On Monday, Jan. 20 and Tuesday, Jan. 21, the Vassar College First Year Program hosted an event called “Spring Orientation: Unpacking Vassar.” The event was created for first-year students but was carried out by Residential Life and house teams. According the college’s website, the themes of the program included privilege, identity and belonging.
Assistant Director of Residential Life and First Year Programs, Diane Eshelman, spoke to the demand the school had for a new program like this. In an e-mailed statement, he wrote, “Unpacking Vassar, which is taking place of Act as Activism, was born out of the need to continue conversations that begin, for first-year students, during New Student Orientation in August.”
She continued, “Looking at the feedback from Orientation from the past couple of years, students enjoyed programs that discussed issues of social justice, such as “I Am Vassar” (a program presented by Campus Life). Taking all of this feedback, the First Year Spring Orientation planning committee (which consisted of myself, Ed Pittman, Judy Jarvis, Luz Burgos-Lopez from Campus Life, Kiese Laymon, Associate Professor of English, Luis Inoa from Residential Life, and Julia Tavares ’15) created five goals for Spring Orientation.”
Those five goals included offering a space for students to reflect on their first semester at Vassar, offering a space to continue the discussion about privilege at Vassar, and allowing students to interact with other members of the Vassar community including faculty and administration.
The program included several talks and performances by members of the Vassar administration and outside speakers including J. Mase, a trans/queer poet/educator based in Brooklyn and working with community members on the needs of LGBTQ youth and adults and Jay Smooth, the founder of New York City’s longest-running hip hop radio program, WBAI’s Underground Railroad. These two speakers presented on their experience issues relating to race, gender, and other identifiers.
The Spring Orientation program was met with mixed success. Though some felt the program was successful in bringing together the Vassar first-year community and cultivating a more socially conscious environment, others disagreed. Associate Dean of the College Ed Pittman said, “We were successful in putting together a program and agenda that fostered conversations around social justice, community and identity. We also brought together first-year and returning students for the conversations we believe are important for building the inclusive campus environments we desire.”
Others felt the program was disorganized and unsuccessful. Student Fellow Maddie Shafer ’16, who helped with the execution of the program, thought many of the activities didn’t serve the purposes for which they were intended. Spring Orientation wasn’t mandatory and many prevented it from achieving its goals.
Schafer said, “Student fellows weren’t supplied with schedules for their day of training until less than a week beforehand and then didn’t receive any real training. We talked briefly about how to facilitate a discussion based on the ‘Power Flower,’ an activity which came with written instructions. They were only given the schedule for what their fellowees were doing during ‘training’—so after some of the events had already happened and less than 24 hours before they were supposed to be leading activities.”
She continued, “No one showed up for any of the house-specific activities. You can’t ask people about a program that they didn’t participate in. Also, I know some freshmen and house team members found it frustrating that they had been pressured into coming back to campus early and then given nothing of worth to do,” she said.
Pittman picked up on these challenges. He said, “Though numbers and attendance are not the final determinants for program success, we obviously want more first year students to participate in Spring Orientation. On a campus such as Vassar we did expect more students to participate and will explore more effective ways to make this happen next year, including the possibility of ‘requiring’ first year students to participate.”
Despite the organizational challenges of Spring Orientation, the program still worked towards a goal that many in the administration thought was beneficial. Eshelman spoke to the ways in which the orientation was an attempt to deal with some of the social justice issues that the College encountered last semester.
Eshelman compared this program to other college’s offerings, stating, “Many other institutions have some type of orientation type of event in the beginning of the spring semester, but I am not sure that they specifically focus on conversation around social justice. In developing the program, we tried to create something unique to Vassar’s culture and commitments to being inclusive while acknowledging that we all have to work harder to build community.
Ultimately, though the program sought to address real problems and concerns at Vassar, there was a strong sense that these concerns could have been better addressed in other ways. One student fellow, Sarah Gittins ’16, found the goals commendable on the part of the administration but that the program itself could have been much more effective.
“I don’t know how successful Spring Orientation was for the freshmen that participated. From a Student Fellow’s perspective, whose freshmen did not show up to the activities, I do not think Spring Orientation was successful,” she concluded.