arrive with questions, get answers
> As the Class of 2004
descended on the quads, the College Programming Office was ready
and waiting, with (as always) a new and improved Orientation.
I move in early?" "How long are extra long sheets?" "Can I bring
my iguana?" These are just a few of the questions incoming first-years
ask the College Programming Office. The office runs New Student
Orientation-which took place this year from Saturday, September
16, to Sunday, September 24. Although Orientation has undergone
a number of changes in recent years, from nominal to substantial,
the primary goal is the same: orienting new undergraduates to
In 1995, Orientation (which began in 1934) experienced one
of its first present-day changes: the "week" got longer. "There
were too many things, in terms of departmental meetings, in
terms of campus resources to showcase, if every one got its
own half-hour or hour time slot," explains director of College
Johnson, AB'98. In order for every group to have
an opportunity to reach new students, Orientation was expanded
from nine to twelve days. With more time, the program got a
shorter name-Orientation Week became Orientation. Last year,
however, the Orientation team, then headed by Rebecca
Snyder, AB'91, AM'96, decided Orientation could be
improved once again.
The 12-day schedule was a drain on resources, and attendance
at informational meetings was low-in part, it was argued, because
the events were spread out around campus. So Orientation returned
to a nine-day, but more focused schedule. Combining groups of
meetings at a single location, Orientation now features fairs
such as Learning Beyond the Classroom, outlining study abroad
and community service options; the Divisional Meeting Fair,
which lets students obtain information about the College's 49
concentrations; and the Resources Fair, which highlights Career
and Placement Services, student counseling and skills assessments,
health and wellness information, and other University resources.
One major advantage of the 12-day Orientation was that it allowed
time for both the required placement tests and breathing room.
As the schedule was cut back, the number of academic placement
tests was also reduced, from 4-5 to just one, in math. The math
test-pre-calculus or calculus-does double duty, also letting
students and their advisers assess what level of science would
be best. One other required test remains: all students take
the physical-education placement test, made up of swimming,
fitness, and strength trials.
While no one can take their tests for them, students do not
go through New Student Orientation alone. A corps of 250 upper-year
students is on hand, including nearly 100 general O-Aides who
are responsible for answering questions or directing them to
someone who can, and setting up and taking down welcoming events
and socials. Another 150 house O-Aides help students orient
themselves to their new home in the residence halls. "My 'official'
duties consist mostly of decorating the dorm and helping the
first-years move in, plus sponsoring house activities," says
house O-Aide Brian Richardson, '01.
The job also includes things that aren't spelled out neatly
in a job description, Richardson continues: "Really, what being
a house O-Aide means is being there for the new students-listen
to them, offer resources, hang out with them, talk with them.
It's a whole new life for the students, and it's important for
them to know that they already have a friend waiting. That's
what a house O-Aide is all about, just being that friend." Helping
first-years adjust to U of C academic life are program assistants
(PAs), third- or fourth-year students assigned to a group of
18-20 first-years who share the same College adviser. The PAs
accompany their charges to Chicago Life meetings where students
get a chance to talk about topics such as safety and sexual
harassment as well as academic topics. The PAs have another
important responsibility-helping first-years register for classes-which
some PAs, including Rachel Knipe, '01, consider their most important
job: "Registering for classes is not easy and requires a lot
of creativity and flexibility," Knipe says, "especially as classes
start closing [accepting no more students] during registration
The job comes with some material perks. Lead assistants are
paid $1000 and program assistants are paid $500. All O-Aides
receive room and board, T-shirts, and freebie packages. They
also get perks that don't have a monetary value. For many, it's
the people they meet. "I met so many awesome people in my Chicago
Life meetings and during training that I would feel like I were
missing out if I didn't become an O-Aide again," says Christopher
Romer, '02, who's back for his second year
as a program assistant. Other volunteers want to share their
wisdom: "Once you go through the whole experience," confides
Knipe, "you wonder what it was you were ever nervous about,
and I wanted to help shorten that nervous period and lengthen
the confident period."
To help build social confidence, Orientation offers new students
activities, both within their house and within their class.
Two traditions, one sponsored by the Alumni Association, encourage
class identity. The opening convocation is followed by the class
picture. Another addition is "Experience Chicago Day," at which
students can participate in community service activities or
explore the city. Other class activities include a movie on
the quads; "Museum Night," where students can tour the Oriental
Institute and the Smart Museum; and U of C Night at the Museum
of Science and Industry.
Throughout Orientation, there is an emphasis on meeting the
students in one's house. Students usually have their first house
meeting the evening of move-in day. Houses make excursions into
the city, often with very specific destinations. This fall,
Tufts House in Pierce Tower planned a trip downtown, via train,
to Gino's East, which, according to Resident Head Irene Logsdon-Owens,
"is a Tufts House must." Other house activities include trips
to the Hancock Observatory and local festivals.
While a number of activities are residence-house based, commuter
students are not forgotten. Although they may live all over
the city and suburbs, commuter students are considered a house,
and during Orientation, they move into Snell-Hitchcock and,
assigned their own O-Aides, participate in all the activities
offered to residential students.
By Orientation's end, says Heather Johnson, she and the rest
of the College Programming Office (assistant directors Amanda
Geppert, AB'95, and
Janet Isabelli, AB'99) will start planning for Orientation
again. Anyone who has a hand in creating the program-including
O-Aides, faculty, and staff-is asked to complete an evaluation.
At the end of Orientation, first-years are asked to complete
an on-line survey; later in the year, new students are randomly
selected to participate, along with staff and O-Aides, in an
Orientation focus group, as another way to fine-tune the programming.
No matter how well Orientation is planned, however, students
will still have questions. And the College Programming Office
and O-Aides will have the answers: only Jewish students observing
the Sabbath can move in early; extra-long sheets are 80 inches
in length, and needed for dormitory beds; and pets are not allowed
in dorms, unless they can pass the "five minutes underwater