Like last year, I started this semester with a WOOLF trip. As a leader this time, it was fun to meet first years early, take them backpacking in the area and get to know eight new students pretty well. As a leader, I also learned more about how the program runs and the behind-the-scenes work it takes to pull off such a great program.
As Scott Lewis, director of the Williams Outing Club, proudly pointed out, 311 first-years participated in trips this year, the most ever. But as I looked around the Field House the evening before my three-day trip left campus, I noticed a disturbing fact: the absence of minority students. According to my informal survey, there were fewer than five African-Americans and only a scattering of Asian-Americans amongst the 20 three-day groups.
The purpose of WOOLF is twofold: to create an atmosphere in which a group of first-years can get to know each other before the chaos of First Days and to provide a space in which first-years can easily glean information about Williams from upperclassmen. Like entries, groups are supposed to bring together people with different experiences. Groups are also designed to connect people from different entries who otherwise may not stumble into each other on campus.
Commitment to diversity, however, is compromised when minority students do not participate at the same levels as other students. It would be one thing if minority students, like the 200 or so first years who did not go on WOOLF trips, simply decided they did not want to go on a trip. It would be an unfortunate situation, but not a particularly changeable one.
Yet as it stands now, one significant reason I saw so few minority students on the eve of my WOOLF trip is because Windows on Williams (WOW), the three-day pre-orientation program for minority students, and the International Students Orientation (ISO) take place from Wednesday to Friday. This prevents these students from participating in anything but a two-day WOOLF trip.
Two-day trips were the mainstay of the WOOLF program when it began in 1978. However, seven years ago, the program added three and five-day trips to accommodate those who wanted to spend more time outside. Now, three-day trips (20 this year) and five-day trips (seven this year) far outnumber the two-day trips, of which there were only four this year.
Out of 31 WOOLF trips this year, 27 groups of students – the three and five-day trips – did not represent and did not have the opportunity to represent anything resembling a cross-section of the Williams campus. In addition, the four two-day trips were overwhelmingly composed of minority students, also providing an inaccurate representation.
Under these conditions, the two-day trips become an extension of the WOW and ISO. They serve as trips into the woods for a group of students who already know each other rather than as opportunities to learn about and from a random group of fellow first-years. The group dynamics are also skewed for those two-day participants who do not participate in another pre-orientation program as, unlike three and five-dayers, they must contend with a group within their group which has already bonded. The existence of the two-day trips as such undermines the very purpose of both WOOLF and WOW/ISO.
According to the WOW website, the goals of the program include “to provide a forum for discussing ways of continuing to work towards a stronger diverse community with greater levels of inclusion and participation [and] to provide opportunities…[to create] a network of support.”
Presently, the overlapping of WOW, ISO and WOOLF creates self-segregation before there is a chance for building an inclusive community. Why simply discuss such a community when there is a viable opportunity to create one from the beginning? In addition, while each person has the right to create a “network of support” of his or her choosing, why not allow an integrated network of support as well as one tied to the individual’s community? Pre-orientation and orientation programs should encourage interaction among all groups if we, as a college, truly are committed to a diverse but integrated campus.
According to Lewis, there is “a great concern of the WOOLF staff and myself to find ways in which our orientation program can accommodate the needs of ALL students in a meaningful experience.” He added that the different pre-orientation programs will again examine ways in which they can co-exist without competing.
I see two possibilities for allowing WOW, ISO and WOOLF to accomplish this: WOW could shorten its program to two days or begin a day earlier, and ISO could begin a day earlier, both of which would give WOW/ISO participants the chance to choose two or three-day trips.
Looking at the WOW schedule, it seems to me that it could be shortened to two days. Since the first day is primarily dedicated to general “getting to know you” activities, it could be condensed so the day also includes some of the issue oriented programs of the subsequent days. Under this option, some of the talks could also be moved to First Days during times other optional talks are given. This would also allow the general community to listen or join discussions that could be valuable to them as new students and could open up issues for conversation and dialogue from the beginning.
If the coordinators of WOW do not see this as a viable option, they could also start their program a day earlier. As it stands, WOW begins on Wednesday, when dorms open for everyone. But the Housing Office gives special permission for five-day leaders and first years to move in on Tuesday. It would be a reasonable request to allow WOW facilitators and participants to move in a day early as well, allowing the program to retain its current format and end in time for three-day trips.
ISO is slightly different because it is required of international students and therefore students do not even have a chance to choose anything other than a two-day trip. However, ISO is only a two-day program, beginning Thursday morning. It would not be difficult to move the program to Wednesday and Thursday and allow international students to move into the dorms Tuesday nights, perhaps even beginning the program at that time.
By making slight changes to the schedules of pre-orientation programs, first years could participate more fully in all pre-orientation programs available to them. Implementing either of the options outlined above – or considering any other suggestions – would be an important step in demonstrating a true commitment to diversity, by all groups, in action and not just in words.