On one of the last sweltering days of the summer, 1,675 first-years moved into the freshman dormitories. The next day the temperature dropped but their excitement didn’t. Over the coming weeks these new students face the challenge of adjusting to an entirely new life. To help them in these challenging first days — packed with academic, social, and cultural activities — “Opening Days” has been revamped for 2007. Opening Days is what freshman orientation is called at Harvard College, and this year it takes place between Sept. 8 and 16.
The Freshman Dean’s Office (FDO) surveyed the Class of 2010 after last year’s winter break to assess the effectiveness of Opening Days. The many responses led to changes in the schedule, including additional opportunities for socializing in small groups, and more down time. And students now have improved access to advising opportunities and interaction with faculty. Also, some of the placement tests that guide students to appropriate courses can now be taken online, so that students arrive with a bit of a head start. In the future, it is likely that more of these tests will be administered online.
“The committee to re-examine the structure of Opening Days spent a lot of time understanding the logic of the calendar and evaluating the way that time was spent, as well as the duration of time spent on each event,” says Thomas Dingman, dean of freshman at Harvard College.
The calendar of Opening Days, compiled by the FDO with the help of many other offices in Harvard College, is crafted to accommodate both academic obligations and time for new students to socialize.
Advising plays a key role in helping first-years learn how academic life in college will differ from high school. Compared with the relatively limited number of paths a high school student may take, college offers a multitude of choices. Opening Days programming helps to make these opportunities accessible, not overwhelming.
“We help students find the balance that is right for them, and give them the tools to navigate Harvard,” says James Mancall, assistant dean of advising at Harvard College. “We want students to take ownership of their academic goals, but understand that there are resources that are here for them in order to help them to meet those goals.”
New advising events include a program on Sept. 13 called “Academic Life at Harvard.” During this informal afternoon of academic advising, students will question faculty and advisers, getting a closer look into the halls of academe. Activities include open houses in the humanities and social sciences, and individual advising sessions with representatives from all of the science departments.
The following week, on Sept. 18, the “Concentration Fair” in Tercentenary Theatre makes its debut. Here, students can explore the departments and concentrations that are available in the College, including some fields that incoming first-years may not have previously encountered.
During Opening Days, first-years have the opportunity to interact with faculty more informally than they will in the classroom. Harvard faculty and administrators lead outings of small groups of students “Through the Gates” to stimulating places off-campus. Some of the 40 destinations include Boston attractions such as Faneuil Hall and Fenway Park, as well as more exotic locales like Revere Beach and Walden Pond.
When first-years arrive on campus, they are welcomed not just by faculty and administrators, but also by the upperclassmen who will be their academic colleagues throughout the coming year. Two groups in particular — the Peer Advising Fellows and the Crimson Key Society — are on hand on move-in day to help make freshman feel at home.
The Crimson Key Society, a student organization that has served the Harvard community for 60 years, offers practical tours of the campus to familiarize new students with essential locations such as University Health Services, academic buildings, and the upper-class Houses.
“We want to offer many different types of events,” says Jimmy O’Keefe, freshman week coordinator for the Crimson Key Society. “This year we are offering more events for people who don’t meet people as easily in a large group — for instance the entire Class of 2011. Opening Days is when a lot of social networks are formed, and we want first-years to get out there and meet people.”
Another group of upperclassmen, Peer Advising Fellows — sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the College — are trained to act in an advising capacity throughout the first year. This is the second year that the Peer Advising Fellows have played this role. Fellows help with move-in day, reducing the stress on new Harvard students and their harried parents. This assistance lays the groundwork for close and ongoing advising relationships.
Of course, the first-year experience extends well beyond Opening Days, and the FDO is determined to maintain a high level of commitment to the entire first-year experience. To continue to look for ways to ease the transition to life in Harvard College, the FDO has created a new position, director of first-year programming. Katie Steele, who started with the FDO in July, will be concerned with students’ education outside of the classroom. Through Steele’s efforts, the priorities reflected in Opening Days — such as plentiful faculty-student interaction and improved social opportunities — will continue throughout the academic year.
“We want students to find their place and become settled at the University,” Dingman says. “Our job is not just to be reactive, where we are responding to a possible need for a course change, or an incompatible roommate situation. We want to provide programming that is multifaceted, and that gives first-years their best shot at a successful academic career at Harvard.”