, which was unfortunately cut short due to COVID-19. In visiting the hot springs in Qurbus, a nearby small town, on a whim, she and her friends began to understand how taking chances could aid personal growth.
“It is the decisions you will make on this campus, the adventures you will embark on, the new things you will try that will truly shape you,” said Pestretto. “What Gettysburg offers is the opportunity to own that agency—to embark on your own life-changing adventure. That trip to Qurbus, although nerve-wracking at first, gave me the assurance that I am able to navigate the uncertain—something I never would have known if I hadn’t broken out of my restrictive and constant need for a plan.”
As COVID-19 halted the world’s plans, Iuliano illuminated that the fear of the unknown limits one’s ability to truly grasp new learning opportunities.
“We unabashedly repeat, ‘I don’t know,’ for much of our childhood,” Iuliano said. “In asking these questions, in acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and understanding, we open our minds and our hearts to more fully understand the world around us and our place in it.”
“Admitting to gaps in our knowledge can make us feel vulnerable,” he continued. “But I am here today to tell you that vulnerability is a gift. A liberal arts education in action is defined by openness—your openness. It’s what empowers you to question and to re-question everything that you thought you knew. This is why you’re here.”
At the end of each ceremony, Pestretto, carrying the Class of 2024 flag, led the newest members of the Gettysburg College community through Pennsylvania Hall, signifying the start of a new journey. One step at a time—and six feet apart—each first-year student began to reflect on how they will challenge themselves during their next four years in Gettysburg.
“As a member of this community, you will benefit from an exceptional education that will open doors to a future that holds great possibilities,” Iuliano concluded. “In the end, you’ll discover that there are few easy answers in life, and the answers you find will often lead you to more questions. The next four years will prepare you for this reality, so you may have the skills and the knowledge to navigate and respond to the many unknowns the universe is sure to throw at you.”
“And I promise you, with a Gettysburg education, you will be ready.”
By Megan Miller
Move-in photo and highlight video by Miranda Harple. Ceremony photos by Allison Schofield ’11.