In An Era of Virtual Orientations, First-Years Underscore the Value of In-Person Programming

Plans for a traditional first-year orientation have been uprooted as the coronavirus pandemic continues to run rampant across the country, moving primarily to online platforms. Yet, even as the college has incrementally notified first-years about its tentative orientation programming, some have expressed a need for an in-person orientation, writing letters to administrators to convey such enthusiasm for one.

In past years, first-year orientation composed of multiple in-person small group activities with a “squad,” lectures about resources at the college and a weekend-long “Learn, Explore, Activate and Participate” (LEAP) program in which students engage in topic-specific trips, some on campus and others in the larger area. Though the college announced on July 1 that it would invite first-years to live on-campus for the fall semester, it had already decided in June to cancel LEAP trips and began transitioning orientation programming online.

According to an FAQ page on the college’s orientation website, “orientation begins online in Moodle and ACData. When you arrive on campus, your day will start with moving into your room. There will be multiple activities in the morning for families. The first mandatory meeting of the day will be the President’s Welcome Reception.”

 A separate FAQ released following the college’s fall planning announcement notes that the college plans to create a shortened orientation program, one that will be available to students both on and off campus. Specific dates for the program have not yet been set, and no further details have been publicly published online about what exactly this re-imagined orientation will look like. 

“We do not anticipate losing any educational content as we transition to the NSO [New Student Orientation] Moodle course, and are of course still planning for some fun,” said Marie Lalor, director of new student programs in an email interview.  

Some first-years found the information initially available about the status of orientation unsatisfactory, especially as some students began to notice that information about orientations of years prior have been removed from the college website. “We weren’t really feeling like we were getting a lot of concrete communication,” said Will Marshall ’24. Marshall, along with other first-year students, drafted and circulated a petition sent to Dean of New Students Rick Lopez and Lalor urging the college to keep an in-person LEAP program in the orientation schedule, noting that outdoor trips like those previously held could be compliant under CDC guidelines. 

“We believe that if the college has deemed it safe enough for us to return to campus, then it should also be able to utilize that return as a way to create an equitable, in-person orientation, where every student can be focused on being the best version of themselves, without worrying about an essential job, internet access, device access or any of the dozens of other complicating factors to an online orientation,” the letter reads. Nearly 90 first-year students signed onto the letter, which had been circulated via the class of 2024 Facebook group, group chat and ZeeMee, an app the college had configured for admitted students in the spring.

“We wanted to be advocates for ourselves to try and say, ‘look, we know the college is doing a lot of planning, and they got a lot of things that they’re dealing with,’ so we wanted to try to envision how we can keep a program that I think everybody wanted,” Marshall said.

Marshall added that in beginning to research and  draft the letter, students had noticed that information about previous years’ orientations had been removed from the college’s website though it had been there before. “I remember seeing kayaking and canoeing in the Connecticut River, hiking up mountains in New Hampshire, all these different fun things,” he said. “I remember going back while we were looking to draft this letter to see if I could find it again, because it’d be interesting to be able to incorporate some of what’s in what’s been done in the past into our plan. And we couldn’t find it, though it’s possible that it’s still there and that we just missed it.” 

The letter did not fail to draw upon this fact either. “While all mention of the program has been scraped from this year’s website, this experience was something that many of us were no doubt looking forward to, having heard about it from family, friends, alumni and through our own research,” the letter said. “While we acknowledge the uncertainties and difficulties presented by SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, we strongly believe that LEAP and other corresponding first-year orientation programming can still happen, as outlined in this document.”

In reimagining what an in-person LEAP program would look like, the letter suggested that the college create “family units” so that program participants exist in small, tight-knit groups; testing students and quarantining them prior to the trip; and re-testing them following the trip. 

A virtual orientation would also be “limiting,” the letter noted, referencing Soliya, an online program the college adopted to host “first year connect groups.” “It almost felt like online dating,” Marshall said, noting that first-years were told to start building their online profiles last month. According to the college’s orientation website, first year connect groups will take place between July 20 and August 14. 

In its criticisms of Soliya and virtual orientations at large, the letter also addressed concerns about equity and the different environments students may be participating in orientation from. 

“Coronavirus is affecting communities of color and poor communities disproportionately compared to affluent, mostly white communities. So we are trying to weigh that because we didn’t want to downplay the risk,” Marshall said. “But we felt after we did some research that in-person orientation programs provide the most help to people who are first-generation college students … Orientation can kind of serve as a playing field leveler, and put everyone in the same spot or closer to the same spot.”

On a more benign level, others have shared concerns on the effectiveness of an online orientation program. For Ankit Sayed ’24, online platforms have not yielded the most participation. 

“I’m very worried that students will brush off orientation as just another Zoom call to keep isolation at bay,” Sayed said in an email interview. “The Class of ’24 has been having some virtual meetups, on Zoom, Discord and Minecraft, and while they’re certainly good at getting people to know each other over time, not many students participate. Only about half the class joined our main Telegram chat, and fewer than half of them are very active.”

Marshall echoed similar sentiments. “It’s easier to do classes asynchronously. You know, record a lecture posted, professors are available by email or Skype or whatever. But an orientation that relies on, you know, face to face live interaction can be really challenging for people who are coming from all over the world,” he said. Lalor noted that moving orientation to an exclusively asynchronous platform “ensures the greatest level of access and flexibility for students.” Some programming may be synchronous, but will be recorded for students’ viewing at a later time.

Marshall sent the signed letter to Lopez and Lalor on June 17. “I agree with your arguments regarding the virtues and benefits of in person orientation. But there are also a lot of challenges. We are continuing to look at the options and will try our best to do what we can,” Lopez responded to him in an email. 

Lalor told Marshall in an email response that the college had decided to cancel LEAP trips, citing that “there are simply too many unknowns about the fall to deliver this large and intricate of a program right now.” If conditions permit, LEAP programs may take place at a later date, she added. 

Students who were previously offered positions as LEAP leaders in the spring have been told that they will still be able to work with orientation if they choose, Lalor said in the email interview with The Student. There may be some orientation team members working on campus, and others remotely. “The details of the structure and responsibilities of the Orientation Team are still coming into focus, but the foundation of facilitating small group conversations about what it means to be an Amherst student, and how to navigate the resources available will not change,” she said.  

In the meantime, first-years are beginning to work under the orientation conditions set in place. “I obviously wanted to get to know my peers from the get-go, and outdoor activities promised both fun and a chance to mitigate the spread of the virus. However, I definitely understand where the college is coming from. Safety should always be the [number one] priority,” Sayed said. 

According to Lalor, much of the planning for orientation has been based off of student feedback solicited through surveys that the college released. Though disappointed, Sayed hopes that the college more creatively engages students in the online orientation program. 

“Creativity both gives the incoming students more effective orientation experiences and reassures students that the college is looking out for them,” he said.