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IOWA CITY — On the eve of an academic year promising to be unlike any other — by being, officials hope, more like many others than last year’s was — University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson stood Sunday with thousands of new freshmen in solidarity with a message.
“Welcome Class 2025,” she said during an afternoon convocation ceremony on the steps of the Old Capitol at the center of campus. “I'm especially excited to welcome you, because we're both sharing our first year together here at the University of Iowa.”
Wilson started her tenure as the 22nd UI president July 15 following a national search launched after former UI President Bruce Harreld last fall announced plans to retire earlier than expected.
Although Wilson has spent decades in the Big Ten — most recently as executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs of the University of Illinois system — she shared with the crowd that she, too, is finding her way around.
“I just moved here about six weeks ago,” she said. "And I am getting to know this wonderful campus right alongside you.“
Acknowledging the pandemic that upended last academic year and persists today, Wilson committed to charting a new course of in-person collegiate experiences under continued precautions — but said she needs student buy-in.
“Help us stay on campus this year,” she said, less than 24 hours before fall classes begin Monday. "We're back after a long time away. A lot of students last year were not able to be on the ground here, and we want to keep you here. We want you to be able to experience the University of Iowa on the ground and in person.”
But that means two things, Wilson said.
“It means making sure you're vaccinated, and we know the vast majority of you are,” she said. “And that means wearing masks inside classrooms and in office hours.”
Under Board of Regents guidance issued in May, none of Iowa’s three public universities can mandate masks or vaccinations — although they can encourage them. The board has not changed course even as the delta variant began fueling a third surge of COVID-19 and faculty members write letters and sign petitions pleading with regents to allow mandates.
“Our faculty and our staff have many young children who can't be vaccinated yet, and they're scared, they're nervous about COVID,” Wilson said Sunday. “So we're all in this together. Our job is to be healthy Hawkeyes.”
The new freshmen class of thousands last week moved into residence halls, and on Friday celebrated with a resumed “Kickoff at Kinnick” event that squeezed the majority of them into the shape of an “I” on the field inside Kinnick Stadium.
That event was outdoors, as was Sunday’s convocation and “president’s block party” that immediately followed — featuring free food, music and dancing. Few wore masks to the gatherings, but all The Gazette interviewed said they’d been vaccinated.
And new UI freshman Katy Murry, 18, said she and her friends pulled on their masks during the making of the “I.”
“It was kind of crazy how close together we all were,” she said. “It’s definitely different being back in person after almost two years of not.”
But she and others said they strongly prefer it and are hopeful the semester will unfold as planned. Like Lily Skwarek, 18, of La Grange, Ill., who said before Sunday’s convocation that face-to-face instruction and experiences are imperative for new students.
“Being a freshman and trying to meet new people and get acclimated, I think it's important that we actually get to be walking around,” Skwarek said.
New UI freshman Sammie Kopp, 18, of Lake Zurich, Ill., said she was encouraged Sunday by the messages from administrators focusing on their new beginnings and the campus’ collective fresh start — and by President Wilson’s two additional asks of the students, beyond being “healthy Hawkeyes.”
“If you see me out walking around and you're not late for class, come up and introduce yourself to me. I want to know who you are,” Wilson said. “I want to welcome you, because we're in this together.“
In sharing her personal experience as a shy freshman years ago at the University of Wisconsin — when she ate McDonald’s for the first week because she was too timid to ask how meal tickets worked — Wilson also urged students to ask for help.
“Don't be me,” she said. “Ask for help. Make sure you reach out. There are so many people here that want to help you with the tough things, and with the easy things.”
Those messages resonated with Kopp.
“I think it’s awesome that we're starting the same year as her,” she said. “We get the fresh start together.”
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