A WUSA welcome: Yearlong peer mentors make transition easier for incoming students

Traditionally, on the morning of new student move-in, WUSAs get ready for the day’s activities with a WUSA cheer. WUSAs (Washington University Student Associates) are upperclass student volunteers who are paired with incoming students for the first year. They help students get settled into their new home and continue to meet with them weekly. The WUSA program is viewed as a model program nationally. (Credit: Joe Angeles)

“We can’t tell them everything they need to know in five days of orientation,” says Katharine Pei, assistant director of First Year Center programs. “We support students at every stage, whether helping answer questions about internships, Greek life or undergraduate research opportunities. It’s all part of a vision created by the First Year Center and many of its cross-campus partners.”A 12-member First Year Executive Board (FYX) comprising upperclass students who formerly served as WUSAs oversee the current crop of WUSAs. Board members serve 18-month volunteer positions, and along with First Year Center staff, plan an entire year of programs that start with Bear Beginnings and end with the Freshman Finale in April.

The idea is that students themselves often are the best equipped to design the most effective programs for their peers.

“This is about students generously giving back, sacrificing hours and hours of time,” says Lindsay Wang, a former WUSA who graduated in May and now works as an intern at the center. “The most innovative things we do come from the board members. The really cool stuff? They thought of it.”

Bear Beginnings alone offers more than 150 unique events for incoming students and their families. First Year Center staff and board members partner with academic and non-academic departments to create a fun and comprehensive introduction to the university.

“There is simply no way we could do that with just the four of us (First Year Center staff members),” Pei says. “Executive Board members and several WUSAs go to every event. Our campus partners run many of the orientation programs, but the WUSAs support the events, helping to troubleshoot and make sure things are running smoothly.”

Inspiring excellence

Gacad now is a member of the First Year Executive Board, coordinating a wide range of special events. This fall, he plans to pilot a program he helped develop: Service by the Dozen, which encourages faculty to lead small groups of students in community service projects. Through his experiences as a WUSA and Executive Board member, he has developed skills as a leader and role model.

“The opportunity to work with and lead a team of WUSAs has allowed me the chance to learn how to best lead, to gain the interpersonal skills for inspiring excellence and to be a mentor and friend to a group of individuals who will in turn mentor and inspire others,” Gacad says.

“The WUSA Program has not only allowed me to make a mark upon the lives of my 40 students, but it has also allowed me to explore and discover new parts of myself,” he adds. “This school has given me so many opportunities for self-discovery and growth, and I feel that it is my turn to give back to such a remarkable institution. Never before have I encountered an institution, as well as an office, that invests so much into new students.”

Today’s students have a plethora of connections — WUSAs and Executive Board members, residential advisers on each freshman floor, a residential college director, a faculty associate, a faculty adviser, four-year academic advisers and career advisers.

“Legitimately, by the end of orientation, new students should have 10 people they can connect to,” Pei says. “That’s our goal: that students have a peer member, a staff member and a faculty member they feel comfortable approaching. All those people know our students by name and story and help build a supportive environment.”

This year’s Lien 2 WUSAs Dani Kristal and Matt Burkhardt sing their own version of the hit song “Call Me Maybe” as part of a welcome message.