First Year Center outlines plan for next year’s Bear Beginnings program

| News Editor

In collaboration with a number of other Washington University organizations, the First Year Center has used a feedback-driven approach to redesign the Bear Beginnings program for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Photo by Curran Neenan

This year’s Bear Beginnings program adopted a revamped nine-day schedule, which integrated SOAR and the various pre-orientation programs into a single program overseen by the First Year Center.

First Year Center Director Katharine Pei characterized the new program as a success, but emphasized the importance of using student feedback to continue to improve the program.

“The day after Bear Beginnings ends, we start planning for the next year,” Pei said. “So we get evaluations from students, we get evaluations from families, we do feedback sessions with every department that hosts something during Bear Beginnings…so we gather all of that information and then look to adjust or enhance the schedule based on that feedback.”

According to Pei, the most successful element of this year’s program was the sense of belonging that was cultivated among the freshmen.

“All of our assessment data shows [that] students felt a really strong sense of belonging,” Pei said. “They felt a connectedness to campus. They all said that they were able to connect with fellow students, whether those were peers or upperclassmen and faculty and staff.”

Sophomore Ryan Chung, a Bear Leader for the Engage STL immersive experience, agreed with Pei’s assessment for his own orientation group, although he said this was not always the case for other groups.

“[My freshmen] were super energetic and enthusiastic about hanging out with each other,” Chung said. “So that was very fortunate…It was an easy transition for most of them. There were some students that I kind of encouraged to socialize more, because it’s a pretty big shift for most people.”

Chung noticed that students were often much more engaged in activities in which they could actively participate, noting that activities requiring students to be observers were often the least successful type of programming.

“So out of all the activities that we did…the international food festival was what they were most receptive to because it is something that they can actively be a part of and actively do, instead of being bystanders and just kind of watching everything,” Chung said. “Whenever they felt comfortable with doing that, it would really…bolster their experiences.”

Freshman Bryan Coronel, who participated in the “Experience Entrepreneurship STL” immersive experience, agreed with Chung’s assessment, stating that his own immersive experience could have been more engaging.

“Going there [to the Cortex Innovation Community] was pretty useful, but I just felt like they were more like field trips, so it was informational but it didn’t feel like we were actually doing something with it,” Coronel said. “It was more like show[ing], not telling.”

Another area of improvement that students identified in feedback surveys and focus groups was a need for more free time. Pei plans to address this issue by adding more opportunities for unstructured activity.

“People were really tired, so specifically thinking about people needing a less packed schedule, we’ve put more breathing room to the schedule this year, so that looks like we’re starting later every day,” Pei said. “For the academic division days, we don’t start until 10:00 a.m., which is over an hour later than we did last year, so that people could sleep in. So later mornings, there are longer meal times both for lunch and dinner, and more free time in the evenings as well.”

Last year, the University decided to cut its previous pre-orientation program structure, since they could not be easily adopted into the new Bear Beginnings structure.

“One of the challenges that we had with pre-orientation in the past is that some of them were run primarily by student organizations and they would flex from year to year about whether or not there were students to run those programs,” Pei said. “There was nothing wrong with the programs. They just sometimes wouldn’t operate and that was hard to logistically manage.”

Although the FYC has no plans to re-integrate any of these programs back into the new structure, four new immersive experiences will be introduced in next year’s Bear Beginnings and one will be dropped, bringing the total number of IEs to seven. The four new opportunities will include “Outdoor Adventure” managed by the Office of Recreation, “Serve Your City” managed by the Campus Y, “Connect. Belong. Be You” managed by Habif and the Office of Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life and “RISE” managed by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

Looking forward, another logistical challenge is the length of the nine-day orientation program. Pei is committed to having Bear Beginnings start on move-in weekend, meaning that it must start either two days or nine days before the first day of class.

“We’re going to have [either] nine days or two days because we’re committed to having that weekend move-in date because that’s a better system for students and families…[In previous years] classes used to start on a Wednesday, then they started on a Tuesday and then start on a Monday, so we were chopping time off and we [needed to] shove six days worth of content into four days and that was not sustainable either.”

Many students are frustrated with the length of Bear Beginnings, claiming that certain parts of the programming are unnecessary.

“It definitely could’ve been condensed,” Coronel said. “Some things just could have been cut out…There’s definitely like a lot of fluff that you could just probably get rid of.”

However, Pei maintains that the overall structure of Bear Beginnings will likely stay the same in the absence of an impetus from above.

“As far as I know, this is the structure we’ll kind of stick with for the foreseeable future, but we have a new chancellor and we’re getting a new provost and if they have input that they want to see a new Bear Beginnings, that could change,” Pei said.

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