What to expect at orientation: Reflections from a former GBO leader

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Alice Langford/File

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Last year marked New Student Services’ move away from the previous format of Cal Student Orientation, or CalSO, which involved a series of weekend orientations, to Golden Bear Orientation, or GBO. With GBO, the intention was to have a longer, more extensive format, in which students would have the opportunity to meet other students before classes began, grouped by freshman or transfer status and living accommodation. The transition from CalSO to GBO has been somewhat of a challenge, as many of these goals take time to perfect, and because certain things may work in theory but in practice are more ambitious than what is always feasible.

As a GBO leader last year, my GBO partner and I were tasked with leading a group of transfer commuters. In this way, GBO sought to unite students so they would immediately have the chance to make connections at such a huge institution as UC Berkeley. With other considerations in mind, such as having transfer students lead transfer groups, the program hoped to make the transition to college easier.

While ultimately 96 percent of orientation leaders in 2017 were recorded as having had an “overall positive experience,” one of the major drawbacks of last year’s orientation was the lack of volunteers. To gain leaders for their first venture into GBO, in 2017 campus administrators offered priority registration, which was a draw for many. This incentive was not offered for the 2018 GBO program. This year, however, Educational Opportunity Program grants will be offered to 100 eligible students, and orientation mentors will receive $2,500 stipends.

Ellen Topp, director of communications for the Division of Student Affairs, said in an emailed statement that the move away from priority registration was to promote a “true volunteer culture” on campus and to offer training in professional skills such as facilitation, public speaking and team building.

While idealistically, GBO would attract volunteers out of school pride or a desire to assist one’s community, many realized that GBO is a massive commitment. Last summer, instead of gaining the 1,000 volunteers that had been intended, the program’s number of volunteers shrunk to closer to 500 over the course of the summer. Working with the 9,500-plus incoming students, this was incredibly stressful, as leaders sometimes found themselves stretched thin.

When questioned about the size of the volunteer group expected for this year, Topp said in an emailed statement that there would be just more than 300 volunteers, which is more than 200 fewer than last year.

“Moving forward, we still hope to have significantly more Orientation Leaders in future years. The more leaders we have, the smaller, more intimate, and more meaningful the orientation group experience will be,” Topp said in an emailed statement.

As leaders, we were encouraged to plan our days full of activities for bonding and getting to know the community, filling our schedules from about 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. While many of these bonding and team-building events are well-intended, many, both students and leaders, found the long days frustrating.

Topp also noted the common thread in this sort of feedback, and the eight-day marathon of GBO was shortened this year to seven days.

On paper, planning for GBO sounded and still sounds wonderful, and many volunteers still believe in its goal of helping new students find their places at UC Berkeley. Time will tell if the new orientation will be re-evaluated further to draw in new recruits and give each new student the attention they need.

Contact Lauren West at [email protected].