In light of feedback from last year’s orientation leaders and staff, the college changed several components of this year’s orientation. Among these changes were replacing the former Campus Advisor position with an orientation committee composed of students, holding a First Gathering event, modifying the previous Abuse & Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) student-led meetings — which focus on consent and forming healthy relationships — to ones conducted by the college’s Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Nina Harris, and altering the previously mandatory freshman-only Orientation Play to an optional one open to all students.
According to Assistant Dean for and Director for Student Engagement Rachel Head, who helped run orientation and decide on this year’s changes, this feedback occurs every fall.
“Quite often, we find out what worked and what did not work based on individual conversations with students,” she said in an email. “Each and every staff member in the Dean’s Office meets with students throughout the year, in group settings and one-on-one, for a variety of reasons … it is not uncommon for us to ask questions during those conversations about the overall student experience.”
She remarked that feedback from the past several years went into the change.
“Most feedback has indicated that the students want both a dorm-based experience as well as an opportunity to bond with other residence halls,” she said. “We ended with placing students in orientation groups based on where they live, and increased the number of intentional interactions between the residence halls and among the entire new class.”
She noted that, from her perspective, the biggest change in this regard was the addition of First Gathering — an attempt to begin and end the week in a collective, community experience.
The switch from CAs to Orientation Leaders was a continuation of the MARACAS groups, led by Student-Academic Mentors, Resident Assistants, and CAs, that were implemented a few years ago.
In previous years, there was around one CA per freshman hall. This year, 18 students comprised the OC.
“The orientation groups have evolved and, based on feedback from the leaders, it seems like having the RAs, SAMs, and OCs work together as one team works the best,” Head explained.
Another change in students’ involvement in orientation this year was additional training for RAs.
“Orientation Leaders have the responsibility of taking their groups to have discussions in small groups about how [the first-years] are interacting with the information on a personal level that they will be hearing from members of the Deans’ Office,” RA Tim Vaughan ’15 said. “What that may look like for each first-year student is different, depending on their own experience and expectations.”
To prepare for these facilitation meetings, the deans’ office trained the RAs both for the facilitation meetings and for the meetings that deans held for the new students. Vaughan expressed that this training, as well as other orientation changes, were beneficial.
“I … believe [this change] is better, considering we are going to be living with and interacting with the first years on our hall pretty much every day for the rest of the year. There is new staff in the Office of Student Engagement that [led] the RAs in facilitation training. They have also been a huge support for the RAs and have taken on a lot of responsibility leading most of our training … made training run a lot smoother.”
While these meetings were mandatory, the orientation play was not, for the first time in several years. This change was predicated on a meeting between Assistant Director of Student Activities, Leadership and Greek Life Mike Elias and students who were involved in organizing the play. In the meeting, Elias offered two options: either to change the play to a mandatory, informational video about Swarthmore or to change the play to an optional one that was open to the entire student body. Patrick Ross ’15, who has been involved with the play for the past few years, chose the latter, prioritizing an event that would be fun. The play focuses on “sexiling” and other aspects of Swarthmore culture. Although the limited-seating play still prioritized freshmen’s attendance, Ross explained that the no-longer required event affected two changes.
“One, we are no longer required to dish out all that boring, didactic information — ‘Remember, kids, Worth Health Center has free STD testing, and you can buy four condoms for a dollar,’” he said. “Secondly, the play being optional means that non-freshmen can now attend. We’ve been trying to find a way to allow upperclassmen into the show for three years now, possibly more before my time.”
While the play and other orientation events were intended to increase first-year students’ comfort, freshman Anna Mischel used the words “contrived” and “awkward” to describe some aspects of the week in general and said she was ready for it to end.
“I think that orientation was definitely useful in allowing us the time to adjust to the dorm life and the campus,” she said. “I really got to know my hallmates well, which was a really nice thing. [But] I feel like the situation of being thrown in a new environment with new people is always going to be sort of a disorienting experience, no matter what.”
She also added that she did not feel as though the week was community-oriented.
“I think it’s awkward, because you end up just hanging out with people who you are in groups with, and you only hang out with those people because you don’t know anybody else — not necessarily because you have similar interests.”
But Head cautioned students not to base the success of orientation on just this week.
“I think we need to … remember that orientation is a year-long experience. There is a lot to learn, a lot to take in, a lot to process,” she said. “People learn in all different ways, and we need to remember that some people might jump right in and feel confident on day one … others might not have that same experience. I think we will be ‘successful’ if we can look back in May and identify ten month’s worth of opportunities for interactions between new students and between this entire community.”