By MacKenzie Brady
The first-year orientation program, Orientation Explore!, will be conducted differently in fall 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Each fall, first-year students attend a college-wide orientation program and participate in an Orientation Explore! program of their choosing.
In previous years, students chose their Explore! program over the summer and participated in different excursions throughout their first week on campus.
This past fall, the orientation program was held virtually, and the Explore! component was not possible.
According to Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Candace Wannamaker, in fall 2021, first-year students will participate in “an online orientation program that will help them become more familiar with the College” in May, and peer mentors will reach out to their first-year mentees over the summer.
Peer Mentor Leader junior Erin Jesionowski said that she thinks peer mentors may need to be more hands-on this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on incoming first-year students.
“We’re already very hands-on as it is…but, you know, I think we’re going to have to do a lot more of a welcoming and a training, almost, for these kids who may have been feeling a lot more isolated or there might be a lot more mental health issues coming out of this, and being really cognizant of all of the factors that these students have experienced in the past year and a half,” she said. “We’re their first experience as a college student and I think we know that.”
On Aug. 23, first-year students will move into their dorms, and an in-person orientation will begin that afternoon, according to Wannamaker.
“We are planning for an in-person orientation for new students, but we will also plan for an alternative version if we cannot be in person,” Wannamaker said.
Meeting locations for orientation events will be “de-densified” with activities planned for outside as well.
“Washington College has a great outdoor space, so I think we can utilize that too,” Jesionowski said.
Following a week of orientation programming — which will include discussions led by staff and guest speakers about diversity and inclusivity, Title IX, and managing independence on a college campus; and entertainers, among other things — there will be a first-year carnival at Wilmer Park on Friday, Aug. 27. Students will sign up for their Explore! program during the carnival.
This means that unlike in years past, first-year students will not get to know the College, Chestertown, and surrounding areas through excursions during their first week on campus. Instead, their first week will be focused on orientation programming and the Explore! aspects will occur throughout the semester.
“Explore! will happen throughout the first semester so that we have the opportunity to create smaller group activities and provide more opportunities for the students,” Wannamaker said. “This was an intentional decision so that we can focus on the orientation programming and not exhaust the students during their first week on campus.”
There are 25 Explore! programs planned for the fall, which include half-day, full-day, and overnight excursions planned on weekends and other times students are not in class, according to Wannamaker.
According to Interim Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator Greg Krikorian, when students choose their Explore! program at the carnival, they will be able to see which dates and times the programs will be taking place and plan their schedules accordingly.
“What we’re trying to do is make it a more flexible experience, because of COVID[-19],” Krikorian said. “We still believe that the impact Explore! has is a really great one…and so the way we’re trying to incorporate that a bit is to give facilitators of Explore! more time to do it. So rather than do it immediately, we are encouraging them to think about expanding and extending it throughout the semester.”
Not only does extending the length of Explore! programs give facilitators more time to complete them, but it also puts less of a strain on WC’s transportation systems. Rather than potentially straining these systems by having all students attend an excursion at once, having them spread throughout the semester will more easily allow for the adherence to COVID protocols.
Krikorian said another important factor of the orientation programming is to provide a common experience for all first-year students, which will be the carnival. He also said the Day of Service in the Chestertown community will continue in order to show students they are a part of something bigger than just the College community.
“Our peer mentors are a really important group…Mentoring by upperclassmen we know is one of the most valuable assets we can provide our new students,” Krikorian said.
Not only do peer mentors guide first-year students, but the peer mentor groups will also help students make connections and meet one another, both within their group and as combined groups throughout orientation week.
“The order has changed, but the opportunities don’t,” Krikorian said regarding opportunities for students to meet one another and make new connections.
While Orientation Explore! focuses on first-year students, Krikorian recognized that many rising sophomores will be coming to campus for the first time in the fall of 2021. While those students will not be invited to participate in Explore!, there are plans to connect those students.
Krikorian said there are plans to get current freshmen who are on campus together for an event on May 7. He recognized the need for those sorts of programs to continue next year, but there are no solid plans currently.
Despite not having solid plans for rising sophomores to get acquainted with campus in the fall, Jesionowski hopes that peer mentors will continue to reach out to those students, and that students will reach out when they need help, moving from being a mentor to just a peer and friends.
“I’m really surprised and really happy for how well my first-year mentees this year have thrived,” she said. “I really do want to stay in their lives and connect with them. I think it might be difficult for them going back into their in-person class regimen.”
Despite wanting to continue to keep up, Jesionowski recognizes that not everyone needs that additional help, and that that is okay too.