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College first-years Ryan Afreen (left) and Collin Marlin (right) started the Virtual Vine to provide a platform for incoming FGLI students to learn about resources and the college experience from current students. (Photos from Ryan Afreen and Collin Marlin)

With college campuses around the country shut down indefinitely, two Penn students have launched a website to help incoming first-generation, low-income students learn more about the universities they might attend.

College first-years Ryan Afreen and Collin Marlin said they created the Virtual Vine to create a platform for incoming students to learn about resources for academics, research, financial aid, and student life from current students. The Virtual Vine, which is set to launch this month, currently has 21 student ambassadors from 15 universities, including seven Ivy League schools.

The Virtual Vine’s first two in a series of weekly videos will feature ambassadors from Penn and Georgetown University. Afreen said the Virtual Vine will target newly admitted students who want to learn more about the university they plan to attend. Since the initiative will launch prior to May 1, students choosing between schools can also use the videos to inform their decision, Afreen said.

Afreen and Marlin said they came up with the idea for the Virtual Vine after learning of Penn’s decision to cancel Quaker Days and Multicultural Scholars Preview program. Both Afreen and Marlin said the students they heard from on these visits to Penn helped them learn about the University and influenced their decision to attend. 

“We went to different cultural resources, we talked to the directors, we spoke to upperclassmen, we visited [Greenfield Intercultural Center],” Afreen said. “Incoming FGLI students not having this opportunity is blatantly unfair.” 

Although Penn Admissions has provided online materials and launched a virtual tour for accepted students, Afreen said hearing from students directly is a more effective way to learn about universities.

Afreen and Marlin said they initially planned to target the website only to prospective Penn students, but decided to expand it to include other universities after learning that other clubs on campus were already providing resources for incoming Penn students.

College sophomore Sakshi Sehgal serves as Penn's ambassador on the site. Sehgal, who identifies as a FGLI student, said the Virtual Vine's mission statement resonated with her, as she is already involved in advocating on behalf of the FGLI population at Penn.

Sehgal added that she was especially interested in the mentorship component of the website, which will allow students to connect with the ambassadors during their time at the university.

“As a FGLI student, hearing from upperclassmen about their highs and lows is something I really appreciate, and I’ve heavily relied on upperclassmen at every stage of my life,” she said. “[Mentorship] is something that I am continuing to do at Penn and that I hope to serve as for the underclassmen through this [initiative].”

In her video, Seghal said she talked about her academic and extracurricular experiences, academic requirements unique to Penn like writing seminars, and recommendations for resources for FGLI students.

Georgetown senior and the Virtual Vine ambassador Ridwan Meah said he applied to be an ambassador after he found out about the website through a post from Afreen in the Facebook group “Zoom Memes for Quaranteens."

“I love talking to other people about their college experiences,” Meah said. “This just felt so natural to me, so I applied."

Meah identifies as a FGLI student and said he catered his video to other FGLI students. He said he talked about academic and extracurricular resources that would be useful to FGLI students, and added that he hopes his experience as a senior will help him offer a full perspective of the school to incoming students. Meah said his video on student experience differs from a traditional information session or tour, which highlights campus buildings and the history of the school.

Afreen and Marlin said they see the Virtual Vine as a way to give back to the FGLI community that has shaped their Penn experience. They said they hope hearing current FGLI students’ experiences will allow incoming students to realize they can succeed at the institutions they wish to attend. 

“You do belong,” Marlin said. “It might be scary; you might feel like you're not necessarily the ideal image of a Penn student, or a Columbia student, or a Harvard student, but they admitted you for a reason.”

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