Submitted on Thursday, 9/12/2013, at 4:21 PM

“We are ready for you. We have worked for one year on this year’s Orientation. The anticipation on campus is palpable.”

This is a recent message for incoming students from Patricia O’Hara, on her Countdown to Orientation blog. In addition to being the Amanda and Lisa Cross Professor of Chemistry, O’Hara is starting her fourth year as Amherst’s Dean of New Students. She chairs the Orientation Committee and coordinates Orientation activities. And she has the names and photos of the Class of 2017 displayed on rotation in an electronic picture frame in her office in Converse Hall, to help her get to know them before they arrive.

Katherine Duke ’05 from the Office of Public Affairs spoke with the dean about what’s new for Orientation 2013. An edited transcript of the interview is below.

On your Countdown blog, you wrote, “I do believe we have the longest and most comprehensive Orientation program of any small or large college.” How did you determine that?

By going to conferences and talking to other people. Most places are maybe a week for the longest ones,. But we have programming for new students starting with their arrival on Sunday through the following Tuesday.  The programming for all new students is coherent through Wednesday, and then students break up into different groups. Some go on outdoor trips, others do community engagement trips, some stay on campus, and some participate in athletic training. Then they come back together on the following Sunday, when the president will have a barbecue, and then there’s Convocation on Monday, and finally, residence hall activities on Monday as well.

One of my tasks is to guide the Orientation Committee through what changes we want to make. We put the student members of the committee in charge of choosing an overarching theme. This year’s theme is “What Will You Do?”

How would you describe the purpose of your Countdown to Orientation blog?

A lot of times I will be answering a question that a student or a few students have written to me—figuring that if they have a question, other students will as well. I feel Amherst is about building relationships, and so one of my goals is to build that relationship with students. I get lovely feedback from students—for example, “You told me that when you went to school, you were on a scholarship. I’m on a scholarship too, and I’m really trying to decide if I should work or not. Did you work, and what would be your advice to me?” So I think it provides a connection with the students who might otherwise think of me as some administrator without a past or a history.

You write of having missed, or deliberately skipped, your own orientation when you started college.

While my father had gone to college, he passed away when I was pretty young, so I didn’t really have role models or guidance. Maybe, back in the Dark Ages when I went to college, Orientation wasn’t so important. I did have a summer job, and they needed me for Labor Day Weekend, so I just honored those commitments and skipped my Orientation.

How does the annual DeMott Lecture fit into Orientation?

The first Orientation Committee task is the selection of the summer reading, and the DeMott Lecturer sets the tone for the reading. Usually we choose a book by that person. The president really takes responsibility for the DeMott Lectureship—even though we recommend, she chooses the lecturer. We settle on the speaker and the book, and then that helps us to flesh out the theme of the Orientation.

So this year it’s New Yorker staff writer and former New York Times journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, along with her book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.

Right, and it’s linked to the Copeland Colloquium, which this year is on disasters and catastrophes. We had Professor Lawrence Douglas on our Orientation Committee, and he is one of the organizers for this year’s Copeland theme. So there will be continued discussions about viewing catastrophes from a larger social, political, economic and scientific context. Field Notes from a Catastrophe is the perfect entrée into the Copeland Colloquium.

Does it tie into the “What Will You Do?” theme in the sense of, “With these catastrophes looming, what are you going to do about them?”?

I think it’s about giving people agency, and not to be just bystanders in events. Kolbert has set up a bunch of discussion questions. There will be faculty and staff leading discussions of the reading before the lecture, and she’s asked that every discussion end with, “What are you planning on doing—in your personal life, as a citizen of the world, what will you do?”

What’s new and different about Orientation this year?

I’ll paraphrase President Biddy Martin’s words: We’ve upped the intellectual ante of the Orientation programming. We’ve recruited faculty to be in charge of a discussion, or staff—people who are really passionate about environmental issues. Small-group discussion prior to the DeMott Lecture—that’s one thing that’s different.

The second thing is that we have a series of lectures on Thursday by relatively new faculty titled “It’s My Amherst Too!,” where we’re asking them to f trace how they got to where they are now. Not too long ago, they were where these students are. We’ve got Ashley Carter and Marisa Parham

And Prakarsh Singh and Vanessa Fong [’96], who literally was a student at Amherst.

Yeah. We saw that there was a group of students—a lot of them first-generation students or international students—who didn’t participate in any of the Orientation activities over the years. Some of the activities cost some amount of money. We try to make it really obvious that if you can’t afford to pay, you can get a fee waiver, but some people don’t choose to do that. So we wanted to have an alternative to going out into the community, doing an outdoor trip or being an athlete. Last I checked, we had 35 or 40 students sign up for the new lecture series. 

How have last year’s dialogues surrounding sexual misconduct and sexual respect—and the resulting report from the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee—affected plans for this year’s Orientation?

As the SMOC Report highlighted, Orientation is a really critical time for us to communicate with students about standards, responsibilities, resources, expectations. So we have done a lot of work surrounding the discussion having to do with students’ rights and responsibilities. Those discussions are Tuesday and Wednesday of Orientation. We’ve recruited a national expert in dialoguing about diversity and inclusion, which is an aspect of our Honor Code. So Jamie Utt will be coming in. He’s new to our Orientation; he does orientations all over the country. He has been at the Amherst College campus, speaking to the LEADS program, and they recommended him highly, so we brought him on board.

Also, we think that the Squad Leaders are going to be primary mentors and guides for our students in their social lives as they start out on campus. We are having much more comprehensive training and expectations for the Squad Leaders during Orientation.

Is there anything else you’d like to touch upon?

One of the things I hope to emphasize is the degree to which students really are a part of the decision tree for what happens in Orientation—in terms of the theme, the recruiting of student leaders, student workers. Their feedback is so critical in shaping the next year’s Orientation.

Do you have a formal feedback process, where you ask the students, “What did you think of Orientation?”?

I work with Amherst’s Office of Institutional Research. Last year, we used a post-Orientation survey tool. This year, we’re going to do both the post-Orientation survey and the in-real-time survey—“This happened today. What’s your feedback?” The students will be getting questions every day about what worked for them, what didn’t work for them. If something really didn’t work, we can address it right away rather than waiting a week or two weeks. And while the real-time feedback is important, it’s also important to let the Orientation experience sit a little while and then have people reflect.

A quick example: When students are moving into dorm rooms, we often hear a lot of complaints about how parents or students don’t like the rooms, they think it’s dirty, or they are uncomfortable with the roommate. So last year we put questions on the survey about, “How was your move-in process? How was your room?” We were fully expecting to hear lots of negative responses. And then, in fact the responses were really, really positive. Impressions can be distorted by the few voices that are really loud.

So if you go out and deliberately seek everyone’s voice, or as many voices as possible, you get a more balanced idea.

Yes. So that was a really wonderful result for us.