Bear Beginnings: Orientation by the numbers

Nine months of planning. Hundreds of helpers. Dozens of programs. One goal.

“It’s all about making the students feel welcome,” said Danielle F. Bristow, director of First Year Center Programs at Washington University in St. Louis.

Bristow, along with the center’s three other staff members and 100 student volunteers, coordinates the five-day Bear Beginnings: New Student Fall Orientation program, which kicks off Thursday, Aug. 22, with new student move in. The program continues with four days of dean’s meetings, academic advising, department open houses, library tours, social events and fitness activities.

Here the Record spotlights some of the people and events that make Washington University orientation special.

Selected from a pool of 30,000 applicants, some 1,600 freshmen join an undergraduate student body from all 50 states and some 60 countries. Some 100 new transfer students and 40 exchange students also now call Washington University home.

“That’s what makes move-in day my favorite day of year, feeling their excitement,” Bristow said. “You can only get so much out of campus visits and being on Facebook and reading ‘Bear Facts.’ It’s being here and seeing their new home that makes it all real. You can see their dreams come true.”

8:30 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 22 • South 40 — Move-in day

Every new student has questions that first day on campus.

Is my roommate nice? Will I find my way around?

And then there’s: “How do I get my stuff to the top floor?”

Answer: With the help of 420 Washington University Student Associates (WUSAs), residential advisers, residential life staff and faculty and student volunteers.

“Even if you’ve been here before, there’s a little bit of ‘Am I doing it right?’ when you arrive,” said Tim Lempfert, associate director of the Office of Residential Life and director of housing operations. “So we have signage and wayfinding, but mainly we have a massive staff presence available to give a hand. We’ll do the heavy lifting.”

During Lempfert’s 13 years on campus, the South 40 has changed, but not the move-in day experience.

“Some logistics may be different, but not the face-to-face contact and the way we welcome people,” Lempfert said. “It’s not, ‘Park over there, go get your key and we’ll see you later.’ It’s all of us coming together and cheering and helping.”

11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24 • L006 Seigle Hall — Faculty Spotlight

There is no secret to happiness, said Tim Bono, PhD. But there is a science to it.

“There’s a lot of stuff that masquerades as positive psychology that’s written by people sitting in their armchair philosophizing,” said Bono, a lecturer in psychology and assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences. “But the positive psychology movement is aimed at understanding ‘the good life’ based on empirical research. That means that we develop studies that test hypotheses on large groups of people, with methods that undergo scientific scrutiny to ensure the results are valid and, importantly, transferrable to the general population.”

Bono will present “The Science of Happiness” during one of six Faculty Spotlight lectures. Other presentations include Shanti Parikh, PhD, associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, on “The Global AIDS Epidemic: Inequalities, Gender and Interventions” and Renato Feres, PhD, professor of mathematics, on “Geometry in (Extremely) High Dimensions.” The lectures are among 50 academic programs offered throughout Bear Beginnings.

“This is an opportunity for students to get a sense of what the college classroom is like before they formally begin their coursework,” Bono said. “I think it’s wonderful for the First Year Center to provide opportunities for faculty to engage with new students during orientation because it reinforces that, at our core, we are an academic institution, and teaching and learning are central to our mission.”

Bono hopes his discussion not only provides an introduction to academic life, but also offers some tangible tools for students as they transition to life on campus.

“I will be debunking some of the common myths about happiness and also showcasing some research on the benefits of exercise and positive emotions and how both of those can be harnessed to strengthen performance on cognitive tasks like exams,” Bono said. “I’ll also highlight some scientific findings that have lent credence to the notion that our happiness depends much more on our mindset and how we react to things than it does on objective circumstances.”

5:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22 • Residential college floors, South 40 — Floor meeting

After they get their room key, charge the laptop and make one last Target run, its time to learn the cheers. Each residential college boasts its own lexicon of songs, chants and cheers. Some are based on popular songs; others are recycled year after year.

“They’re all pretty simple to learn,” said Arts & Sciences senior Tiffini Hyatt, a residential adviser for Lien House in Brookings Residential College. “One favorite goes ‘Kings! Kings! Kings!’”

That cheer is a reference to namesake Robert S. Brookings, who bought the property where the South 40 now sits.

Hyatt will explain that history and more during Thursday’s floor meeting, the first time the floor’s 66 freshmen will meet face to face. Hyatt also will tell them about Brookings’ traditions (Brinner, as in breakfast for dinner) and the Brookings’ mascot, the king (“We don’t like to lord over others, but we do rule,” Hyatt joked). Then it’s off to convocation, where Lien’s 170 freshmen, dressed in blue-and-yellow shirts and paper crowns, will try to out-cheer their neighbors.

“It’s important to build that res college pride,” Hyatt said. “We spend a lot of time focusing on that first year because it is such a transition. And a huge part of that is making them feel like they are part of this community. Looking back, I may not have been best friends with everyone on my freshman floor, but I felt comfortable. It was the place where I belonged.”

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22 • Athletic Complex — Convocation

Arts & Sciences senior Reggie Gacad will never forget his first convocation.

