‘What Am I Doing?’: Behind the makeshift orientation for 17 EphVenture-less frosh

Luke Chinman

Despite the unofficial nature of their program, “What Am I Doing?” participants decorated their own t-shirts to commemorate the group. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Schroen.)

A few weeks before the start of First Days, the week-long orientation for first-year students, Aaron Schroen ’23.5 received a big ask. There were roughly 20 students without an official EphVenture, and Dean of First-Year Students Christina Walsh needed someone to lead a last-minute program for them.

EphVentures, the four-day orientation programs during First Days, are often considered a quintessential part of the first-year experience; they present an early opportunity to connect with a smaller group of fellow first-years, whether by backpacking through New England forests, exploring the arts scene across the region, or participating in any of the other interest programs that students can select.

This year, however, a small cohort of first-years arrived with no EphVenture assignment, and a makeshift program — which would lovingly be named “What Am I Doing?” by its leaders and participants — was born.

Leaders of official EphVentures typically go through over a week of training and planning, both in the spring of the prior school year and in the days leading up to the fall semester. Schroen, as well as Jacob Chen ’23.5 and Lemmy Evans ’23 — the two peers he enlisted to help him lead their program — had only the afternoon before EphVentures began to plan three days of activities with nearly no guidance from the College. 

“We really got nothing,” Schroen said. “All that we were left with was my little Toyota Camry and the three of us trying to plan events.”

In an email to the Record, Walsh expressed regret over how little they were able to work with the program’s leaders.

The first-years without an EphVenture were similarly disoriented. “Up until the day that everyone [started], I still kind of assumed that I was somehow secured a position in [an official EphVenture],” said Nahier Tafere ’26, who was placed in What Am I Doing? after attempting to register for the programs Exploring the Arts and Where Am I?!. 

Walsh cited the abnormally large size of the Class of 2026 and transportation constraints across EphVentures — both of which were problems that the College had been aware of since the spring — in addition to confusion around the EphVenture signup process as contributing factors to the large number of first-years without an official EphVenture assignment.

Only 30 minutes before the official EphVenture start time did Tafere receive an email notifying her that she had been placed in the makeshift program. “Aaron’s email was like, ‘Meet us outside of Paresky,’” she said. “‘We’re going to figure this out together, but it’s going to be really fun.’”

At their first group meeting, though, reality set in: What Am I Doing? faced an uphill climb. “All I had was me, a laptop, and a chair,” Schroen said — a stark contrast to the branded T-shirts, chalk artwork, and blasting music at the check-in stations for the official EphVentures next to him. “I felt horrible because I saw them looking over at Leading Minds and Exploring The Arts and all of these really fun things that I simply [did] not have the time … to provide,” he said.

A group of first-year students cooked themselves a meal in the Zilkha Center during one day of programming. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Schroen.)

Many of the first-years, however, made light of the situation. “Everyone was joking about it,” said Aluna Brogdon ’26, another What Am I Doing? participant who had tried registering for WOOLF in the summer but was informed that the deadline had passed.

This comedic spirit prevailed throughout the four days the group had together. One afternoon, the group decorated T-shirts, a play on the merchandise that participants of official programs received. “It was our little way of making ourselves a fun parody of an EphVenture,” Schroen said.

Beyond T-shirt decorating, leaders Schroen, Chen, and Evans had to get creative to fill this time with activities.

“A big theme of the weekend was calling in all of the favors under the sun,” Schroen said. After a spontaneous run-in with Chair of the English Department Bernie Rhie, the professor led a mindfulness session for the first-years, Chen said. The leaders even worked with Astronomy Teaching Assistant Tasan Smith-Gandy ’24 to lead a private show at the planetarium. 

To get around their lack of transportation, Schroen, Chen, and Evans split the larger group of first-years into three smaller cohorts that could each fit into Schroen’s car. The other two groups would spend the day at walkable destinations like the Clark Art Institute or take the bus to North Adams — which Schroen reframed as an opportunity to teach first-years about the public transportation options available to students.

The last-minute nature of the program, however, did have some advantages over official EphVenture experiences. “One of the pros of our program was how flexible it was,” Chen said. “People were able to find opportunities to catch their breath.”

“We didn’t have such a rigid schedule to abide by, which is something that I appreciated,” Tafere said. “[There] was always the assumption that  if you were just too tired that day or for whatever reason you couldn’t make it,  [there were] no questions asked,” she said. Given the exhausting nature of First Days, Tafere believed this time was especially valuable for the worn-out frosh.

While the leaders ultimately characterized What Am I Doing? as a success, they did not hold back from expressing frustration with the College. “We pulled it off, but I did send a very long email to the Dean,” Schroen said. “I think the exact quote from the email was, ‘Don’t ever let this happen again.’”

Walsh sympathized with the concerns of the student leaders. “I want to be clear that none of us [are] okay or at all comfortable with how things played out this year,” they wrote to the Record. “A tremendous effort was engaged in to prevent it from being worse.” 

“With the promise of next year’s class being a more normal size, I expect we won’t have this issue again,” Walsh wrote. “Finding a solution to this will be the priority of the EphVenture working group as they begin preparing for next year.”

Students also expressed discontent over the College’s messaging to those who were not assigned an official EphVenture and their ultimate placement in an unofficial program.

“The lack of communication [from] the school in the days leading up to it was confusing,” Brogdon said. “I wonder what are the things [we] would’ve gained from an established EphVenture that we weren’t able to do because of all the planning being put on three seniors,” she said.

“Upperclassmen in past years have really stressed this part of First Days and how it’s supposed to be really, really cool,” Tafere said. “I think I had general anxiety about not really knowing how … these really meaningful days were going to play out.”

Schroen and Chen also called attention to the demographics of the students not assigned an official EphVenture, which included a larger percentage of students of color than the overall first-year class.

“This is a major concern for us as well,” Walsh wrote to the Record in response. “The process of debrief and assessment has not yet begun and we want to thoroughly understand factors that specifically led to this… This will be a major topic of analysis and planning for next year,” they added.

Despite a barrage of hurdles, though, first-years in What Am I Doing? found a way to make community. Throughout the weekend, even as spots in official EphVenture programs opened up, the first-years elected to stay with their makeship group, Chen said.

“I really liked Aaron, Jacob, and Lemmy, and I felt grateful for what they’d been able to put together and that it would be sort of weird to join another EphVenture halfway through,” Brogdon said. “I guess there was a sort of identity to being a part of the outcast EphVenture group.”

The first years in “What Am I Doing?” took a trip to a local bowling alley. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Schroen.)