Big Changes for the Big Sibs Program

Taking a look at how Big Sibs and Little Sibs feel about the changes and the challenges to the program in the online era.

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“Big Sibs had always been a key part of the freshman transition into Stuyvesant,” senior and Big Sib Chair Elena Hlamenko said. This is indeed true; every freshman has had several Big Sibs, welcoming and guiding them as they navigate their first years at Stuyvesant. Big Sibs’ assistance even extends after they’ve graduated, to students who are no longer freshmen. For many, their presence is a beacon of advice and support.

With the start of online learning this school year, neither the Big Sib Chairs nor Big Sibs have strayed from this goal and instead have risen to the challenge. Senior and Big Sib Chair Andrea Huang pointed out that in terms of academics, the transition from middle school to Stuyvesant High School can be overwhelming, and the program aims to be a support system for students, allowing them to ask questions of peers rather than adults. “With remote learning, our goal has been shifted a little bit to help freshmen transition [...] better in terms of socialization. We know that there haven't been many opportunities for freshmen to meet each other [...] but we're trying our best to facilitate some discussions or meeting new people for [them],” Huang added.

Due to the virtual nature of school, the Big Sib Chairs knew that this year’s events required a different approach. Senior Aki Yamaguchi, another Big Sib Chair, responded that they have used the mentality of, “What can we do to make this virtual and if not, what can we replace it with to make their experience still good?” to guide them, which has brought online socialization programs to the forefront. “Now we use Zoom, various webinars, [and] one-on-one things that are up to the Big Sibs,” Hlamenko stated. As a result, many new events have sprung up, including a virtual concert, virtual field day, and mix-and-match homeroom meetings, during which two homerooms merge, facilitating intra-homeroom activities, and interactions between new circles.

But the virtual version can never exactly replicate the in-person experience, and many Big Sibs have noticed that creating engaging and meaningful bonds with freshmen has proven more arduous than in past years. “It’s much harder to communicate with the Little Sibs. In school you’re able to see them in the hallways, [but] during meetings, we don’t really get to see a lot of face-to-face interactions because some of them don’t have access to cameras, and others are a little bit shy, which is definitely fine. But I think for me, [it’s] a little bit harder communicating with them,” senior Big Sib Stephy Chen explained. Hlamenko echoed this sentiment, attesting, “It’s much harder to achieve the same level of intimacy and trust between a Big Sib and a Little Sib online.”

Senior and Big Sib Claire Shin also acknowledged the drop in participation compared to last year, which Hlamenko attributes to Zoom fatigue. Instead of being able to meet with a Big Sib for lunch or have a quick, casual conversation in between classes, looking at a screen after a school day can quickly become burdensome. “It’s mostly the same people who come to our meetups, and I wish I could see more, but I guess they aren’t responsive,” Shin said. Even then, those who do come to these events don’t always actively participate. “A problem with Zoom in general, not just necessarily for Big Sibs, is that it's very easy to just to mute yourself and then turn off your camera and then just not engage with people in the meeting,” Huang said.

The Big Sib Chairs have recognized these problems and have been trying to remedy them. “Our attendance has been going down, and we are trying to figure out a way to solve this, but we can't really, in a way, because we can't force them to come,” Yamaguchi explained.

Huang elaborated on this: “We know that there are a lot of types of Little Sibs out there; some of them are talkative, some of them are less talkative, and it's kind of hard to cater towards everyone's needs because we know that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

The freshmen have had their own thoughts on the Big Sibs program’s handling of the virtual events. An anonymous freshman (C) found comfort in the option to leave his or her mic and camera off. “I do sometimes get anxious if I have to speak on mic so I'd rather talk in the chat, which seems like a good way of communicating even if you don't talk out loud,” the student wrote in an e-mail interview.

However, for freshman Sophianne Leung, she found that the option made it difficult to socialize during Zoom calls, adding on to the lack of communication caused by the discomfort many students, including herself, feel when talking. Fortunately, she has found solace in one-on-one meetings. “[M]y Big Sibs have reached out to do one-on-one meetings, and these I found a lot more personal than the homeroom meetings. Since it was just one Big Sib and me, the conversations felt easier and more personal,” she wrote in an e-mail interview.

To further facilitate effective communication, an anonymous freshman (A) noted that their Big Sibs frequently reach out despite their busy schedules. She feels comfortable contacting them for guidance. However, not all Little Sibs had the same experience. “To my knowledge, none of my [B]ig-[S]ibs have reached out to their [L]ittle [S]ibs or tried to create connections with us,” said an anonymous freshman (B).

Despite the struggles in communication and socialization caused by virtual complications, many Big Sibs and Little Sibs alike have found silver linings in their meetings and events. Many look favorably on the mix and match homeroom sessions as a whole, which have been a space for Big and Little Sibs to enjoy each other’s company. “I feel like the adapted virtual Big Sibs events might be more fun. I feel like people have more areas to relate to, and I feel like a lot of people like games, which is the bonding thing that we've been using,” senior and Big Sib Min Sun Yu said.

In previous years, playing games had never been a staple in the program, but it has been the foundation for this year’s online meetings. Shin agreed with Yu, recalling one of her favorite moments with her Little Sibs: “I remember we had a homeroom [...] everyone was like laughing because they had played a really amusing game of Among Us.”

A also expressed enthusiasm about the games. “My life doesn't really have any structure right now, and even just playing Among Us for an hour makes me feel more connected.”

For freshman Keira Chin, these sessions also allow her to voice her frustrations regarding school work. “The events in general have helped ease my transition into the school because they help enforce the idea that other students are facing similar difficulties, whether it be from a hard class or large workload,” she stated in an e-mail interview.

Given the circumstances, most Big Sibs and Little Sibs have asserted their appreciation for the Big Sib Chairs’ and the program’s efforts, believing that everyone has adapted to the situation to the best of their ability. But the program is always looking for feedback, and Hlamenko has stated the program is currently collecting student feedback, especially in light of the flood of student conversations surrounding mental health. “If anything, I would just encourage freshmen to [...] message us with anything that they think could be done better,” Hlamenko offered.