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Finding your FIT

News & Features | March 5, 2018

Every September, over 1,000 Tufts freshman flood campus, with open hearts and minds, hoping to connect with fellow new Jumbos. While freshman orientations are a common feature at most colleges, Tufts also has a unique addition—the Pre-Orientation, or Pre-O. Pre-Os grant new students the opportunity to connect with classmates even before orientation begins in a smaller, less overwhelming setting through a variety of different groups—like First-Year Orientation CommUnity Service (FOCUS),  Tufts Wilderness Orientation (TWO), Conversation Action Faith and Education (CAFE), and more. Unfortunately, while Pre-Os can be a major part of developing meaningful connections early on for students, it comes with the danger of isolating those who did not participate in Pre-O. The first few weeks of freshman year usually come with awkward, repetitive introductions, and one question in particular: Did you do Pre-O?

For many, the decision not to do Pre-O stemmed from reasons like wanting to spend more time with family, or not wanting to force themselves to make friends. For others, though, the decision to not participate in a pre-orientation was tied to identity. Students and administrators involved in leadership of Pre-Orientation groups have been working recently to make these programs more welcoming and accessible for a wide variety of students of marginalized identities.

The influx in Pre-O participation has been fairly recent, with the large jumps occurring 2014-15 and 2015-16 according to the assistant director for Pre-O programs, Christa Ricker, but Pre-O isn’t a new concept—in fact, TWO has been around for 31 years. Currently, a nearly proportional percentage of White students, international students, and students of color participate in Pre-Orientation programs. Ricker shares that for the class of 2017, 64% of students who identify as White participate in Pre-O, 64% of students who identify as an ethnicity other than White (including multiracial), and 66% of international students participate. This is the result of intentional work on the part of administrative leaders involved in Pre-O programs to reach out to marginalized communities in order to assure students from various identities that they have a place in a Pre-Orientation program. “The last few years we have increased the number of students coming from low socio-economic backgrounds, by providing more financial assistance and doing more outreach,” she shares.

Though costs of doing a pre-orientation program can be prohibitive for some students, Ricker shares that financial aid packages have been largely successful. While the Pre-Orientation website states that program costs can vary from $0-$400, Ricker shares that 65 percent of students who were given the opportunity to attend a Pre-O at a cost of $200 (which is 50 percent of the maximum cost) participate. Ricker also states that all Pre-O’s, with the exception of Students’ Quest for Unity in the African Diaspora (SQUAD), are entirely participant funded, which means funding comes entirely from students’ program payments, with no additional budget from the University. Yet even in this model, administrators have managed to find a way to continue to make Pre-Os accessible for low-income students. “Over the last few years we have successfully worked to increase the number of students offered discounts, as well as lower the cost to them,” Ricker says “Students who are given a cost of less than $100 are sent personal email from me.”

However, the program costs do not always represent the entirety of the expenses that participation in a Pre-Orientation program often requires. TWO in particular has an intensive and expensive packing list, including pricey items such as a large internal or external frame backpacking pack, sleeping bags and pads, and hiking boots. While the TWO site indicates the presence of a Gear Lending Program for students with financial aid, students may be uncomfortable or embarrassed to lend gear amongst peers who purchased new equipment. The website also specifies that students who do not come equipped with these items will not be allowed to participate in the program.

While Tufts emphasizes allowing students to participate in Pre-O, regardless of financial status, other issues of identity come into play. In 2016, with the introduction of SQUAD, there was an obvious increase in the percentage of Black students participating in a Pre-Orientation group. But while the groups of students participating in Pre-Orientation groups might be increasingly diverse, without an equally representative staff, students of marginalized identities might not feel comfortable participating in a program, or feel properly supported throughout the duration of their Pre-Orientation experience. Student Pre-Orientation coordinators have recently been working to combat this problem by making a conscious effort to recruit staff members that reflect the makeup of student participants themselves. “Both for the support staff and leader hiring process we considered how our applicants identities would contribute to the program, experience of first-years, and the TWO community,” TWO support staff coordinator Harper Wise shares over email about the work he is doing to ensure the diversity of TWO staff, alongside TWO staff coordinator Doo-yun Her. “And it’s really exciting that the TWO 2018 staff is more diverse than ever before.”

