Between a record-breaking class size, fluctuating COVID-19 policies, and a smaller-than-normal list of returning staff, the first-year orientation team for the class of 2025 had a lot on their plates. 

Sophomore Orientation Leader and Campus Times Opinions editor Alyssa Koh said she started planning this experience with an open mind. “As someone who never had an in-person orientation, I had no expectations coming in, just because I couldn’t.”

Upperclass Orientation Leaders like junior Waleed Nadeem, the only returning member from last year’s group, had to rethink almost every part of the process. Nadeem said that this year was “completely different” from his prior work. Last year we had the biggest challenge of reimagining orientation in a multi-modal setting,” he said. “This year we had virtual interactions with our students, but the primary focus remained on making the [in person] Welcome Week the best week for the incoming first-years and transfers.”

The sudden rise of the Delta variant is a difficult challenge for a team trying to plan in-person events for UR’s largest class ever. To deal with so many factors out of their control, they’ve had to be ready to adapt or scrap plans on the fly.

“The Delta variant was definitely something we were monitoring very closely,” Nadeem said. “We had to make sure our programs were flexible enough that if something comes up, we can still offer the opportunity for students to interact and form strong connections.”

Koh said that plans have been in place for “a couple weeks to a month now,” but the recent decision to reinstate the mask policy for everyone at the University required some quick reworking. Shifting guidelines “meant that we had to go into [a] really big overhaul,” Koh said. “So, the past week or so has been all about that ⁠— I had to cancel some big orders that were coming in, which feels really disheartening.”

Last-minute changes have been challenging for the team, but nothing exemplifies their tireless search for silver linings better than the forward-thinking orientation theme.

“Our theme is UR The Future,” Koh said with a laugh. The slogan is “deliberately cheesy,” and the orientation team has really gone all in. Their ideas have a fantastical and futuristic energy, including Space Crafts and Space Golf, Intergalactic Karaoke, a showing of Guardians of the Galaxy, and dining groups named after planets.

According to Nadeem, deciding on a theme was an easy, fast process. After the Orientation Leaders were tasked by professional staff with picking a theme, Nadeem shouted, “‘UR The Future’ as the very first idea, as it sends a message that we at [The University of Rochester] are the future leaders of the world.”

This relentless optimism is a necessity, not a luxury, for the orientation team. They’re keeping a positive attitude about their many limitations and setbacks, to deliver the best orientation experience possible. To keep morale up for orienters and orientees, they’re focusing on the activities that have been able to happen this year rather than those that haven’t.

For instance, Koh began her planning under the assumption that Wilson Day couldn’t take place, at least not in any recognizable form. “I assumed that […] if people were going to be able to go off campus it would be a really small number or a really open space,” she said, adding that Wilson Day happening at all is serendipitously exciting. Instead of being disappointed that many students would remain on campus, they embraced the restrictions and adapted by bringing some of the community onto campus to speak.

Other than the event planning, Koh describes her job as middle management: “I had an email list of about 200 students that I would send out information to, get responses back from, [and] be responding to them.” Beyond direct emails, she also took the initiative to organize virtual group meetings. “I [tried] to advocate for a lot of online events over the summer to help foster the sense of community that I really felt coming here.”

Despite its enormous impact on the incoming class, a lot of Orientation Leaders’ work happens under the radar, and often goes underappreciated. “I wish more students would learn about the impact that an OL can make on the incoming class,” Nadeem said.

Even with their low profile, even with a uniquely challenging year, Orientation Leaders can still have a fulfilling role — especially when they finally get to see the new class on campus. In Nadeem’s words: “There have been countless students who have come up to me and told me that I have played a pivotal role in their transition to college, and made them feel like they are not alone in this journey. To me, that is the most rewarding part of orientation.”

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