“It was crazy,” Gacad said. “I was not prepared for the spirit there or the noise. My eardrums felt like they were going to burst because of the cheering.”

Inspired by his Bear Beginnings experience, Gacad volunteered to serve as a Washington University Student Associate and later joined the First Year Center Executive Board. This year, he will speak at convocation. Gacad is both honored and, frankly, intimidated.

“The speakers before me were all so accomplished,” Gacad said. “So I did a lot of soul searching. And I realized that what I had to say is that it’s okay to not know what you are going to do. And it’s okay if you have a plan and that plan doesn’t work. The important thing is to put yourself out there. That’s the experience I’ve had at Washington University.”

Gacad’s parents will be there for convocation just as they were his freshman year. He still remembers his parents waving their glow sticks as he and his new classmates walked from convocation to the Brookings Quadrangle.

“I couldn’t see many faces because all I could see were the glowing lights,” Gacad recalled. “It felt both solemn and silly because of the glow sticks. And then I saw my parents waving their glow sticks frantically. The symbolism really left an impression on me — all of these family members are the lights leading the way until the point where the lights end and you have to walk forward by yourself.”

9 a.m. Friday, Aug. 23 • Edison Theatre — Letting go

Senior Consultant in Residence Karen Levin Coburn is there for parents as they navigate one of life’s big transitions.

“Bringing your child to college is an emotional experience, filled with ambivalence,” Coburn said. “There are tears as well as joy, and also, predictably, there are moments of tension and drama.”

For decades, Coburn has addressed parents about how to let go while staying connected. Those talks serve as the inspiration for her acclaimed book, Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years, now in its fifth edition, with more than 400,000 copies in print.

“A lot of what I’ve talked about has changed because of the technology and the change in family relationships,” said Coburn, a parent herself. “College students are a lot more likely to be connected to their parents, which in one sense is positive, but that can also make separation a lot more difficult.”

Coburn tells parents the truth — their children will have ups and downs. But they also have access to an array of resources from four-year advisers and faculty in residence, to academic mentors at Cornerstone and counselors at Student Health Services.

“If parents understand the web of resources available to students, they will feel less anxious. And if they are less anxious, they are less likely to try to manage from afar,” Coburn said. “Sometimes, parents need to be reminded that they’ve been letting go in small ways since the time they let their child cross the street. This is a big transition, but they’ve been through many.”

11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24 • Edison Theatre — Indulging curiosity

As a Harvard undergrad, College of Arts & Sciences Dean Jen Smith, PhD, was not what you’d call a joiner. She skipped her own freshmen orientation activities and reluctantly attended graduation.

So when planning orientation programs, Smith, the academic dean, never forgets Smith, the jaded freshman.

“I think about what I would have wanted to hear,” Smith said. “So I talk to students about those unexpected perspective changers that wake you up.”

To Smith that can mean taking an elective in anthropology or philosophy or earth and planetary sciences just because it sounds awesome.

“It’s important to me that they pursue all of the fun, crazy, exciting ideas that occupy all of the corners of the different disciplines we study,” Smith said. “This is their chance. Though they might stay in school, you don’t really have electives in graduate school. You don’t get to take a class just because it indulges your curiosity. And for many people, taking that opportunity actually changes their path.”

11 a.m. Monday, Aug 26 • Various locations — Thoughtful debate

Eula Biss’ 2009 award-winning essay collection, Notes From No Man’s Land, was chosen as the First Year Reading Program selection long before the George Zimmerman trial and the Supreme Court voting rights decision made headlines. But Alicia Schnell, project coordinator in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Students, hopes those recent events will spark thoughtful debate about race in America.

“We have a lot of campus discussions going on right now about race and identity and we need to keep those conversations going,” Schnell said. “Really, this is the first academic discussion with a faculty member the students participate in and we want them to think critically.”

The reading program is now in its 11th year. Students each received a copy of Notes From No Man’s Land over the summer. The book asks some tough questions — Why does society indulge the misdemeanors of college students but not those of the poor? How does it feel to be the ugly American? And what do Little House on the Prairie and Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood have in common?

“We don’t have any agenda — they can have any opinion they want, but they have to support it and have that dialogue,” Schnell said. “And it’s also about having your own opinions challenged.”

Various dates and locations — Campus and beyond

Bear Beginnings is just that … the beginning. The First 40 program continues to introduce new students to life on campus and in St. Louis through some 100 events and trips, including a St. Louis Rams game, Carnival on the Swamp, Saturday in the Park, Symphony on the South 40 and Night in the Museum, where first-year students can enjoy student performances, improv acts, dancing and a movie at the Missouri History Museum. Another popular activity is St. Louis by the Dozen where a faculty member takes 12 students on an off-campus excursion. Last year’s trips included the Missouri Botanical Garden, City Museum and a local apple orchard.

Bristow believes education occurs not only in the classroom, but anywhere students, faculty and staff gather, whether it’s the Bear’s Den, concert hall or art museum.

“Students are holistic,” said Bristow. “Beyond what we provide in the classroom, we want to give students experiences outside of the classroom so they can make those connections and build relationships. No one is going to say there’s nothing to do here.”

For more information about Bear Beginnings and First 40 events, visit the First Year Center website at