And Pre-Orientations geared specifically towards providing a community for students of marginalized identities can be an effective tool in facilitating a transition to life at Tufts. Alejandro Baez, a Tufts first-year and the recently elected First Generation Community TCU Senator, participated in both Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts (BLAST) and Global Orientation (GO). BLAST, a residential six-week program that incoming students participate in the summer prior to coming to Tufts, is unique in that aims to assist in creating a smoother transition for students who may be the first in their family to attend college or come from under resourced high schools. Baez shares that “Students [in BLAST] are grouped with a cohort and they end up taking 2 summer courses.Various workshops and group bonding activities occur throughout the program which were incredible helpful in bringing students together.” While BLAST doesn’t necessarily qualify as a Pre-O, it still serves the purpose of allowing first generation college students to bond with one another over shared experiences and get acclimated before the rest of the class enters. “BLAST ultimately made my transition to college a lot more manageable,” Baez sharesover email. “Coupled with the amazing support system I gained, I’m feeling happier and more at home here at Tufts due to BLAST.”

Kella Merlain-Moffat, a Tufts sophomore who participated in SQUAD, felt similarly that her Pre-Orientation experience helped her find a sense of community before entering a predominately White institution. “The ability to be surrounded by people who I identified with and who looked like me early on was really important and I am grateful that I was able to form some relationships before school was in full swing,” she shares over email. “…I knew I would be operating in white spaces for all 4 years, in classes, during o-week, in dorms and I just wanted a week of Blackness and understanding more about what it meant to be Black on Tufts campus.” Merlain-Moffat  is now a peer leader at the Africana Center, and her experience demonstrates that Pre-Orientation groups geared specifically towards providing a sense of community for marginalized groups on campus can be incredibly effective.

There are two new Pre-O programs that will arrive fall 2018, which will likely even further increase student participation in Pre-Orientation programs. Building Engagement and Access for Students at Tufts, or BEAST, is a new program based out of the Office of Student Success and Advising. According to Ricker, the program will be geared towards “students who identify as first-generation or of low-economic status,” hopefully increasing the demographic diversity of those who participate in the time-honored Tufts Pre-O tradition.There will also be a new art-based orientation, which explores the arts curriculums both at the Medford campus and the SMFA Fenway campus. Ricker shares that the new program “will orient students to Tufts by way of utilizing both the Medford and SMFA campuses, and give incoming students the opportunity to explore and create art. Both programs will follow the traditional model of student coordinators and student leaders facilitating the experience for the first-year and transfer students.”

Yet there is still the fact that despite good-faith efforts to make Pre-Orientation groups welcoming and accessible to all incoming students, not everyone who wants to do a Pre-O can participate. Ricker expresses excitement about the potential of a mandatory Pre-O, given the fact that it’s shown to have “positive and lasting effects on a student’s college career,” and that over 900 incoming students participated in Pre-O in 2016 and 2017. She also noted, however, that a mandatory Pre-O would come with challenges. “For starters we would need to shift from being participant funded to being university funded, which would cost hundreds of thousands each year, and would also really need to include more full-time staff… we would [also] need to look at how [Pre-O] flows into orientation, and the ways the two could be more intertwined than they are now,” she says. “We would need to look further at our program curriculum and make sure that students are getting consistent experiences, while also retaining the uniqueness each program offers.” Though a mandatory Pre-O might take years to implement, it might provide a solution to the gap that exists between those students who don’t participate and those who do, and finally make Pre-Orientation a fully accessible and universal Tufts experience. “I get really excited thinking about it,” Ricker says, “but I know there would be a lot of work to do.”