Every year, the new first-year class is introduced to the Brandeis community through a number of Orientation programs and activities. “Designed by students for students,” Orientation typically takes place over the few days before the first day of class and includes a number of traditional events like “This is Our House” and the “Light of Reason.” Given the coronavirus pandemic, planning and conducting Orientation for the Class of 2024 looked drastically different. The Justice spoke to Jenny Abdou, Director of New Student Orientation; Scott Berozi, Associate Director of Community Living and Orientation; and Skye Liu ’23, a 2020 Orientation Leader, to discuss the challenges and upsides of preparing for and hosting a virtual Orientation. The Justice also talked to Ethan Kerstine, a member of the Class of 2024, about his personal experience with the program.

Planning for a 14-week long Orientation 

In an email sent to the Justice on Sept. 4, Abdou and Berozi explained that the decision to move Orientation to an online format was made in May when they “realized that an in-person Orientation was not going to be possible in the ways we were used to.” Among one of the biggest changes implemented was a longer Orientation schedule spread out over the summer. This meant more volunteering time for OLs who, as Abdou pointed out, had originally applied to volunteer for just two weeks in August and an earlier training session that was held via Zoom early in June. As Liu ’23 explained in a Sept. 1 email to the Justice, the training itself “was very difficult, because in-person interactions are a HUGE part of both OL training and the actual orientation where we get to do fun activities with incoming students.” 

A week after the OL training session, Orientation officially began for the Class of 2024. The first four weeks of the program consisted of a series of 20 minute videos introducing the incoming first-year students to campus resources and departments. Students could watch the videos at their own pace and were debriefed during their Orientation Group meeting the following week. The rest of the summer consisted of group meetings and hang outs led by the OLs. 

In spreading out the events, the planning committee hoped to help “students to feel connected to the Brandeis campus as early as possible … knowing it would be different than any other year,” per Abdou. Kerstine ’24 told the Justice in a Sept. 1 Zoom interview that looking back on it, he enjoyed the extended schedule, explaining that the sessions “were spread enough apart, where it didn't really feel overwhelming.” This type of scheduling also gave students more flexibility in relocating to wherever they were going to complete their fall semester courses, and more time to settle in and adjust to their living situation. 

Managing the limitations brought about by an online platform  

As Abdou and Berozi pointed out in the same email, making sure that the students remained engaged was one of the biggest challenges that they, the Student Core Committee and the OLs, faced. The fact that all students participating in Orientation were on-campus in previous years made planning activities and information sessions pre-pandemic much easier. This year, students were located all over the world and faced circumstances unknown to their OLs and the general planning committee. Few, if any, had moved into their dorms by the time Orientation started. 

To increase engagement as much as possible, Orientation Groups were created based on time zones. Once assigned, OLs reached out to their groups and asked them to fill out a poll with the time and day of the week in which they preferred to meet. Liu, who was the OL for a group of international students, said that one of the biggest challenges for her was “getting new students to focus on important information I [gave] out during our weekly meetings. … Most of them did not feel comfortable enough turning on their cameras, many were missing meetings, which [was] frustrating but also understandable.” After some meetings with little participation, Liu decided to send out a small summary at the end of every meeting to keep everyone in the group informed and updated on activities and other important information. 

Kerstine shared that, in bigger groups, his participation was diminished by the Zoom unmute button: “there's a barrier between, like, ‘oh, I want to say something,’ but then that means having to unmute myself.” He explained that this was not the case when the groups were much smaller and everyone was able to remain unmuted and comment at any time. Additionally, being placed in random breakout rooms during some of the big Orientation events made it difficult to establish meaningful relationships with specific people. As Kerstine stated, “In person you get to … gravitate towards the people that you feel like you click with and just seeing a familiar face that you'd seen in person just probably makes it so much easier to get to know people more.” 

Taking advantage of Zoom’s perks

Despite the challenges brought by a shift to an online Orientation, some of the new features of the program enhanced the New Student Orientation experience and contributed to a smoother transition to college life. One of such changes was possible because of the extended schedule. Being placed in groups early in June, incoming students could “ask questions about the residence hall rooms, faculty, classes to take, what to pack, etc. These questions would usually have been answered by the Orientation Core Committee over the phone but that it was so personalized this year was great,” per Abdou and Berozi. Fostering a more intimate relationship between the OLs and their assigned students is something that both Abdou and Berozi hope to maintain in coming years, perhaps through forming groups earlier in the summer as opposed to when students arrive on campus.

Liu also shared that, in this particular setting, certain Zoom features facilitated interaction and efficiency during group meetings: “it helped me a lot when I was introducing important websites Brandeis students use with the ‘Share my Screen’ function; I think that’s definitely something we can continue doing even after everything goes back to normal,” she said. Liu further explained that, despite activities being scheduled on Zoom, traditional events including “This is our House” and “Light the Night” happened as normal, which helped maintain consistency. 

Kerstein described his favorite part of Orientation: one of the OLs, to increase interactions between the attending students, encouraged them all to send a private message to a person that came to mind after reading a number of prompts. To him, it was “cool to … feel that connection and, you know, see people who you didn't even think notice you do that.”