I began to second-guess my decision as soon as I did my first headcount. The lawn next to Valley Life Sciences Building was flooded. A sea of lanyard-clad freshmen punctuated by bright spots of yellow filled every available open space. The group that began to pool around me and my co-leader was overwhelming once it surpassed 30 in number, and when we reached our final total of 35, the anxiety began to build in my chest. How could two people maintain control over a group this large, especially when the schedule we’d been given for the next eight days was designed to make this as difficult as possible?
The highs and lows of my Golden Bear Orientation, or GBO, experience will sound familiar to any of the other 500 leaders who went through this journey together. I loved connecting with my group and understanding their lives and perspectives; I didn’t enjoy losing my voice, half of my students and my sanity by day two. My mindset shifted from a focus on providing the best experience possible for each student to simply surviving the week and desperately attempting to fill up long stretches of empty time with improvised activities.
I was texting my co-leader throughout the week, and the conversations quickly devolved from arranging meeting times and strategic planning to therapy sessions and complaints. We quickly realized that the 13-15 hour days (starting at 9 a.m. and ending anywhere from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.) weren’t going to go over well with the orientation group, so we began to make adjustments to our schedule. While we tried to encourage our group to spend their evenings meeting their floormates and exploring Berkeley, we knew a few other leaders found their new students easier to control when they were passed out on the floor of a fraternity house.
Clearly, this isn’t the experience the campus wants its new students to have during their first week in Berkeley, and the administration needs to make some serious changes to its approach to help make GBO easier and more straightforward for freshmen and volunteers who make the program possible.
If it wants to offer the best possible experience for freshmen, the university should make a stronger effort to treat them like incoming transfer students by educating them on career and club opportunities more effectively. A good portion of the time that was supposed to be allocated to “group bonding” turned into makeshift career counseling, which my co-leader and I weren’t necessarily educated or unbiased in providing.
As it modifies the informational opportunities and activities it provides for orientation groups, the school also has to address logistics. The most frustrating part of the experience was the endless waiting. My co-leader and I made the regrettable decision to take our students on a boat cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge and paid for it by spending four hours on a bus compared to one hour on the actual boat. We were happy to be part of the record-breaking formation of the letter “C” on the field at California Memorial Stadium, but we began to lose the patience of our students around hour two of standing in line outside.
Thankfully, the administration has reconsidered the timing of the program as a whole, but there is one caveat. New Student Services has announced that it will shorten the program after near-universal suggestions to do so, but it has also announced that priority registration will no longer be part of the compensation leaders receive in exchange for their time.
I won’t pretend that my decision to be a GBO leader was driven solely by a sense of civic duty or community pride. The registration advantage was the deciding factor that motivated me to complete my training and follow through with my commitment to GBO, and I’m sure a significant portion of the cohort showed up on day one for the same reason. That being said, I don’t think the priority registration perk is totally necessary to compel people to become orientation leaders; if the timing were more reasonable and the groups were smaller in size, I’d even be interested in coming back for another round. My greatest concern is that the campus simply won’t have the resources or the manpower to make meaningful changes to these two factors, and we’ll end up with another short-staffed GBO week next summer.
Ryan Olson is a sophomore at UC Berkeley.