‘First 40’ days crucial to successful freshman transition

Freshman Angela Park poses for a “first-day-of-school” photo during the Day 1 celebration at the South 40 Underpass Aug. 28. Photos later were posted to the First 40 website and Facebook site for family members to enjoy. Students wrote special messages on dry-erase boards that were provided. (Credit: Sid Hastings)

First-day-of-school pictures — showing smiling little kids carrying brand-new backpacks — are an annual tradition for many families. Eventually, the kids grow up and head to college. Fortunately, for family members of incoming students at Washington University in St. Louis, staff members are keeping the tradition alive and well.

Stationed near the South 40 Underpass, WUSTL staff members snap photos of students as they head to their first day of classes. The pictures later are posted on the First 40 website and Facebook site for parents and family members to enjoy.

While the event is aimed primarily at new students, upperclassmen seem to find their way back every year, requesting to have their photos taken, too, in what has become a beloved first-day ritual.

Along with taking photos, the staff members wish the students well — handing them free school supplies and snacks. Dressed in shirts that read “Ask Me,” the staff members stand ready to answer any questions.

Latanya Clifton-Smith (left), staff member in Residential Life, tucks a banana and other snacks into the backpack of freshman Emily Feng during Day 1. (Credit: Sid Hastings)

This event — Day 1 — is the first of a multitude of events designed to help new students adjust to the first 40 days on campus. “First 40” is a joint effort of the offices of Campus Life, the First Year Center, Residential Life and Student Involvement and Leadership.

The goal is to ensure that students feel confident and comfortable in their new home as quickly as possible.

Higher education literature suggests that those students who make significant connections to faculty, staff or fellow students within the first 30 days are more likely to return the next year and have fewer mental health issues. The first 30 days often can “color” the entire first year and influence the overall level of satisfaction. Here at WUSTL, because of the South 40, the name “First 40” seemed apropos.

Starting off with a bang

Among the many events, students enjoy an annual “Big Bang” party at the St. Louis Science Center and a day at Forest Park. Shuttled by buses and armed with park maps, students enjoy “Saturday in the Park.” Some of the WUSAs (Washington University Student Associates) set up informal events like soccer or frisbee at the park’s Art Hill. Many WUSAs and residential advisers pack picnic lunches for their residential college floors.

“There is so much to do so close to campus,” says Mary Zabriskie, assistant director of campus life and one of the First 40 organizers. “They can go outside the WUSTL bubble without going too far.”

Serenaded by the symphony

For the past few years, members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra have performed on the South 40. Ice cream is provided, and faculty and staff members bring their families and pets.

Zabriskie describes the scene as “magical.”

“You see the students coming over the top of the hill and coming across this wonderful, live music, and they just light up,” she says. “The students in the residence halls open their windows and the music carries throughout the South 40. Students are playing on a sand volleyball court while being serenaded by professional musicians.”

Because many of the students at the university are classically trained musicians, the symphony event is a particularly appropriate choice. Planners look for events that resonate with WUSTL students.

Events are heavily promoted to students — all the free school supplies are branded with the First 40 website, for example — and to their parents. This way, parents can encourage their students to become more involved.

“If a student calls home, complaining of being lonely, unhappy or anxious, a parent or family member can go to the website and say, ‘Hey, I see there’s a class party coming up,’” Zabriskie says.

First 40 stemmed from a social and culture committee chaired by Jill Carnaghi, PhD, associate vice chancellor for students and dean of campus life, and former student leader Pam Bookbinder some 10 years ago.

The initial impetus for a thriving freshman welcome program came from the late James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, who died in 2011.

“Incredibly busy staff members and student leaders take the time to do this,” Zabriskie says. “It’s a truly collaborative effort with areas that have a high level of touch outside the classroom. It’s very intentional programming that pays off in the long run.”