By now, you are certainly starting to know what orientation is like from a student perspective: luggage, smiling, tired muscles, speed friending, occasional speed dating, advice, confusion, excitement, and sleep deprivation. There is, however, another side to orientation: a network of over 50 people who have helped run orientation and who have prepared for it over the last five months.
Spearheaded by Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development/New Student Orientation Elisa Cardona and Assistant Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development Gretchen LaBonte, the orientation team includes four Orientation Interns and 30 Orientation Leaders. Many administrators, notably 2018’s class dean Marina Melendez, also played important roles in planning and organizing elements of orientation.
Although problems inevitably arise during such a complicated event, Cardona said the orientation schedule is perfected weeks in advance to make sure new students and families arrive on campus to a stress-free first day.
“We work two weekends in a row, all to make sure that everything for the first year students is ready, even if on the backend there are things we are cleaning up, and families feel welcome when they get here, and they feel like everything is smooth,” Cardona said. She added with a laugh, “Even if in back I’m screaming and freaking out.”
In March, the Orientation Committee began its preparations for new students. While on maternity leave last semester, Cardona compiled the complete summer mailing booklet, with information about a wide array of campus resources. During June, July, and the first two weeks of August, Cardona, along with LaBonte and the four OIs ordered all the supplies necessary for orientation, edited and revised the orientation handbook (to save paper, only international students received hard copies), reserved spaces for orientation events, planned meals, and organized the training for the OLs.
The OIs have been working since June to plan the events of International Student Orientation (ISO) and New Student Orientation (NSO), and to answer questions from students and parents.
“When new students arrive, and I see the moment they fall in love with Wes, I know that my work was all in good faith,” said OI Aidan Martinez ’17, who had previously mentioned that over the prior three days he had been working nearly 24 hours a day. “I’m so happy to have been one of the moving pieces in the giant machine that is orientation.”
OLs, who guide students during orientation and facilitate events, arrived on campus on August 20 to receive four days of training before international students arrived. Their training included icebreakers and group bonding exercises to create the team dynamic that is important to the orientation atmosphere. They also reviewed conflict management skills and received bystander intervention training and social justice training. Activities included a library scavenger hunt and an off-campus team building retreat with the Peer Advisors and RAs. OLs described the training and the job itself as exhausting and challenging.
“Over the last few days, I’ve barely had enough time to brush my teeth in the morning,” said OL Fred Ayres ’17.
In spite of this, all interviewed felt that it was worth the effort.
“Now that new students have started arriving, getting to meet them and talk to them has been the reward for our hard work and long hours,” said OL Marissa Castrigno ’15.
While many of the orientation events are steeped in tradition from years past, such as Feet to the Fire, We Speak We Stand, and the always-popular Bend It at Beckham dance, the committee did not hesitate to make changes or additions where necessary.
“Every seminar and activity is developed…to help [students] become more comfortable at a school that will remain a part of their lives forever,” said OI Olayinka Lawal ’15.
One addition that Cardona said she was particularly excited for is Wesleyan Firsts, a breakfast event crafted by Martinez for Wesleyan’s low-income and first-generation students. During this event held on Thursday in Daniel Family Commons, students heard firsthand experiences from upperclassmen and had the opportunity to form a community with each other.
“Hopefully, students who often feel marginalized from the beginning of orientation will feel like they have a pocket of people that they can be comfortable with and be themselves,” Cardona said.
Many members of the orientation staff seemed aware that there are certain groups of students who could potentially feel marginalized or take a longer time to adjust to the Wesleyan climate. Helping international students transition is considered a priority, and the ISO, beginning before all other students arrive, is designed to help those from other countries acclimate to the campus and get a head start on making connections, as explained in the orientation handbook.
“For some incoming students, orientation will be the first time they’ve been on campus and experienced American culture. Helping them to acclimate to such traditions as the Fight Song and Undies at Olin will take time,” Ayres said. “Nonetheless, I’m confident that students are given the experience and knowledge during orientation to prepare for a successful career at Wesleyan.”
Another, often unmentioned, group of students participating in NSO is made up of transfer, exchange, and visiting students. These students have their own advising sessions, dean meetings, and times for socializing and meeting each other.
“For us, the difficulty was jumping into an established class of our peers, trying to find our academic and social footing while unlearning the ways of our old colleges and acclimating to Wes,” said Castrigno, who transferred to Wesleyan in her sophomore year. “Keep yourself grounded and start small by building a few relationships with new friends and professors. Orientation is a perfect time to establish a small base to help you springboard into life at Wes.”
Starting small seemed to be the advice of many orientation staff members, and the goal of orientation is to facilitate this.
“This is a big, new place for many of the students, so any place we can find to build pockets of small communities that help people feel at home is super important,” Cardona said.
What else should students keep in mind over the next few days? Cardona’s answer was not surprising.
“Engage and fully engage on everything orientation has to offer,” she said. “It’s just five days, and then you never have to see us again . . . Even if it feels corny or even if it feels boring, I promise you there is a big picture.”
Cardona implores students to continue to ask questions and ask for help beyond orientation and throughout the year and added that Dean Melendez is another wonderful resource for students looking for advice, or just to talk.
“Find those resources. Connect with people,” she said. “Even if you don’t want to talk to someone, then send an email. Find a way to communicate.”
All members of the orientation staff hope their enthusiasm is contagious and that the new students have an experience that they carry with them for their entire duration at Wes.
“I hope they complete orientation with a very strong sense that Wesleyan is their school and that they belong here,” Lawal said.