New orientation program garners mixed reviews

On Aug. 28, first years arrived on campus to begin their Colby experience. Not only were they new to the College campus, the students took part in a fresh iteration of the orientation experience. This new spin on orientation featured returning students as Orientation Leaders (OLs), who were in charge of guiding the first years to orientation events through debriefings after important discussions and facilitating connections and friendships. 

In the past, this role was filled by Community Advisors (CAs), and students would often spend the majority of their time with others who lived in their dorms. This new OL program changed that, and every Orientation Group (“O” Group) was comprised of around 25 students from a variety of dorms on campus.

Director of Campus Life Jess Manno, who oversaw this new initiative, explained Campus Life’s inspiration behind the program.

“There were definitely two goals for it,” Manno said. “One of those goals was to give first-year students opportunities to connect with other first years outside of their residence hall and outside of their COOT experiences. The second opportunity, or goal, was to provide an additional leadership opportunity for students on campus. If you weren’t able to be a CA because maybe you didn’t have the amount of time to devote all year long to that type of commitment, or perhaps COOT and the outdoor leadership component isn’t something that folks are interested in, we wanted to be able to have another sort of small term leadership commitment that could get students involved on campus mentoring younger students.”

Alfond Apartments CA Nicole Petherbridge `20 reiterated this point.

“A lot of other schools have Orientation Leader programs, so it wasn’t anything out of the blue that Colby was coming up with, and I think it came from a lot of first fears’ desire to meet people during orientation outside of their dorms,” Petherbridge said in an interview with the Echo.

OL Trina Cubanski `22 said that the program was also designed to foster a positive attitude at the College and give the first years another resource with which to engage.

“The way it was designed, and the topics discussed definitely at least spread the messages of inclusivity and positive, and overall what Colby stands for very well,” Cubanski said in an interview with the Echo. “They did an excellent job with the organization, because obviously that’s it’s very hard to build a program from scratch, but I think that in terms of the way they organized it with various O group meetings and the way they incorporated CAs into discussions, I think was an excellent way to show how both that you have all of these resources[…] the way they differentiated responsibilities was done well in that OLs had their roles, so did COOT leaders, so did CAs, and I think they were incorporated well together,” Cubanski said.

Opinion on campus about whether or not the OL program achieved its goals is divided. 

“I’m not sure that in the orientation sessions, they had the time and freedom to make it a more friendly thing. I know from the orientation sessions I was a part of with the Orientation Leaders, there’s very much an agenda of what events are happening and then what discussions are happening and there wasn’t a lot of time for open-ended bonding things,” Petherbridge said.

However, OL Jacob Reneissen `22 saw the effect of the OL program differently.

“I do think it achieved that goal [of making connections between first years]. I see my [first years] around campus now, and a lot of them still hang out with each other. Also, I think that the other goal was to facilitate group discussions, and the CAs do a lot, so it’s hard to ask them to do the orientating too,” Reneissen said.

Reneissen did also note that the volume of first years in each “O” Group did pose a difficulty.

“I think if there were more Orientation Leaders it would be better. Having a group of 25 kids is hard. I think it becomes a little bit counterintuitive, because you’re trying to get all these kids to be friends with each other, but when you’re in a large group you can kind of isolate yourself. We were with each other for a week, and by the end of the week I think a few of the kids didn’t know each others’ names.” He also acknowledged that it was the program’s first incarnation, and that it would most likely be “rockier” than future iterations.

OL Ellie Nelson `22 was happy with the overall results of the program.

“In terms of getting them out of their dorms, I think that that was really beneficial,” Nelson said. “They’ve been introduced to other people [outside their dorms] that now they’re good friends with.”

Nelson mentioned how she would even have preferred this kind of orientation experience.

“I did the whole CA thing [for my first-year orientation,] but I ended up being super good friends with people from other dorms, and it took me a little while to branch out and find those other people.” Nelson said. “I think [this year’s program] was successful in getting people to know more people across campus.”

Nevertheless, not everyone saw the program as accomplishing its aims, one anonymous CA claimed in a recent interview with the Echo.

“Perhaps superficially it was achieved, but I heard from a lot of people that nobody was super engaged during these orientation groups, so it wasn’t that they were meeting these new people; they were learning their names, but they weren’t actively engaging with these people[…] it wasn’t a relationship that they were forming,” the CA said.

The OL training process was also a topic of contention. On the one hand, Cubanski said she felt well-prepared to fulfill her role.

“I definitely think we were trained very well. We had a lot of training sessions with various people[…] with regards to the topics that we were going to be facilitating discussions about.”

On the other hand, some OLs felt that certain topics where either difficult to directly train proficiency in, or were absent altogether.

“It’s hard to be trained on how to interact with people. There was a bit of being thrown in and finding your way through difficult conversations and getting students who aren’t really involve, or who think it’s dumb, involved,” Reneissen said.

“It was all crammed in such a short period of time, and we spent a lot of that time doing group-building activities.” Nelson said.

She went further, acknowledging that “there were also some really tough questions[…] People were asking about diversity and acceptance, and how the campus is in terms of racial issues and LGTQ+ issues, and I don’t think we got any training for that. We had Lexie [Mucci] come in and talk to us, and they kind of facilitated acknowledging that other people had different experiences and your labels that you might not be aware of and stuff, but it didn’t really help me when my kids were asking questions about the campus,” Nelson said. “When someone was like, ‘are there openly gay guys on campus, are they openly accepting of that?’ There were instances where I was not trying to make it seem more accepting than it was, but I didn’t want to relay false information so I was like I can only relay my personal experience[…] They didn’t explain to us how to handle those situations, or to talk about racial issues.”

