Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This year’s orientation for first-year and transfer students will look substantially different from those of years past. The most dramatic changes are a shift in the way CA groups are organized, which will result in a drastic decrease in the number of CAs hired, and the scaling back or elimination of the popular orientation play. The trust walk will also be replaced.
These changes have been motivated both by attempts to better serve new students and by budget cuts. They have come as a result of a “serious and intentional” evaluation of orientation events over the past several years. The changes are based on the first-hand experience of the deans running orientation and the “great energy, excitement, and experience” that the new Dean of Students Liz Braun brings with her, said Assistant Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head.
The orientation process is a joint venture between the Dean’s Office and students, particularly the Student Council-appointed Orientation Committee. These structural decisions, however, have been made by the Dean’s Office, particularly the Student Life team of Myrt Westphal, Rachel Head, and Paury Flowers.
Westphal is the Associate Dean for Student Life, who has been involved with orientation for “many, many years”; Head runs, among other things, the RA program; Flowers is Coordinator of Student Activities and counts the CA program among her responsibilities.
The Student Council-appointed Orientation Committee also plays a role, though they have “been on the receiving end” of the major decisions about the structure of this year’s orientation, co-chair John Oh ’13 said.
There “was a lot of back and forth in dealing with the structure” of CA groups, said committee co-chair Renee Flores ’13, but she said that the committee has mostly come around to agree that the proposed changes are for the best, and that their thoughts have been incorporated into the process.
CA Group Structure
In past years, new students have been assigned to a group led by two Campus Advisors. These groups do a variety of orientation activities together, and provide, ideally, a “group that will stick together through orientation and into the semester, if possible,” said Westphal.
The model for choosing how these groups are chosen has changed from year to year. This year, though, the deans will almost certainly choose a different model for the leadership role of the group itself; rather than a pair of CAs leading a group of new students from various dormitories, activities will mostly be done with a student’s hall and will be led by a team of a single CA along with the hall’s RA and SAM.
This should provide several advantages. One is budgetary: as there will be only one CA per hall that contains first-years, about half as many CAs will be hired. Although CAs are not paid, they must be fed while they are on campus, which causes a significant expense; Flowers estimated that more than 60% of the overall orientation budget goes to meals.
Moreover, though, it should allow each member of the team to provide their individual services more effectively to their hall.
Residential Assistants on first-year halls, for instance, have traditionally done more of the informal events in the evening, focusing on hall bonding, while CAs and SAMs take students during the day for more organized events. Under the new model, though, the goal is to have those kinds of activities more integrated with one another.
Student Academic Mentors live on most halls and are on campus for orientation but, said Oh, “don’t have as much to do” during orientation. Using their time more effectively and “having them wear both a SAM hat and a CA hat” could improve the overall efficiency of the process and the SAMs’ ability to serve students. Flowers suggested, for example, that SAMs might help with the campus tour, particularly its visits to the library, the Writing Center, and Career Services.
Flowers said that this distribution of leadership roles will also help CAs focus more on what they were originally hired to do: event management. This not only simplifies the process for CAs, but also streamlines their training.
Hiring fewer CAs also means that their overall quality should improve. Flowers says that she has heard repeatedly from CA candidates talking about their own orientation experiences that there “were decidedly some CAs who did a great job…and [others who] were total, fill in the blank. They were bad.” Oh agreed that “some CAs aren’t as engaging or as active as others,” and that limiting the number would allow them “to pick the very best” applicants.
Still, the Orientation Committee and others have expressed some concern in regard to the new structure. With so many activities based on halls, said Flores, “you’re not really getting to know anyone outside of your hall.”
In an attempt to solve that problem, the deans are considering a suggestion made by the Orientation Committee to form “sister halls,” where each hall would have an associated hall from across campus that would collaborate for certain activities, so that new students would get to know some people from other dorms. The committee also suggested large tournament-style activities that would involve collaboration between more halls.
These changes have been somewhat forced by “the belt-tightening that’s been going on the last few years,” said Westphal, but they are also informed by experience with what works and what doesn’t in past orientations. As Oh put it, “the budget cuts gave the deans an impetus to be creative.”
“There’s divided opinion about whether it’s a good idea or not,” said Westphal, “but we’re going to try it, and let’s see if it works. If it doesn’t work out, there’s always next year, and we can reconceive it in a different way.”
The popular orientation play, produced by students in collaboration with the Dean’s Office, will be scaled back and possibly eliminated for next year.
