New first-year orientation schedule introduced

When the entire Class of 2006 descended on the campus on August 27, many were nervous about meeting new people, starting new classes and being away from home. The College has traditionally tried to address first-year students’ fears by running First Days, a time where students are introduced not only to their entries, but to the College community as a whole.

In past years, First Days has been preceded by activities for first-years such as WOOLF trips, “Windows on Williams” events or preseason practices for fall athletes. During this time, first-years who chose not to participate in these proceedings were not on campus at all. These pre-First Days events caused noticeable divisions in social groups, and put a strain on entry bonding. “We work hard at building a community that is extraordinarily diverse and it was clear that having a program that resulted in students starting their Williams experience grouped in various ways is contrary to our educational philosophy,” said Dean Roseman.

This year, with the help of the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL), the Deans and the JAs, the schedule was revised so that the First Days period, with its class activities, would come first. The first-years all arrived on the same day in hopes that having the entry as the first point of contact would promote bonding.

“We brought the class in together so that the first time the first-years met they all met at once,” added Roseman. “That incredible mix of people that make up an entry, they were all on the same page together.”

After the First Days period, first-years entered into what was termed the “mid-orientation period,” where students broke up into WOOLFies, preseason athletes and “Where Am I?” participants.

The “Where Am I?” (WAI) program, new this year, was the brainchild of the Rev. Rick Spalding, chaplain of the College. He noticed that last year, students participating in WOOLF had the option of going on a community service trip, which stayed on campus and had first-years participating in various activities around the community. “A lot more could have been done [with the program],” Spalding said. “It didn’t really get planned or thought of in advance.” So, when the order of First Days was revised, Spalding devised a new program that would allow first-years to become more familiar with Williamstown and the surrounding community. “I noticed that we do a good job of introducing students to the woods and a very good job of introducing students to the ways and means of Williams,” said Spalding. “But we don’t do squat about where on earth students are in Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts,” he said. Thus, WAI was born.

Over 120 students signed up for WAI, with a few on the waiting list, according to Dani Lerro ’05, one of the coordinators of the program. Ten groups of twelve were created and assigned two leaders each (mostly sophomores, with some juniors and seniors in the mix). Students started off the program with “The Purple and Gold Rush,” a scavenger hunt that brought them to various locations in Williamstown and North Adams. Students also attended a jazz concert at Tanglewood, visited MASS MoCA, went on a short hike, and took 3-5 hour “road trips” around Berkshire County. Each group also went to a different agency to perform some sort of community service. Some went to the nearby Caretaker Farm and weeded the gardens; others participated in a drumming program with students from Berkshire Farm. “As college students, it is so easy for us to live in the Purple Bubble and have contact with just other students and our professors,” Lerro said. “Hopefully, WAI introduced the first years to some of the different types of wonderful people who live around us and encouraged them to go out and meet their neighbors.”

According to Spalding, the most successful part of the program seemed to be the community service experience. He also praised the leaders and found it rewarding that some of the groups really “bonded.” Jonathan Woods ’06 enjoyed the program for that reason. “It was pretty good,” he said. “We learned about what’s outside of the Purple Bubble, and started some close friendships.” Spalding hopes that students involved with WAI will want to go back to some of the places they visited on their outings.

There were some problems with the WAI experience, however. According to some participants, “The Purple and Gold Rush” took too long and discouraged inter-group bonding.

“It was the first activity, and because it lasted so long it became, some thought, kind of boring…it turned a lot of frosh off of the program,” said Mark Rothman ’05. Still, Lerro noted, despite some other minor glitches (groups oversleeping, frosh skipping events), the leaders were able to “roll with the punches” and help to make everything run smoothly. WAI will be evaluated and both Lerro and Spalding are excited for changes to be made so that the program can continue to grow.

Some had problems with the new First Days format. Dan Gittes ’04, a JA in Sage C, noted that there were many first year students who, because of space limitations, were not able to attend any mid-orientation programs, so most entries had a few frosh with nothing to do for 4 days.

Still, most would agree that, for the first execution of a new concept, First Days was a success. Dean Roseman said that this year’s First Days will be assessed and changes will be made for next year. “We didn’t expect it to be perfect,” she said. “But considering all the logistical problems involved, it went amazingly well.” Maggie Carr ’06 liked the new format as well. “I really liked having orientation first. That way, I had already made a lot of friends on campus when I left for my WOOLF trip.” Dean Norma Lopez, who played a vital role in planning the new program’s logistics and events noted, “So far, the feedback has been positive and that may indicate that we need to continue to welcome the incoming class [of 2007] with a similar schedule.”

Windows on Williams (WOW), an orientation program described by Gail Bouknight-Davis, administrative director of the MCC, described WOW as “an orientation program for African, Latino/Latina; Asian and Native American first year students and their parents to discuss some of the expectations of the community and how they might relate to being students of color.” Currently, she said, the program consists of a student/parent luncheon and various social ice breakers taking place during First Days. Also, the MCC sponsors Wednesday dinners in September for first-years, as well as an October retreat. With the scheduling changes, students can now participate in WOW as well as other programs. “Rather than overloading students with information and resources during the first week,” Bouknight-Davis said. “WOW offer resources throughout their first couple of months at college, sustains the contact among first years ALANA students, and provides a forum for dialogue (at the October retreat) about “surviving and thriving” once students have had an opportunity to experience Williams.”