First-year orientation to move from 4-day to 9-day model for fall 2019

| News Editor

Bear Beginnings, Washington University’s orientation for first-year students, will be extended from its current four-day model to a nine-day session for fall 2019.

The First Year Center, along with Campus Life, hopes to the new program will better ease the transition into both academic and social life at the University in a less pressure-packed timeline.

This change is intended to increase student participation and uniformity through the transition process, according to Katharine Pei, director of the First Year Center.

“There’s an object that outlines that we need to provide equitable and consistent experiences,” Pei said. “This fall, 43 percent of students participated in pre-orientation as we know it today, but there are a lot of reasons why people can’t participate, and a huge reason for that is cost. So, we have financial aid available for our lowest income students who received Pell grants or are on a no-loan with the University, but we don’t have enough financial aid at this time to really support all students—and for us, that’s a barrier.”

In past years, pre-orientation programs have been run several days prior to orientation, with individual campus groups spearheading programs and student leaders serving as counselors. Although the First Year Center has seen a growth in the number of participants in pre-orientation programs (in 2015, only 530 students participated, compared with 770 students in 2016, which went down to 760 students in 2017), the financial model has been stretched thin, and they’ve exceeded the maximum amount of participants.

Additionally, Executive Director of Campus Life Leslie Heusted believes that Washington University can provide all incoming students with an equal introduction to the University through the new nine-day model, which encapsulates both the small group experience and traditions of first-year orientation.

“The big reason why we want to surpass all of these challenges and make this the way that it is is because we want all students to experience the same welcoming message from Washington University, and in our current model, we would wouldn’t be able to achieve that,” Heusted said.

“The small group experience—we want everyone to have it,” Pei added. “We know that small group experiences increase people’s sense of belonging, which is why people stay in college. There’s association with higher GPAs and a greater persistence to graduation.”

The nine-day long orientation program will be split into three-day sessions, outlining the big topics of welcoming, academic preparedness and inclusion. The first three days will include the traditional Bear Beginnings welcome activities, such as convocation and learning about the University’s history and traditions.

Another three-day session will focus on academic preparation and exploring programming opportunities available to students, while also educating first-years on time management and preparedness in college. Each undergraduate school within the University will develop its own schedule.

“The academic divisions are really excited about that, and so are we because that’s a primary reason why you come to college, right?” Pei said. “It’s to have this academic experience, and we’ve been limited in the time that we can do that with only four days.”

The third three-day session will focus on the small group experience and will be led by student counselors under a designated department head.

Although many seem to agree with the idea of creating an experience open for all to attend free of cost, some are concerned about missing out on the level of student-on-student interaction that pre-orientation programs freely allowed.

Student Union Vice President of Programming and junior Kyle Jeter believes that, while extending orientation is beneficial, the changes won’t work unless there are still interactions between student leaders on campus and first-years.

“I think there is good in what is currently done. I think the main thing is the accessibility to students,” Jeter said. “In order for this [change] to be successful, whatever way that it needs to, students and administrators have to work together. If they don’t, it’s not going to be successful.”

Jeter believes that the new program has the potential to work but noted that student involvement is key to that success.

“[At] the end of the day, we are still students and we are less experienced. But we also know a different perspective than what the administrators have, so being able to capitalize on all those pieces will make whatever happens in 2019 really successful,” Jeter said.

According to Pei, the new program model wouldn’t eliminate student leadership opportunities— they would just fall under the umbrella of a department.

“We want to continue to have really robust leadership opportunities for [upperclassmen] because we know that that peer-on-peer connection is really important,” Pei said. “It just might look a little bit different from the way that they are operating now, from a student leadership model.”

Heusted believes that the student involvement in Bear Beginnings would be more relaxed than it is under the current, tightly packed pre-orientation program schedule.

“I think that not only through the small group experiences, but throughout Bear Beginnings as a nine-day program—it’s going to relax some of those opportunities so that people can really explore rather than have a whole bunch of information dumped in their lap,” Heusted said. ”I think it allows students to get to know things by experience rather than just information sharing.”

Further specific details to the reconstruction of Bear Beginnings are to be hashed out in a steering committee meeting this fall. In addition, the steering committee will work to determine if the Summer Orientation Advising Registration (SOAR) program will continue after the summer of 2018. About 55 percent of incoming first-years currently participate in SOAR, but it is not easily available to international students.

Heusted is excited for the upcoming planning sessions and is counting on input from everyone at the University to make the new initiative a success.

“I’m really looking forward to developing the definition around this with a large collection of input from all of the folks involved,” Heusted said. “I think the fact that we are talking about this over a year in advance is really helpful to make sure we end up with a program that’s going to be successful for everyone.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that 760 and 770 students participated in pre-o programs in 2017 and 2016, respectively, not 660 and 670, as originally stated.