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September 12, 2019

Solar Flashback: A Look at the History of Cornell’s Freshmen Orientation

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Solar Flashback ColorFrom formal academic meetings with peer advisors in the daytime to informal social treks to Collegetown at night, orientation week is a universal experience shared by freshmen across all seven colleges to get them started on their Cornell journey.

What makes orientation at Cornell particularly special? How have the components that make up orientation evolved over the decades? In this week’s Solar Flashback, The Sun takes a look back at old headlines, photos and stories to revisit some of the unique moments in orientation history.

Solar Flashbacks is a special project connecting The Sun’s — and Cornell’s — past to the present to understand how this rich history has shaped the campus today. Flashbacks appear periodically throughout the semester. #ThrowbackThursday

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Orientation Activities: Then

It was September 28, 1910, and a “rousing freshman mass meeting” was scheduled to welcome the incoming class. Under what was then called “Sibley Dome,” starry-eyed new students learned about the University, athletics and Cornell’s “yells and songs” as part of a traditional gathering for freshmen.

Although orientation was not yet an established program, early hints of a more formal, extensive freshman introduction appeared in the 1910s, with the creation of a Freshman Advisory Committee in 1912.

1912 Headline

“The purpose of the [Freshman Advisory Committee] will be to provide ways and means for members of the junior and senior classes to meet individually all incoming freshmen in order to offer any active assistance in bringing them into touch with the traditions, life and activities of the University that may be possible, with particular reference to those questions which perplex or hinder new students,” The Sun reported in May 1912.

Programming for freshmen was not all bureaucracy, however. Get-togethers and exciting events brought together new students in a more social setting. The Sun reported in 1912 that students in the Class of 1916, asked to carry along “Frosh Bibles” filled with Cornell songs, were treated to “some stunts in sleight-of-hand, stories and musical numbers by upperclassmen.”

Orientation started to become slightly more structured in the 1920s, and Cornell United Religious Work organized a smaller optional orientation program called “Freshman Camp,” Corey Ryan Earle ’07, a visiting lecturer who teaches the Cornell: The First American University course, told The Sun.

“For most of its history, Freshman Camp was hosted on nearby Keuka Lake, where new students spent three days bonding together, participating in camp activities and hearing from Cornell administrators, faculty, and alumni, along with a large team of student counselors,” Earle said. “Although the program was very popular, it had limited capacity and turned away applicants each year.”

However, it wasn’t until the 1940s that a more formal “Freshman Week” was implemented as a result of a faculty vote that required all freshmen to arrive on campus “three days ahead of the regular registration day,” The Sun reported in 1942.

Freshman Camp was later discontinued in 1957, “when a university committee concluded that there was too much content duplication with the Orientation Week programming and that the exclusivity of Freshman Camp created a division between those who attended and those who did not,” according to Earle.

In later years, an outdoor getaway was still continued — but to train incoming orientation leaders instead. “Counselors became campers at Cory, a YMCA vacation spot on the shores of Lake Seneca just past Watkins Glen. Roughing it consisted of sleeping in wooden cabins,” The Sun reported in 1963.

In 1936, the nation’s first university office for international students was established at Cornell, according to the International Services Office of Global Learning. And back in 1962, international students had a much more intimate welcome to Ithaca through a host family program.

“Many of the 350 international students stayed with Host Families in Ithaca during their first few days at the University. This Host Family Program has been in existence for several years and has proved very successful in helping students get adjusted in America,” The Sun reported in 1962.

Despite sweeping changes over the decades, orientation wasn’t always a well-liked process. In 1963, a letter to the editor by an alumna expressed concern that “over the past few years, there has been an attempt to improve orientation at Cornell. However, there has been little fundamental change.”

Later in 1963, freshman evaluated their orientation experience, rating “faculty home visits the most valuable part of the program,” while “military orientation and the Women’s Student Government Association Convocation were considered by far the worst part of the program,” The Sun reported. In the year prior, a “lack of timing and organization, the discussion groups and group meetings and speeches” were “rated as the worst parts of the program.”

“Orientation, once considered a necessary but rather frivolous activity, seems to have earned its place among worthwhile Cornell institutions,” The Sun wrote in 1963.

Since the 1960s, orientation has become further structured and ingrained as an integral part of the Cornell experience.

 

Orientation Activities: Now

Today, the Orientation Steering Committee and the Orientation Leaders guide incoming students through several days of Freshman Orientation, in a process that has evolved over the decades to give new Cornellians advice and a taste of life in their Ithaca home.

Many recent changes to orientation have focused on educational and social programming for incoming students.

Starting in 2001, all freshmen were required to participate in the “New Student Reading Project,” which gave “gave students a shared experience and an early introduction to academic discussion with their peers and faculty,” according to Earle. Before arriving on campus, students were assigned a book read — including titles such as Guns, Germs and Steel, Frankenstein and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — and would then engage in discussion groups and lectures during orientation.

The initiative drew mixed reviews, and it was discontinued in 2015.

“I thought it was awful and the book was torture,” a freshman told The Sun in 2008 about the novel Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills. “The book was like a history textbook and was dry and hard to understand.”

In the last decade, orientation began to resemble what it has become today. One familiar event on consent education, “Speak About It,” debuted in 2013 after Student Assembly members deliberated the creation of a mandatory program and the University ran a pilot program for January orientation.

Students who experienced orientation in 2016 critiqued both Speak About It and “Tapestry of Possibilities,” a show that aimed to counter racial, sexual, religious and other forms of bias. Concerns included “arguments” and “a hostile exchange” during the Tapestry event’s discussion session and attempts by students to leave in the middle of these mandatory programs, The Sun reported.

In 2017, after 11 years of the program, Tapestry was replaced by the Identity and Belonging Project. The new event “will feature stories based on submissions from undergraduates and will be performed by student volunteers,” according to an article in The Sun from 2017.

However, the Identity and Belonging Project was dropped last fall in favor of the Intergroup Dialogue Project’s “three-hour, student-facilitated session” for freshmen to “gain insight about themselves, others and learn active listening and communication skills across different identities.”

Orientation for Cornellians hailing from around the world has changed over the years as well.

Today, international students have the option to participate in a separate pre-orientation program, called Prepare, to help them adjust to before all the freshmen arrive for formal orientation.

Move-in has seen its share of alterations, and this bustling period was extended this year from one day to two days, “which made campus less congested,” Earle said.

NEW Orientation Leader

“Move-in day is always my favorite,” former chair of the Orientation Steering Committee Emily Krebs ’10 told The Sun in 2017. “I love seeing the new students come in.”

With incoming students come the traditional opportunities for trouble, whether on campus or in Collegetown. In 2003, the Ithaca Police Department issued 36 charges over the Friday and Saturday Night of O-Week, for issues such as rowdy behavior, noise violations, underage possession of alcohol and having open containers of alcohol in public.

While the ways Cornell welcomes its freshmen have changed over at least a century, some elements, such as the thrill of meeting new people and discovering a new campus, seem timeless.
“[O-Week] was exciting, and I feel like there was a lot of nervous excitement building up to move-in day, but once I was there I got to meet my roommate and my suitemates, and I feel like it was a lot easier to settle in than I thought it would be,” Jessie Liu ’20 told The Sun in 2016.