This year’s First Days was marked by several changes for both first-years and, for the first time, sophomores. While budget constraints led the College to shorten First Days by one day and to use internal resources rather than hired speakers for the events, a majority of the Class of 2012 returned to campus to participate in the first SophomOrientation, a program aimed at easing the transition between first and sophomore year. Additionally, a small group of first-years participated in Leading Minds, a new, leadership-oriented EphVenture sponsored by the Office of Campus Life.
The first SophomOrientation, an optional series of academic and social events that brought sophomores back to campus early, ran from Sept. 7 to 9 and included between 300 and 350 members of the Class of 2012. The program was coordinated by Emanuel Yekutiel ’11, who secured a significant portion of its funding from the President’s discretionary fund, with the rest of the money coming from College Council (CC), the neighborhoods and Campus Life.
According to Yekutiel, the Dean’s Office was willing to help realize the program from the beginning. Dean Merrill and Karen Ryan, an assistant in the Dean’s office, served as advisors to the program. Merrill spoke to the College’s recognition of the need for resources to help first-years grow into their sophomore shoes. “We’ve had some concerns about the transition for a while,” Merrill said.
According to Zach Evans ’12, CC secretary and member of the SophomOrientation planning committee, CC members were relatively responsive from the beginning. “In any case where you have a first time thing, there’s always a certain level of skepticism,” Evans said. “I think that skepticism passed by the wayside as the program began to unfold.”
Meals made up a significant portion of the program’s schedule and budget. The program included five meals by Dining Services, as well as dessert socials and a small tab at Tunnel City Coffee last Wednesday. “I would say that the opening dinner was pretty awesome,” Yekutiel said. “Whitmans’ was packed with sophomores eating dinner, meeting each other and being together. It was beautiful to see.”
SophomOrientation also included gatherings such as “Night at the Log,” which featured snacks, jazz music and a talk by Charles Dew, professor of history. Additionally, sophomores attended a “Chocolate Chill Hour” in Goodrich and an “Epic Sophomore Glow Party.” On the academic front, Tuesday also offered a Study Abroad information session, a forum on options for junior year and an academic exposition with representatives from each academic department. Along with Dew’s talk, E.J. Johnson, professor of art history, also gave a welcome address to sophomores. Yekutiel cited the faculty as having “a huge amount of faith and trust in the program.”
Although turnout varied among particular events â€“ the study abroad info session was nearly full, while the opportunity to paint a Class of 2012 banner scraped together merely a handful of students â€“ that the overall program drew a majority of the sophomore class in its pilot year bodes well for its continuation. According to Yekutiel, only a few of the 375 sophomores who preregistered did not attend.
SophomOrientation will undergo a formal evaluation this semester. “If this year’s program was a success, the College would be very willing to explore sponsoring some kind of program again next year,” Merrill said. Yekutiel cited budget constraints as the main reason why the program might not return. “It depends on a host of things, not least of which is money. The way I see it, this event is essential,” Yekutiel said.
Evans also spoke to the event’s success considering the student committee was entirely responsible for the idea. “Because it went so well with just us running it, we’re hoping the College might institutionalize the program and make it part of the Williams culture,” he said.
The most notable change to the First Days programming was an alteration in the format of the yearly talk on alcohol. In previous years, the College hired a speaker to deliver an address to the newly arrived class. Budget cuts, however, compelled Dave Johnson, associate dean of the College and dean of first-year students, to instead have Junior Advisors (JAs) lead discussions with first-years in their entries. Johnson cited JA willingness and the approval of Merrill and Jean Thorndike, director of Campus Safety and Security, as support systems for the experimental approach.
To prepare them to lead their own entry discussions, last year’s alcohol speaker addressed JAs during their fall training session, helping them script out possible turns the dialogue could take. The College also made 26 copies of the alcohol awareness video Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which students watched during last year’s lecture, to provide a conversation starter for each entry. Johnson said that the new format allowed the JAs to “tailor their message” and was optimistic that peer discussion would help the message sink in more clearly. “I really believe that the best way to get to students here is through other students,” Johnson said.
JA Janna Gordon ’11 also spoke to the new format’s use of conversation as an effective tool. “I think it’s much better to actually be able to discuss issues, especially ones like alcohol use that are so pertinent to entry life,” Gordon said.
While the JAs had received news of a stricter policy on providing alcohol to their first-years in spring 2008, the new alcohol discussion program instituted this fall may suggest a higher level of trust awarded to the JAs. “I was pleased at how seriously they took the charge,” Johnson said. “I feel each year that the JAs have become more invested in the interests of the College.”
The College also used an internal speaker for the First Days diversity lecture. Kathryn Kent ’88, professor of English and women’s and gender studies, delivered the address, titled “(Re)Claiming Williams.”
Additionally, this year saw the JAs receive more formalized training from the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN), as well as the move of the Voices program to the opening night of First Days, the same day as student move-in.
Leading Minds, which drew entirely upon funds from Campus Life’s Student Development and Leadership account, consisted of workshops and activities that stressed leadership skills for first-years. The pilot EphVenture had a 20-student cap, which matched exactly the first-year enrollment number.
Schuyler Hall ’10, who began developing the program with Campus Life student activities coordinator Tim Leonard in January, said that although adding an additional EphVenture coincided with the larger size of the Class of 2013, the numbers crunch was not the main reason for developing Leading Minds. Rather, the program was officially in the works before the final first-year yield numbers came out and was in fact first conceived several years ago. “We didn’t have the resources until now,” Hall said, referring to Leonard’s availability and his own experience as a Campus Life intern.
Leonard led a “Leadership v. Management” workshop, while Hall conducted a body language workshop. Alan Arias ’10 and Katerina Belkin ’11 guided the group through a “Giving Feedback” seminar. Director of Campus Life Doug Schiazza and Assistant Director of Campus Life Jess Gulley also ran workshops.
Robin Meyer, associate director of the Office of Career Counseling, participated as well, administering the Meyers-Briggs personality test to the group. Krista Pickett ’13, one of the first-years in the program, cited Meyers-Briggs as her favorite part of Leading Minds.
In addition to workshops, Leading Minds also offered participants an overnight ropes course program in Becket, Mass., and included a community service component: baking several hundred cookies for the Berkshire Food Project.
According to Hall, whether Leading Minds returns next year will depend on staffing and the budget. Both Hall and Leonard are leaving at the academic year’s end, and Campus Life does not currently know when it will make the final decision about the program’s future. Campus Life has solicited feedback from all of the participants and, should the program continue, plans to adjust it based on their comments.
“Their evaluations would suggest they had a great time,” Hall said. “For a pilot program developed by one staff member and one student, you’ve got to say it went well.”
Pickett also praised the program. “I was surprised that it was the first year they did it,” she said. “If I were to do it over, I would pick it again.”