ESCAPE-ing the virtual Hilltop, first-years find sense of community through online retreat

Published November 10, 2020

Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart, Georgetown University Photo by Brooke Dudek

In 2020, the ubiquitous call to escape the Hilltop is more mental than physical. 

As members of the Class of 2024 and transfer students begin their Georgetown experience remotely, many have turned to ESCAPE, Georgetown’s quintessential first-year and transfer student retreat, in an attempt to form connections with their peers. The organization shifted its fall programming online in light of the university’s virtual semester and has since hosted four of six planned virtual retreats for the semester. 

Despite a change in setting, the retreat has kept its traditional format of large-group talks followed by small-group reflections. While ESCAPE usually involves an overnight stay in Bluemont, Virginia, the virtual nature of this fall’s retreats allows participants and leaders to connect from locations near and far over three days, broken into three-hour blocks with additional unstructured time. 

While some first-year students were skeptical about delving into a retreat program given the virtual setting, Daniel Sippel (NHS ‘24), who attended the Oct. 16-18 ESCAPE, said that his ESCAPE retreat came at the perfect time. Amidst the craziness of midterms and the COVID-19 pandemic, “the chance to reflect during a chaotic season is huge,” Sippel said. 

Sippel was familiar with in-person retreats and had experience with the “strong atmosphere sitting in a room with your small group.” While he recognized the online retreat was a different experience, Sippel believed that the virtual nature of the retreat was not a significant setback. “Everyone wanted to be there,” he said.

Ananya Amirthalingam (COL ‘23), an ESCAPE leader, emphasized the challenges she and her fellow team members faced in creating an open environment for reflection online. According to Amirthalingam, the ESCAPE  team placed a stronger emphasis on open dialogue and fought back against the idea that it is not possible to get to know people in a virtual setting. “Even though you’re apart, you’re still able to converse and be very open,” she said. 

Amirthalingam, who attended ESCAPE herself as a retreatant in February of 2020, felt the differences between the in-person and virtual retreats were primarily logistical and reassured first-year and transfer students they were not missing anything significant. Since official programming didn’t take the whole weekend, leaders also led unstructured activities such as games of Just Dance and Among Us in order to further bond with the group. 

“The personal touch is still there. I’m amazed every day with the new ways our team is learning to adapt to this new environment,” Maddie Kling, ESCAPE program director, wrote in an email to the Voice when asked about the changes to the retreat’s setting. 

Computer screens aside, Amirthalingam enjoyed her first experience in leading ESCAPE, including seeing the behind-the-scenes chaos come together throughout the retreat. Furthermore, participating in the retreat through a different lens pushed her to reflect on how she has changed throughout the time between her two ESCAPE experiences. “It’s a retreat for us leaders too,” she said. 

On top of the remote semester, first-year students face challenges adjusting to college life in general, challenges ESCAPE aims to mitigate. Amirthalingam described ESCAPE as a “sense of community where there feels like there might not be one.” 

Sippel appreciated the sense of community that he gained from the retreat and said that through hearing other people’s stories, he could reflect on his own experiences in a new light.

While ESCAPE is centered around the Jesuit traditions of reflection and contemplation, the retreat is open to people of all faiths or no faith. Amirthalingam explained that the programming stays away from religious dialect in order to make the retreat more inclusive. You don’t need to be a person of faith “to get the most out of it,” she stressed.

ESCAPE will round out its fall programming over the weekends of November 13-15 and December 4-6. ESCAPE will also host retreats at the beginning of the second semester and will decide whether they will be in person or not following the university’s announcement about spring instruction. Both Sippel and Amirthalingam overwhelmingly encouraged first-year students to take advantage of the experience as they adjust to life at Georgetown. 

“There is something to reflecting with others or hearing others’ experiences in this way that is really powerful and comforting,” Amirthalingam said. 

Abigail Smith
Abby is a sophomore studying Business and Global Affairs from Indianapolis, IN. She is a Halftime Leisure Assistant Editor, enjoys writing about the Kardashians, and takes pride in her grilled cheese recipe.

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