Looking Back at Orientation Week's Past
The second to last week of August 2018 saw blazing red skies as the setting sun's rays fought through thick clouds of wildfire smoke. First-years starting this year at Reed will likely remember these smoldering hot days for the rest of their lives as Orientation Week 2018. O-Week is memorable for most matriculated students here, if not fondly, then at least as a chaotic crash course in Reed culture. Orientation Week has changed greatly throughout Reed’s history, with the biggest and most recent change being the switch from House Advisors working as staff during Orientation to the hiring of an entire Orientation Team to develop and lead events. Lauren, Grail writer and Orientation 2018 Team Member, caught up with Hayfa Anchour, one half of the dynamic duo of amazing Orientation Coordinators, to discuss these and other new changes, and also to uncover both the distant and more recent past of Reed Orientation along the way.
Orientation Coordinators Hayfa Anchour and Isabel Velez are both seniors and political science majors; yet despite being the same year and major, they only actually met through working on Orientation 2018 together. Hayfa explains to me that this inspired one of her goals for Orientation, which was to work towards defying cliques and uniting Reed students early on to give first-years the advantage of forming relationships with many new and different people. The theme this year stressed that first-year students were not alone, or in a punnier way, “owl-lone,” because everyone around them is as weird or passionate or different as they are. It was important to the Orientation Coordinators and Team to guide an inclusive community early on: one not divided by discourse but rather united by difference. However, this approach of trying to create an educational but fun introduction to our college was unfamiliar to early Reedies.
The beginning of the orientations of yester-year starts in 1917, with the implementation of a course for credit called “College Problems,” which consisted of lectures throughout the year about many compelling (read: not compelling) topics, such as studying, college loyalty and democracy, and productive scholarship. This lecture-style continued through the 1930’s, and although some of the arguably boring topics on the schedule still exist today, the incoming classes of the ‘30s and ‘40s looked forward to even drier topics such as “The History of Universities” and addresses by trustees about the particulars of Reed’s endowment. Orientation as we know it appears to have been born from a switch from this lecture approach to a student-led conference mode in the late ‘50s. Returning students working as Orientation Conference Leaders would be assigned 8-10 students to discuss topics like the Honor Principle, faculty and classroom relationships, the Reed Philosophy, and life on and off-campus. There were advantages to this, in that it was likely more engaging than hours of lectures, and helped new students to form relationships with upperclassmen, but variances in training, enthusiasm, and preparation made some conference leaders better than others. Professors remarked on conference leaders’ performance with wild inconsistency; some commented that conference leaders were well spoken and prepared, while other professors simply wrote in response to the student's performance: “poor. The “O-group” was based mainly around volunteers, up until as late as 1995, where students could lead casual hang-out groups off and on campus, with the plea from school administrators (often written to students in all caps) not to do anything illegal. These unstructured groups were eventually replaced by volunteer and paid Orientation Assistant positions, who had duties that were much more defined and departed from the conference and hang-out style of the ‘60s to ‘90s.
The most valuable change to Orientation in the late 1990s and 2000’s was the addition of lectures and events specifically centered around student life, diversity and inclusion, and sexual assault prevention, components that were severely lacking in the programs of years past. These changes were hard-won, and their inclusion in the O-Week program was made easier with the creation of organizations that could facilitate these discussions, such as Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR), the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, and International Student Services. In more recent memory, Orientation was led by House Advisors (HAs), who had the responsibility of setting up their dorm communities in addition to leading and working events all throughout the week. HAs are employed and trained by Residence Life, which provided Orientation an already assembled and excited group students to work, saving resources, money, and especially time. As the years passed, however, the difficulties of coordination and the pressure put on HAs during the week, added to the duties they already had during the school year, took a toll on student workers. This and other factors led the Office for Student Engagement to hire a dedicated Orientation Team for 2018.
Orientation Staff went to training both in the spring and immediately before O-Week, and the goal of these trainings and for O-Week in general was to form a strong, passionate team that could help Orientation run smoothly. Many significant things were changed this year: students attending pre-orientations such as the Peer Mentor Program, International Student Orientation, and Students for Education, Empowerment, and Direct Service (SEEDS) could finally go on Outdoor Odysseys; O-Week started a day early, meaning that the schedule was spread out and less suffocating; the long lectures were reduced, and new events were added, including the SEEDS Critical Community Conversations and POC Confidence Lunch Seminar, which hoped to highlight the experiences of incoming students of color.
There were many difficulties of coordinating a brand new rendition of Orientation Week due to the lack of guidance that comes with crafting something brand new and the pressure to do it well. It’s really up to the first-years to judge whether their Orientation was a true success. But along the way of creating this new Orientation, through a few mishaps but largely through many smooth and successfully executed events, the coordinators agreed on how rewarding it was to work with the Team and with each other. All things considered, Orientation Team 2018 was truly dedicated to the idea of setting first-years up for success, and to leading the way for the success of future Orientations.
Cover photo: Students moving into campus, 1969. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.