New Orientation Prepares Incoming FGWC Students

Andy Monserud

Whitman held a special orientation for first-generation and working class (FGWC) students on the week of July 11-15.  Thirty-two first-year FGWC students were given a week on campus to take sample classes from Whitman professors and gain an understanding of the on-campus resources available to students.  

The idea of a special FGWC orientation first came into prominence last year.  The idea had several proponents within FGWC club, and concrete action toward creating the event began after a series of meetings between club members, administrators, and trustee Brad McMurchie.  

“There was a greater motivation to pursue it after the article that came out last fall,” said FGWC club advisor and Associate Professor of Chemistry Allison Calhoun, referring to a New York Times economic diversity ranking published last September that placed Whitman at the bottom of their list of top colleges. “[The article] brought to the forefront the impact [economic inequality] had on students on campus overall.”  

The administration took care to include FGWC students in the process of planning the event.

“It began with [Associate Dean of Students] Juli Dunn and I interviewing some junior and senior FGWC students in December, and talking to them about what they’d like to see: ideas we had, ideas they had,” said Director of Orientation Barbara Maxwell.  “And then we came back in January, and we did three additional focus groups of first-year first-generation students, to see if first-year students had a different opinion on what they would have liked to have seen as compared to the juniors and seniors.”  

Incoming FGCW Freshmen

Maxwell and Dunn drafted a schedule, which they asked Miriam Zuniga, then the president of FGWC club, to show to the group for suggestions.  After a few tweaks, including the addition of a library tour and a mock Encounters-like class, the program was submitted to the Trustees for funding approval at their May meeting.  

Maxwell and Dunn made a point of avoiding overlap between the special orientation and the larger first-year orientation, in order to maintain the excitement around orientation.  The July dates were chosen in order to avoid interfering with Scrambles, SCORES, and fall athletics.

“It became really clear to us that if we did an orientation right before the fall orientation, we’d take those experiences away from them,” said Maxwell.  “It was the only thing we could think of that allowed us to do what we wanted to do and still give them the opportunity to come back and participate in the same kinds of things that other students were participating in.”  

Director of Student Success and Disability Support Services Rebecca Frost has begun research on the program, using exit surveys and following up with participants in order to appraise the efficacy of the orientation. In the meantime, several participants seem optimistic about the orientation’s effects.  

“At the time it was really long and exhausting, going to every single building and meeting all of the faculty and all of the resource departments,” said first-year Daphne Gallegos, a participant. “But now, actually being here, I feel like I have a little bit of a leg up from the rest of my friends that didn’t partake in the orientation because I’m already familiar with a lot of the resources on campus, and I know who to go to for whatever I need.  I know…where the offices are, and I’m really hyper-aware of the fact that there’s a lot of support here.”  

First-year Donovan Olsen also took part in the orientation, and particularly enjoyed the informal introduction to Whitman’s FGWC community which it provided.  

“All of the structured things that we did were really helpful, but then there were all these times when it was a bunch of people hanging out, and just talking and getting to know each other,” Olsen said. “I think that was my favorite part, was getting to meet people who I had a lot of things in common with.”  

While complaints were few, the schedule was densely packed, and long weekend hours raised some issues.  Maxwell and Calhoun hope to see this change with any future iterations of the orientation.  

“With so much going on, I think the students were exhausted, I think the student leaders were exhausted, and certainly everyone who was involved in the programming was exhausted,” Calhoun said.  “I think an extra day would give a little bit more flexibility to experience… being on campus without always [having] something to do.”  

Junior Anna Zheng was one of several students, mostly FGWC, who helped facilitate the orientation. Zheng hopes that some of the new students she worked with will take up that mantle in the future. She and other organizers expressed their desire to see the program become a permanent fixture.  

“I think that the orientation itself was such a good step,” Zheng said.  “I remember being a first-generation freshman and being like ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’  So just seeing that happen within the few months that it took to plan was really nice.”