College Discusses Plans to Change Up Orientation
Issue   |   Wed, 02/12/2014 - 01:02

Amherst’s next crop of first-years will experience a newly revamped orientation when they arrive on campus in the fall, Provost Peter Uvin reported earlier this week.

Although plans for the new orientation have yet to be finalized, Uvin said that it will involve reducing the number of long lectures and focusing more on small-group discussions between students. He added that orientation planners also aim to foster more meaningful conversations about diversity, increase focus on academics, help students form lasting friendships and think more about how the College should address orientation party culture.

“I think it had been many years since anybody had taken a fundamental look at the whole thing,” Uvin said. “The people who are in charge of managing it have so much to do that they have no time.”

While orientation has been altered in small ways over the past few years, this year’s changes will be somewhat larger in scale.

The planned changes will incorporate feedback from previous orientations, including the perception among some students that orientation programming incorporates too much time listening to speakers in lecture halls.

“Some students think it is quite boring, that they’re being talked at a lot,” Uvin said.

Some student orientation leaders have echoed this concern, saying that they found it difficult to have meaningful conversations with the first-year students they led.

“Squad leaders were completely exhausted after eight-hour days of training that prepared us to have forced and inauthentic conversations and childish icebreakers,” said Dan Carrizales ’14, one student orientation leader. “I feel like the successful squad leaders were the ones who took orientation into their own hands, creating activities and discussion based on their own experiences at Amherst.”

Uvin said he hopes to remedy this problem and engage more students by creating an event that mimics the style of the popular TED and TEDx conferences, with short talks and videos on a variety of topics usually covered during orientation. Uvin described the event as something “shorter and snazzier” than the speeches from past orientations, incorporating a mix of both “serious and light topics.”

Uvin said he also received feedback from students that this year’s nine-day orientation program felt too long.
“I did indeed try to make it shorter, but unfortunately I seem to be failing to achieve that,” he said. “There are just too many things to do, and I also wanted to leave some free time for students.”

The Orientation Committee has also been discussing how to incorporate dialogues about diversity into the orientation programming.

“I think one of the most important parts of orientation is education on diversity,” said Siraj Sindhu ‘17, a senator and member of the Orientation Committee. He added that he thinks diversity-related issues are especially important to discuss because some students may not have grown up in diverse communities, and “it’s important for people to get acclimated to a culture and community that they might not be used to.”

The details of next year’s diversity program have not yet been worked out, but Uvin said the goal is “to make sure that issues of diversity have the place they deserve without being overly moralizing.”

He also reported that the Orientation Committee would address feedback that past orientations did not contain enough events designed to prepare students for Amherst’s academic culture.

“It is my intention indeed to beef up the academic part of the equation,” Uvin said, though he noted that the focus on academics would not be “crazy overboard.”

A third element of the committee’s plan will involve providing first-years with more opportunities to make close friends during orientation. This year’s orientation already included some efforts to help students form connections with their peers.

Orientation “squads” are now designed so that all the first-years in a squad will also be in the same First-Year Seminar. The change aims to help first-years make new friends by encouraging them to form close connections with their classmates for the upcoming semester.

Uvin said he hopes that the events added to next year’s orientation will do even more to create “deep friendships.”

“It’s hard to start learning when you don’t necessarily feel at home yet, and having some friends will help you with that,” he said.

The Orientation Committee will also have to consider how they plan to address drinking culture. This year’s orientation leaders had to sign a contract pledging that they would not use alcohol or drugs during orientation week, a policy that was controversial among some students.

“I don’t think freshmen drink because they come into college and discover alcohol,” student orientation leader Shruthi Badri '16 said. “They come in knowing about it anyway. So making orientation relatively alcohol free is not going to prevent it. I think orientation should be a time for education — instead of demonizing alcohol, showing it should be consumed in a healthy way.”

Opinion was divided among orientation leaders about the new policy, however.

“There were good efforts to provide entertaining activities for first-years,” said Marissa Fierro ’16, a Community Engagement Orientation Trip leader. She attributed these efforts to the College’s attempts to restrict alcohol usage.

Uvin said that he sees good reasons to keep the alcohol policy in place, but added that he hasn’t given the matter “enormous amounts of thought yet.”

“I do like the idea that the very first week on campus, the very first introduction to the college, is not dominated by an alcohol culture,” Uvin said. “Maybe this is naïve, but just for a few days I would like new students to be in an environment where fun, friendship and learning can take place in an environment that is free of the dominance of the alcohol culture on campus.”

Uvin emphasized that most of the changes being discussed are not final. He expects that he and the Orientation Committee will have more concrete plans by the end of the month.

Sophie Chung ’17 contributed reporting.