There were also questions as to how their instruction compared to a CA’s level of training, as Petherbridge explained.

“I think they did the best with what they had. From what I know their training was mostly in social facilitation, and they definitely did much more than social facilitation. They were handling a lot of conversations about resources, and CAs go through a ten day training process for that kind of thing,” Petherbridge said. “Again, as the College decides what they want the OL role to be, I think they should receive either the same or more training tailored to them.”

One CA, who asked to remain anonymous, was openly concerned over how prepared OLs were to deal with issues they were confronted with.

“It’s pretty safe to say that our training was a bit more extensive than theirs, and considering that they were going to be discussing some of the heaviest, hardest topics that can impact people over the course of the year, I really questioned the amount of training they had in terms of: did they have all the right answers, did they know the right information? I don’t know that their training was sufficient in terms of pure information they were given,” they said. 

These kinds of questions may have helped contribute to an overall tense relationship between OLs and CAs. 

“There was a lot of tension,” one anonymous CA reflected. “For starters, I think the CAs felt like their toes were being stepped on a little bit. We’re here for training two weeks early and we want to be a part of orientation, and it felt like we were being kicked out, so who do we blame but the people kicking us out. It was definitely not a working relationship. There was a large lack of communication, and there was a large lack of working together and being on the same page, and sending the same message[…]In a group conversation Orientation Leaders would say one thing, and we would say another, and there was no reconciliation of those differences.”

Petherbridge categorized the relationship as “disjointed.”

“I think it was very forced in that the CAs were only working with the Orientation Leaders when they were in these discussion groups, and CAs were just placed in them in a way that [didn’t necessarily] have a lot of their first years,” she said.

Beyond mere tension, some CAs felt that they did not have the opportunity to cultivate important relationships with first years.

“We spent a prescribed maybe four hours of them during orientation,” one CA said. “I can already see that we’re a step behind because we didn’t have a clear, established working relationship before going into the school year. Now problems are arising and while these problems are arising we’re trying to figure them out, we’re also establishing a working relationship and establishing the role of the CA. It’s hard to do both at the same time, and it’s frustrating that building a relationship and establishing our role – we weren’t given enough time to do that beforehand or it wasn’t emphasized by every group beforehand.”

Within the OL program itself, there was also an issue of an objectionable, discriminatory word used as a theme and chant for the OL training period. They would often chant around campus “Fruity what? Fruity Colby!” as a means of gaining the group’s attention. 

“Fruity” is a problematic word that has a history of being used as a pejorative for gay men. According to Manno, “[the theme was solidified] in the beginning of July or late June. I will tell you again I had not heard [of] this firsthand,” Manno said, speaking about the homophobic overtones attached to the word.

“I am sorry that that offended people one-hundred percent,” Manno said, adding, “had I known about it sooner, absolutely I would have sat down with folks and talked about it[…] Moving forward I would want to make sure that we’re being extra careful to look at what are themes we would be using,” Manno said.

Students admitted some surprise that such a thing could slip past the radar of administrators and coordinators.

“It just was not very thought about,” Nelson said. “I don’t even know if they realize the implications. The first time I heard it, I was like ‘that sounds not great,’ and they didn’t even seem to realize that, and that was kind of ridiculous to me. ‘Fruity Colby’ just sounds weird, did they not notice that this sounds not quite right? I think that they should not have picked a slogan or chant that had the chance to be problematic or controversial.”

Another OL, who asked to remain anonymous, noted: “They had a year to plan this and think about a chant, and what they settled on was something that could potentially be problematic[…] We were screaming it all over campus, and we don’t know how people might’ve interpreted that.”

According to one anonymous CA, “somebody may have mentioned that that was not a great term[…] It seems like maybe we could’ve thought through the theme a little better.”

Nevertheless, many have high hopes for the future of the program.

“We’re still in the process of getting that feedback from both [OLs] and we usually let a little bit of time sit before we go back and ask students,” Kaplan said. “Our goal is definitely to have smaller groups for more intimate conversations. This year we had 44 Orientation Leaders and next year we hope to have 60. So, the program is still ongoing, we’re also going to have applications done the same time as COOT and CA applications so it’s going to become another student-leader application.”

Petherbridge expressed that she felt the OL program could be refined for next year.

“I think that Orientation Leaders, that program, does have a place on this campus,” she said. “I think CAs leading orientation is really great for CAs to bond with their residents and vice versa, but I’ve also been a single CA of a Hillside dorm where you have forty something first years to one of you[…] I think there is a balance to be achieved that OLs can help foster in that role.” 

First years who participated in the program this year also indicated an overall positive experience.

“My orientation experience was very good, but I do believe I would like to spend more time with my [CAs], and get to know more people outside of just “O” groups and COOT groups,” said Sabria Merrifield `23.

“I really liked [orientation]. It was so many long presentations after presentations, but I met a lot of nice people,” said Ashley Shegog `23. “I think if you hang out with your dorm people all of orientation, then you’re only ever going to know your dorm people[…] Two of my best friends are in my ‘O’ Group.”