First-year students adhere to social distancing guidelines as they proceed through the Van Wickle Gates in a tradition that symbolizes their official entry into the Brown community. Photo: Nick Dentamaro

Date February 16, 2021
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With pandemic safety protocols in place, first-year students walk through Van Wickle Gates

The first-year student procession through the Van Wickle Gates — a tradition that symbolizes their official entry into the Brown community — was adapted to ensure the health and safety of Brown and its neighbors.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In a typical academic year at Brown, first-year students proceed through the Van Wickle Gates on a warm September afternoon, to the sounds of bagpipes, bells and the cheers of faculty, staff and returning students gathered to watch along Prospect Street and across the Quiet Green.

Like so many other campus traditions taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, this one transpired a bit differently for the 2020-21 academic year. But on Tuesday, Feb. 16, approximately 1,600 members of the Class of 2024 walked through the gates, and tradition proceeded nonetheless — with a few adjustments made to ensure the health and safety of Brown and its neighboring communities, while preserving a rite of passage in which Brown students have taken part for generations.

The members of the first-year class — whose arrival to campus was delayed until the spring term to help the University reduce the density of students during the pandemic — proceeded through the gates surrounded by a snowy landscape instead of late summer sun. And crowds of onlookers and clusters of musicians were replaced with recorded music and a much smaller group of socially distanced faculty and staff leaders, who — like the students they were there to support — wore their smiles behind masks.

But neither the cold weather nor the carefully planned safety protocols could dampen the spirits of the first-year students in attendance, said Kaitlyn Williams, a first-year student from Peachtree Corners, Georgia, who is concentrating in applied mathematics.

“It was a very happy moment,” she said. “Even though we have already started our classes, it feels now like we’ve really begun our experience at Brown.”

Hamsa Shanmugam — a first-year student from Massachusetts enrolled in Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education — agreed: “We were all definitely excited. We have been waiting for this for a really long time.”

Nor could the changes made to this year’s procession dim the significance of the event or the welcome being extended to the University’s newest members, said President Christina H. Paxson in remarks shared with first-year students by video, prior to the event.

“When you take part in this tradition, you follow in the footsteps of Brown students who have been participating in this ritual for decades,” Paxson said. “Of course, your experience will be different. But please know that Brown’s welcome to you — and my welcome to you — is as heartfelt and as vibrant as ever.”

From start to finish, this year’s procession — dubbed the Van Wickle Gates Walkthrough — was planned with careful attention to public health and safety needs.

To allow so many first-year students to partake in the ceremonial walkthrough, the event was held over the course of three hours, with students lining up — masked and 6 feet apart — on Prospect Street at 20-minute intervals according to their residence hall assignments.

As the students passed through the gates and up the path toward University Hall, Paxson, Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes and Dean of the School of Public Health Ashish Jha cheered them from behind their masks, under a tent erected at a safe distance from the path. Students then moved onto the College Green, where they received gift bags with Brown-themed cold-weather gear, before departing the center of campus.

Residential Peer Leaders guided first-year students for the duration of the procession, and representatives from the Department of Public Safety greeted students at posts on the procession route, offering reminders about healthy COVID-19 behaviors including social distancing and mask requirements. Hand sanitizer and extra masks were available throughout the main route, which was peppered with signs reinforcing public health guidelines.

Van Wickle Gates Walkthrough


The Class of 2024 begins its academic journey with a treasured Brown tradition: the walk onto campus through the Van Wickle Gates.

Even the class year banner — which students typically hold as they walk through the gates — was printed on vinyl this year so that it could be disinfected for each new group of students who passed through.

“I really think it’s awesome that Brown has made a real effort to preserve these traditions and make sure that we have the full Brown undergraduate experience,” Shanmugam said.

The Van Wickle Gates will open again in March, when a sister ceremony — organized according to similar procedures — will be held for the mid-year transfer and Resumed Undergraduate Education (or RUE) students, as well as graduate and medical students who joined the community this academic year.

Each student walks through the gates only one other time while at Brown — at Commencement, when they exit campus through the gates, symbolizing the culmination of their academic experience at Brown.

But today, the Class of 2024 relished its first procession through the Van Wickle Gates — a moment made all the more poignant, Williams said, after a first month at Brown during which activities have been largely virtual.

“For those of us on campus, it was the first thing we could all share in person,” said Williams, who watched much of the procession from her dorm room in Slater Hall before joining in at her assigned time. “It was a really cool moment getting to see our classmates going through the gates.”