40 years of CalSO

Program continues to help new students transition

Jeffrey Joh/File
Jeffrey Joh/File

It’s just a jump to the left, then a step to the right, put your hands on your hips and do the pelvic thrust — this long-standing tradition of dancing to the song “The Time Warp” is an initiation for thousands of incoming Berkeley students at Cal Student Orientation, or CalSO, and a testament to a time long ago when watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a late -night activity.

Just as students have graduated and times have changed, so has UC Berkeley’s student orientation program. Today, CalSO — led by the New Student Services team at the Office of Student Development — serves over 80 percent of the freshmen and transfer students that make up the incoming class, totaling over 5,000 students, in addition to the 1,500 parents and guests who also attend. Offering a total of 19 sessions within six-and-a-half weeks throughout June and July, CalSO has welcomed incoming students for over four decades.

Although the general orientation program began as the weekend-long Cal 1A, in the 1960s it became known as Cal Prep  — an ASUC program that took place early in the fall just before classes started. In 1968, the campus took control of Cal Prep from the ASUC, believing student orientations to be its responsibility.

According to Fred Peterson, the first student Chair of Cal Prep, in the summer of 1968 the budget for the entire program — which at the time spanned five weekends — was about $900,000 and had only six paid staff members.

Around this time, the decision was made to host the program earlier in the summer, and in 1969, more freshman and transfer student programs were created by the campus due to a higher number of incoming students.

“We changed the name to Cal Summer Orientation Program (in) about 1970 to get away from the high school-ish sounding Cal Prep,” said Peter Van Houten, CalSO director from 1968 to 1973.

Today, CalSO offers 10 freshman overnight programs, five all-day programs for transfer students and two one-day programs in Southern California for lower-income students in the region.

“For me, CalSO was more than just a job or something to do for the summer,” said Nick Johnson, a fifth-year chemical biology major and CalSO counselor from 2009 and 2010. “It was a chance to go above and beyond orienting students to actually make a difference to help them get off to the best start they could at Berkeley.”

There are now a total of 40 CalSO counselors, hired in November and then trained in a mandatory two unit class taken during the spring semester and taught by professional staff, along with a two-week counselor camp prior to the start of the orientations.

Whether students are dancing to “The Time Warp” or sharing first year experiences, CalSO has created a legacy by making students proud to be lifelong Cal Bears.