I was a first-year student at the Colleges in the fall semester of 2020, a semester that started in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Regulations and protocols rapidly changed to protect students’ health and ensure that the institution could continue operating. Classes were limited in the number of in-person meetings, gatherings were limited in size, and many students were only able to interact with those living on the same floor of their dorm.
These guidelines also presented a unique challenge for a foundational experience for first-year students — Orientation.
A negative PCR test was required of all students before even arriving on campus. Students were then herded through a drive-through style check-in process, where they were handed campus resources and room keys all through the window of their car. Then first-year students had to wait for their designated move in time, to ensure that the dorms were never too crowded. Over the next four days, meals were delivered to dorms by Orientation Mentors. Students were required to watch pre-recorded videos to acquaint themselves with what the campus offered. On the rare occasion, orientation groups could gather spread out across the campus quad, hiding their faces with masks even though most members of the group already lived together.
As an Orientation Mentor, I saw the freshman class of 2027 experience a radically different orientation process than we had four years ago. The Colleges have been making changes to Orientation for the past several years, but this Orientation was the most reimaged yet.
Orientation Mentors arrived back to campus on Wednesday August 16 and participated in four days of training sessions. They familiarized themselves with different departments, buildings, and opportunities at the Colleges. There was also an emphasis on creating community and fostering healthy relationships with the first-year students.
First-year students then moved onto campus for the first time on Sunday August 20th. Unlike the senior class’s experience, the class of 2027 were accompanied by caravans of friends and family helping them move in. For the next five hours, Orientation Mentors helped students carry boxes and settle in. After move-in, students participated in matriculation ceremonies and began preparing for the week ahead.
That was the first substantial change made to Orientation. Rather than simply three to four days before classes, orientation was extended to a full week. The hope was to give students more opportunities to connect with others and have more time for themselves.
Students then experienced the next big change to Orientation after move-in and matriculation ceremonies, as first-years met with their Spark groups. “Spark,” a new initiative being implemented into Orientation, allowed students to meet others with similar interests and work closely with a faculty advisor to explore these interests over the first 3 days of orientation week.
Orientation this year consisted of many invaluable opportunities for first-year students. A workshop session facilitated by the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion entitled “Building Belonging,” tours of downtown Geneva, and even their first FSEM class session.
But not all the changes to Orientation were well received by students. As an Orientation Mentor, it was challenging to make sure all the first years attended meals together and other mandatory team-building activities. Those first-years who did attend meals frequently asked to leave early, stating that they were too busy and did not have any unstructured time to themselves. First-year students also came to their Orientation Mentors and expressed that a full week of Orientation did not feel like an enriching experience.
The last noticeable change to Orientation was the requirement for Orientation Mentors to continue programming with their group into the third week of the semester. With an increase in activities hosted by the Office of Student Engagement, groups were encouraged — but realistically required — to attend these events together. Orientation Mentors struggled to keep their groups engaged, as first-year students were excited by their newfound freedom and did not want to be restricted by mandatory events. Seniors scoffed at the already apathetic first-years, as the class of 2024 did not get a fraction of these opportunities as freshmen.