Students reflect on 2019 Bear Beginnings

Kathleen White & Curran Neenan | News Editors

The class of 2023 had mixed reactions to the new nine-day Bear Beginnings orientation.

The lengthier Bear Beginnings was designed to help first year students build communities earlier. Freshmen students reported that while they enjoyed meeting their classmates, the overstuffed schedules and Immersive Experiences, which diverged from expectations, detracted from the experience.

In addition to new programming, move-in itself was also overhauled this year. Students were assigned time slots to move in at either 9:00 a.m, 11:00 a.m, or 1:00 p.m and were done moving by 3:00 p.m.

“ResLife did an amazing job; it was so smooth,” Director of the First Year Center Katharine Pei said. “Folks had a little bit of gap before the required floor meeting and programming for families.”

According to Pei, Convocation was one of the highlights of Bear Beginnings this year with Chancellor Martin putting his own spin on the tradition.

“When students entered the quad, they were greeted by bagpipes and drummers…[and] they got a commemorative class coin. Chancellor Martin invites the students to give this to someone at the end of their Wash. U. experience who made a mark on their career here,” Pei said. “After they passed through the archway, there was a stage with a band and food and a big celebration. Then the Chancellor and his daughter, Olive, went up on stage and did a…countdown and then they lit Brookings. So all of that was new and different for us.”

For the last three days of orientation, students broke into small groups for their Immersive Experience Programs (IEPs). Students were able to choose from four themes: Arts Under the Arch, Engage STL, Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Make Your Impact.

“Students…were placed in a program based on their preferences. It’s all different and for the most part I think it went really well,” Pei said. “I think we’ve definitely got some lessons learned and we’ll get some feedback from students.”

First year Emma McMillan signed up for Make Your Impact, but didn’t receive much information about the program beforehand, and ended up unsatisfied with the curriculum.

“It was supposed to be leadership but we just did icebreakers for three days,” McMillan said. “I did have fun, though. It was fun to meet new people.”

First year Aishah Al-Mohamedi, another Make Your Impact participant, also had a different experience than she had hoped for.

“I was at Camp Lakewood. I would’ve liked it more if we did more outdoor stuff, except most of the time we were just inside doing four-hour discussions,” Al-Mohamedi said.

Throughout Bear Beginnings, Campus Life put on the Bear CLAW (Campus Life at Wash. U.) series, giving freshmen the opportunity to engage in both large-scale and small-scale programming in the evening.

“They had a hypnotist, Dueling Pianos [and] they had an escape room. Those were really, really popular and there were some smaller opportunities as well. Some of which were really well attended and some weren’t, so I think that’s where we learned a lot…,” Pei said. “Some people want to be in a room with 300 other people watching Dueling Pianos, other people want to go to craft night. So it helped us figure out things that students want, because not everyone wants to be in a giant room, which is one of the real challenges with the old schedule where we could only do things for like 1500 people at a time.”

First year Cole Chavez had hoped for a more laid-back pace to connect with his classmates.

“Nine days of nonstop activities and meetings and lectures, it kind of felt like school started already,” Chavez said. “I was going in with the hope that that time could be used to socialize with other people and to get to know them and to talk about our interests. I thought that the school had made it virtually impossible with the Bear Beginnings schedule for us to really do that in full.”

Chavez thought the nine days was a good length for the orientation.

“I think it allows for us to get acclimated to the St. Louis area, acclimated to the school, just overall prepared for the school season and to blow off some steam,” Chavez said. “I think the day length isn’t the issue, I think just having everything from 8:00 [a.m.] to 6:00 p.m. and later is just way too much.”

First year Lauren Renna participated in Engage STL and echoed the sentiment of the days being too long, but still enjoyed the schedule.

“We got to go to the Arch, we went to an international culture fair and tried a bunch of different foods,” Renna said. “The days were really long though they were from like 8 [a.m.] to 9 [p.m.] and everyone was kind of dead by the end.”

Building Experiences and Relationships (BEAR) leader junior Sydney Hornitschek said that the first-year students were “burnt out and exhausted” heading into the IEPs and it affected their experiences.

“Due to the constant programming from early morning to late at night, they were given very little time to shop for necessities, prepare for classes or even get sufficient sleep. This was evident in their attitudes towards the Immersive Experience Programs,” Hornitschek wrote in a statement to Student Life. “I think the program could be improved by shortening the days, putting the IEPs on the front end of Bear Beginnings (like Pre-O used to be) and omitting some of the less fun/important events they required.”

Hornitschek said that students’ attitudes coming into the program mirrored how they felt about it afterwards.

“If the students had a lot of energy and came in with a positive, open mindset, they got a lot more out of the experience and enjoyed the activities in spite of some of the flaws,” Hornitschek wrote. “If they were negative and didn’t actively participate, they suffered and left disappointed. Especially since a lot of students were not placed in their first choice (or a program they were interested in at all), they were bitter about their placement and consequently disengaged. It was admittedly sad how many students said they were left with a bad impression of the University, but a good number of them still walked away with new friendships and an appreciation for the BEAR Leaders.”

The First Year Center will send evaluations for students to fill out at the beginning of next week. According to Pei, student feedback is one of the most important parts in shaping their programming.

“We use that feedback to drive everything. It’s how we came to the model we have now, because students were saying four days wasn’t enough — that everything felt very rushed, that they didn’t have a chance to get to know a lot of people,” Pei said. “We had great evaluations from some of our pre-orientation programs that let us know we should give small group experiences to everyone which is how we came to immersive experiences.”

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