First Days’ reorganization: an important step

Two weeks ago, the College welcomed the Class of 2006 with a radically restructured First Days program. Previously the arrival of first-years on campus has been staggered, in accordance with the starting dates of the various WOOLF and preseason athletic programs in which they were taking part.

This year, First Days, the orientation program required of all first-years, was held before these optional programs. This change was inspired by a hope that the new structure would enhance entry bonding by making the entry the first point of contact and providing time for first-years to form relationships with their entry mates before participating in what are now termed mid-orientation trips.

Generally speaking, this new structure was successful. For the first time, the entry was indeed the first social experience for first-years, and JAs largely agree that this has been beneficial in generating a sense of entry identity.

Encouraging first-years to feel they belong to their living group encourages the establishment of a comfortable entry dynamic. Moreover, friendships can be formed within entries, taking advantage of the diversity that is intentionally built into them, before first-years are sorted into mid-orientation programs based, unavoidably, upon one aspect of their identities. Now, all first-years are Williams students first, and athletes, international students, minorities or members of the Outing Club second.

With all 541 first-years arriving on the same day, the potential for logistical chaos was high. The College directed all cars to Poker Flats parking lots, where first-years’ belongings were loaded into moving vans and delivered to dorms. There, JAs were on hand to welcome first-years and help them move in. This system worked surprisingly smoothly. Admittedly some frosh, arriving with clothing and other items packed loosely in their cars rather than in boxes, encountered difficulty when asked to load these items into moving vans. The College might do well to warn the class of 2007 that they would be unable to drive right up to their dorms.

Of all the monumental problems that could have occurred, however, the triviality of this point is testament to the success of the system. That said, the situation was greatly facilitated by the sunny weather and the voluntary efforts of the Williams Christian Fellowship, whose members proved invaluable in helping first-years carry their belongings from the vans to their rooms. Thought must be given to what will happen next year if the weather is less cooperative and voluntary help does not materialize.

Far from detracting from the voluntary orientation programs, the new First Days structure encourages first-years to participate in them: the boring alternative is to do nothing for four days. Indeed, over-enrollment proved to be a problem this year. Windows on Williams, an orientation program aimed at minority students, will occur in October this year, allowing these students to participate in other programs such as WOOLF and “Where Am I?”(WAI).

Long-established, WOOLF was as successful as ever. The new “Where Am I?” program received more mixed reviews. While some of the events, such as the trip to Tanglewood and the community service experiences, were popular, others were judged to be boring or too long. Much depended on the initiative of individual group leaders, and unimpressed first-years tended to skip WAI events.

While the program certainly needs to be refined, there is no doubt that it provides a valuable alternative for those first-years to whom the idea of camping does not appeal and for international students, who must stay on campus for their own specific orientation.

Similarly, the First Days themselves could be improved. Under the new system, first-years arrived on campus before any of the other students. Newly arrived at college and with no classes to worry about, first-years looked for entertainment beyond (and after) what the College provided, namely a couple movie screenings and a dance party at the Log. With few upperclassmen on campus, JAs had nowhere to take bored entries, and the first few nights were marked by a certain sense of frustration.

The new First Days structure does not, and perhaps cannot, solve all the problems of the old format. Athletes and international students are still unable to participate in WOOLF. The new format does, however, provide the opportunity for more first-years to take part in a wider variety of voluntary orientation programs. Most importantly, the new First Days schedule no longer enfeebles, but rather complements, the entry system.