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Vol.24, No. 01 Sept. 4, 1998

Welcome Class of 2002


To witness a mellow, summer-heavy Columbia become Alma Mater in September to a boisterous and eager litter of sons and daughters is to forever alter one's understanding of the meaning of Labor Day. This birthing--or rebirthing, really--of a disparate collection of new students as, in this case, the Class of '02, a distinct and integral part of the University community, takes about a week. Here at Columbia, this process is called the New Students Orientation Program (NSOP) or, more succinctly, Orientation.

Judging solely by the time and money spent on its planning and execution, Orientation is as critical a week in a college's life--regardless of which college, Columbia, Barnard or the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science--as it is in the life of a college student.

For through Orientation new students gather a true first impression of Columbia, to replace at last the ethereal portrait painted by glossy brochures and cheery tours that enticed them to enroll. This impression is often a kind of outline that the experiences of four years on Morningside Heights fill in. A botched first impression may not only taint students' relationships with the University while at school but, and this is crucial to the University's future, long after those students graduate.

"If we do it right and get students well acclimated here as quickly as possible, they more quickly develop a sense of loyalty to their class and to the institution," Chris Colombo, dean of student affairs, says. "As undergrads, they are therefore more likely to participate in the life of the school, which is an enhancement to their educations as well as to Columbia. And as grads, they not only contribute financially but just as important they lend the University their expertise by participating in alumni organizations."

Orientation's pricetag for quickly acclimating the '02s to life on Morningside Heights and for helping them to develop a sense of loyalty to Columbia runs around $350,000. That sum is raised through a $170 fee levied on the 2100 new students.

To design and to run the week-long Orientation is in the eyes of the University an important and delicate task, which Columbia understandably does not confer on just anyone; so every year it calls in experts.

Sitting across from each other at a large, paper-strewn conference table in a cluttered upstairs office of the corrugated hangar called Lion's Court, Shira Miller-Jacobs and Jeremy Sheff strategize. Both are seniors: he at the College, she at Barnard. This mid-August afternoon both wear shorts and ponytails: his is black and wavy, hers straight and light brown. As the Coordinators of the NSOP Committee, these two are in fact the midwives of the Class of '02's life at Columbia University.

Miller-Jacobs and Sheff oversee the NSOP Committee's staff of ten student members: four each from the College and Barnard, and two from Engineering. It's also their job to make the decisions on which the success or failure of Orientation stands. But they say neither that power nor the $3,500 stipend the job provides the committee members motivated them to take it on; although they do find cool the free housing in the City for the summer.

"Because I like Columbia, for me it's about welcoming new students and making them feel excited about being here," Sheff says. "I enjoy knowing I can have an impact on these students' impression of the school." Indeed, Sheff enjoys it so much that this is his third year of working on Orientation. He began as an advisor, a volunteer post, and last year was a part of the Committee's publishing group. He has also been a member of the College's recruitment committee and conducts campus tours.

Miller-Jacobs, too, is in her third year of work on Orientation and, too, she conducts campus tours. Her own Orientation spurred her to become involved with others: "I had a wonderful sponsor my first year, and we remained friends afterward; it was just a really good experience for me." Through her Orientation work she realized that whatever she does after graduation it must entail dealing with people. This desire Orientation amply fulfills.

The 12-member NSOP Committee is picked in the fall. Its work begins in late February when the members interview and hire crew chiefs. There are 24 crew chiefs, each of whom direct 10 volunteers, called advisors at Columbia and sponsors at Barnard. The students comprising the entire welcoming committee for the '02s thus numbers some 275.

The crew chiefs and their teams are the Committee's foot soldiers during Orientation; they marshall the crowd at each event, herd new students from one place to another, answer myriad questions, and every day for a week wrestle mayhem to the mat.

The crowd of new students they're responsible for is composed of about 1000 for the College, 600 for Barnard, 300 for Engineering and 200 transfers. Splitting them up into manageable groups is the assignment of Personnel, an NSOP sub-committee of two. Once they receive the rosters of entering students from the deans, they spend their summer compiling lists for the Orientation sponsors and advisors. Sound easy? Not if each Orientation group must be made up of floormates but no group can include roommates.

The activities that keep the new students rushing around campus for a week are produced by a five-member NSOP sub-committee entitled Programs. They spend much of their summer as most New Yorkers do, on the phone and at their computers. Their base of operations is another cluttered room on the second floor of Lion's Court where they schedule boats and bands and speakers and space, for picnics or volleyball or dancing or yoga or just talking: about sex and diversity and health and safety and "How Can the Physical Brain Give Rise to Psychological Experience?" or "How Not to Gain the Freshman '15'," for example.

They also program visits and tours, from Wall Street to The Cloisters and much in between, such as Lucky Cheng's, billed as "New York's number one drag hotspot," and the virtual game arena, XS. Programs finds the time and place for convocations, receptions, placement exams and registration, and lots of meetings: with academic advisors, residence hall advisors, advisors for financial aid, even Orientation advisors.

Most of the NSOP Committee members attend most events. The Coordinators are the exceptions: they attend them all. During Orientation week the Committee's days begin at 7 a.m. and go until 2 a.m.; unless they must blow up balloons, for instance, then they're up at 4 a.m.

"Everyone is completely exhausted by the time the academic year starts," says Joe Bertolino, director of Barnard's College Activities Office which, with the Office of Student Activities at Columbia under Wayne Blair, supervises and supports the NSOP Committee. Both are quick to deflect any credit for Orientation onto the students. Says Blair: "I'm really proud of those guys. It's their show and they do an amazing job."

To stay ahead of Orientation's rapid-fire schedule of events, entering students are of course aided by crew chiefs and their advisors or sponsors. But their most valuable asset, indeed their Bible for the week is the almost 70-page New Student Orientation Program guide published by the NSOP Committee's Publications group. All students receive a copy in their Orientation packets-- yellow (the '02 class color) for Barnard, and for the College and Engineering (schools without class colors), red.

Along with the two versions of the NSOP booklet, Publications also puts out the 1st-Year Face Book, a.k.a. "The Date Book."

The expense of publishing both the Face Book and the Orientation guide is not shouldered by the University; it's therefore up to Publications to drum up advertising. With the Face Book alone costing close to $20,000, the three-member group works the phones hard from March through July.

The sales pitch devised by the NSOP Committee's publishers proved especially persuasive this year. The revenue generated so exceeded costs that for the first time the Face Book is in hardcover. And because they discovered that advetisers are quicker to give their products than their money away, Publications signed up ten corporate sponsors for Orientation, among them Pepsi, Quaker and Footlocker.

Big-name sponsors and exciting events are nevertheless only a part of the formula that should make the Class of '02's Orientation a successful and memorable one. The essential ingredient remains the almost unbelievable enthusiasm of the students, from the Coordinators to the advisors and sponsors, who make it happen. Bertolino, who has worked in student activities at four universities, says that "there's a genuine feeling of ownership, of responsibility and commitment by the kids here. Nowhere have I seen 250 older students volunteer a week of their summer vacations to help new students feel at home at Columbia; that's really particular to this institution."