Changes in orientation planning shut out some groups

First-year orientation is becoming increasingly controlled by members of the Dean’s Office and the Office of Student Engagement, changing the amount that the libraries and Title IX education are represented in the process.

First-year orientation occurs in the week prior to the start of classes, and includes extensive programming for first year students on various aspects of life at Swarthmore. Student Orientation Leaders (OLs), Student Academic Mentors (SAMs), and Resident Assistants (RAs) assist college staff and the Orientation Committee in the facilitation of planned events and activities, which include introductions to offices like Student Disability Services, residential life, and other areas of the college. But according to some members of the community, orientation has not always seen this level of administrative oversight.

“Students used to completely run [orientation] in the old days,” said Associate College Librarian for Research & Instruction, Pamela Harris. Harris noted that when her twenty-year tenure at the college began, she felt that orientation was disorganized.

“It wasn’t necessarily good for the incoming freshmen, because it was kind of this group of best friends. Gradually, the Dean’s Office began to exert more control, and I think that was good because they had standards and they wanted to make it more open and fair,” she said.

As college staff have increased their involvement in the planning and implementation of first-year orientation, several groups have seen their representation in the programming and their “face time” with first years change significantly. The Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention group is one student group that has seen their involvement in Orientation decrease as a result of the changes over time.

“When I came to Swarthmore my freshman year, ASAP was fully run by students and there were workshops for incoming students at orientation that were organized by student leaders and facilitators,” said former ASAP coordinator Nora Kerrich ’16. She noted that facilitation of these workshops was difficult because school-wide protocols around Title IX education were being revised in the wake of an investigation of the college spurred by a Title IX complaint filed by students in the spring of 2013.

“There was an extreme lack of clarity from administrators as to what was permitted under strict adherence to Title IX and Clery Act protocol, especially concerning confidentiality, privacy, and required reporters on campus,” Kerrich said. However, after Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Nina Harris joined the college in the fall of 2013, Title IX education and programming in first-year orientation began to undergo substantial changes.

“One of the things that [ASAP] was really able to share [with me] was… the college has taken all of these resources to create more support and more education and really fill the gaps of the things that ASAP was taking on,” Harris said.

In recent years, orientation has included three large-group conversations on facets of non-academic life at Swarthmore. Assistant Dean and Director for Student Engagement Rachel Head explained that these three presentations have changed titles over the course of the past few years, but generally cover the same content each year. For the class of 2019’s orientation, they were titled “We Are Swarthmore: Discussion on Identity and Inclusion,” “Making Friends, Making Out: Creating Healthy Relationships,” and “Alcohol, Other Drugs & Healthy Planning for your Future.” Harris leads the “Making Friends, Making Out” presentation, held last year in the Lang Performing Arts Center.

Harris said that her presentation is designed to create a live conversation around topics in Title IX education and beyond.

“ …[it] wasn’t solely focused on sexual assault. We talk about what a healthy relationship [is], and it was meant to create an empowered entry into the community that doesn’t say, ‘Look. Rape happens every day,” she explained. While the Title IX Office has increased its involvement in orientation through the “Making Friends, Making Out” presentation, follow-up conversations led by RAs, SAMs, and OLs, and the addition of an online education course, ASAP’s involvement in these conversations has diminished considerably.

“The creation of the Title IX office and Nina Harris’ position ended up covering a lot of the bases that students had done as volunteers for many years, so the role of ASAP as a student group facilitating abuse and sexual assault prevention workshops became less pertinent,” Kerrich said.

While overall exposure to Title IX resources has increased in recent years, the college libraries have seen a decline in their overall interactions with first years.

According to college Librarian Peggy Seiden, the libraries had begun to work with Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development Lilliana Rodriguez on redoing and rethinking aspects of orientation.

“… [Rodriguez] approached me about trying to do something beyond the traditional orientation period that would provide students with a more in-depth introduction to college level library research,” Seiden said. However, Rodriguez left her position in the Dean’s Office in the spring of 2014 and this in-depth introduction, which might have been realized as a set of required seminars after Orientation ended, never materialized. Instead, a reduction of the libraries’ involvement in actual orientation programming occured.

Seiden said that while the libraries were included in “Academic Advice: Here’s The Scoop,” a conversation on academics and advising at the college, and were a part of the college-wide scavenger hunt that took place during orientation, they lost the 45-minute blocks of time scheduled throughout the week for a free-standing Library Orientation, which had been a part of the programming in previous years. Thus, overall the libraries have lost time to interact with first-year students in their own space.

Some students who participated in orientation in recent years did not feel like it accurately addressed their needs as incoming college students. Taylor Morgan ’19 felt like there was not enough time dedicated to learning about how academics work at Swarthmore.

“I don’t think there was enough academic focus in orientation. I think our orientation was basically ‘How being a college student works’ rather than ‘How to work as a college student’, and… it doesn’t represent how the academic structure of Swarthmore works,” Morgan said. In addition, she noticed that there was a lack of a celebratory feeling at Swarthmore when she arrived for the first time.

“ …[there was a] lack of Swat spirit at orientation, because other schools have a huge pep crew that helps students move in… but ours didn’t have that at all. I think that going to Swat is an accomplishment in itself. Why aren’t students recognized for their accomplishments when they arrive?” Morgan asked.

Despite the continuing challenges in planning first-year orientation, several staff members were optimistic about its future. Harris hopes to develop a Swarthmore-specific online course for students to take regarding Title IX education, based on a model she helped to develop during her time at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Our results [at Penn] were incredibly more effective… because we were able to develop our own [program], we really got to the roots of our culture, our needs, our language that our school uses,” she said. In addition, an ideal for Harris would be to hold her “Making Friends, Making Out” presentation two weeks into the semester, and to invite the rest of the student body to participate in it.

Head is similarly excited about upcoming work to be done on the programming of orientation.

Dean Henry, Dean Derickson, and Dean Head are taking the lead on orientation for the class of 2020, but before planning really gets underway, Head is doing a substantial amount of work to collect feedback from students and other members of the community. She said that Interim Student Activities Coordinator Carl Starkey, has already hosted some focus groups with the orientation co-directors as well as a few participants in orientation from this year. She also invited students to participate in an open meeting, which is happening from 12:30 to 2pm on Friday, March 4th in Parrish Parlors West, to give feedback regarding past orientations.

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