The play was originally intended to deliver certain messages about what it means to be a member of the Swarthmore community and, as Head said, serve a role in “norming for new students.” Some of the other messages that the play intended to get across were about roommate dynamics, the resources available to students, fire safety rules, and others, according to Flowers.
Flores characterized one of the play’s main intended goals as leading into the diversity workshops, where new students discuss “all the different kinds of people you’re going to encounter, and how you’re supposed to deal with all of that.”
The deans are concerned, however, that the play “no longer connects to the core mission and vision from the Dean’s Office.” According to Flowers, “the core messages that we wanted to be in the play…usually were there, but might have gotten lost in the Glee song or some other entertainment element of what the play was.”
Westphal also expressed concerns about how, with the presence of so many upperclassmen at the play, “some of the catcalls and things” at last year’s play signaled how “it has maybe moved off its mission.”
All three deans, as well as the committee co-chairs, said that they greatly enjoyed the play, but thought that given the expense of paying and bringing to campus early a crew of directors, writers, actors, and others, there might be more effective ways to accomplish its goals.
Flowers said “we’re not doing [the play] this year,” but Westphal and Head said that no firm decision had yet been reached.
Westphal said that the deans “want to have student voices and the student story told through their lens,” but doing so in a way that carries messages about the culture of Swarthmore “in an effective and educational way.” The play might become a entirely student production, or a “mosaic of videos that students put together.” Head suggested similar options and stressed that “we want to do it right.”
Oh and Flores also said that the play “won’t be taken out entirely, but it won’t be the same form” as in the past. Its exact nature will be determined later in the semester.
Another vehicle for messages previously delivered through the play may end up being a series of student-produced videos, placed on the Swarthmore website. Flowers said she is excited about the idea of delivering “short videos on the elements that we wanted to be in the play,” such as roommate relationships.
There might also be videos on the vocabulary of Swarthmore (including both commonly used academic terms like “hegemony” and more everyday words) or an introduction to the deans. The overall goal would be to serve as an entertaining and ultimately educational introduction to the culture of Swarthmore.
Flowers said that the idea came after talks about canceling the orientation play; members of the Orientation Committee objected that its messages would be lost. The idea for videos in particular was inspired by some of the video work done as components of the play, as well as related videos made for Career Services.
In either case, some of the videos might be put online during the summer for accepted students hungry to know more about Swarthmore. (Head said that she has already received questions about housing and orientation from members of the Class of ’15 admitted under Early Decision.) They might also be saved and screened during orientation as part of what the play will become.
The topics and logistics of the videos are on the agenda to be figured out soon. This year, there were probably only be a few videos, with more to be made in the future if these prove successful. Flores said that although everyone is excited about the videos, no ideas have been decided on, and no students have yet been identified to produce them.
The traditional trust walk, where CAs lead a chain of blindfolded students around campus and eventually to the Crum, will not take place next year. Flores said that there have been injuries in the past few years, and one incident where students got stuck in an elevator
Feedback about the trust walk has also been split between students who love it and those who dislike it, which Flowers said was a “red flag” that something different should be done.
Instead, the Orientation Committee has been tasked with finding another way to introduce students to the Crum so that “they know it exists.” One idea suggested by Dean Braun would be to pass out flashlights rather than candles at First Collection, and then use those for a night walk in the Crum. Some form of bonfire is also still likely to occur.
Rather than having a different theme for orientation each year, the committee has suggested choosing one theme and sticking with it, so that materials may be reused from year to year.
The way that class deans are handled will also change. Rather than staying with a certain class of students, the deans will have a class year. Starting next year, Westphal will be the dean for the senior class, rather than being the dean for the class of ’12. Assistant Dean and Gender Education Advisor Karen Henry will be the first-year dean, starting next year, and so will become intimately involved with the orientation process.
This will allow deans to gain more expertise and get more involved in the kind of activities that happen at a given point in a student’s Swarthmore career. Because of the open policy where any student may see any dean, Westphal thinks that this process will work well.
The Communications and Publications Offices will create the orientation schedule this year, making it much more professional and “glitzy,” said Westphal. That will force much of the scheduling to be completed by the end of the spring semester, rather than in the two weeks before the beginning of the fall semester; it will also provide a memento for parents.
Moving forward, the Dean’s Office and Orientation Committee will have to finalize decisions about the structure of CA groups, see how much can get done on the video initiative for this year, and determine the scheduleÃ¢€”including replacements for the play and the trust walk.
Despite all the changes, Oh was adamant that “this orientation is going to be the best that it’s ever been; it’ll be super bomb and cool.”