In the weeks prior to my early move-in, I had somehow managed to convince myself that I was on the cusp of a great journey by the name of “Experimental Orientation.” The only problem was that I had vastly misread every email I received about my upcoming two weeks at Duke. Said journey, turns out, was actually titled “Experiential Orientation.” Yet, as I packed up my belongings with an absence of information on scheduling and what my program even stood for, I realized that “experimental” was a far more appropriate description of what was to come.
Experiential Orientation as an initiative was inaugurated into Duke’s programming this past summer. While I’m crafting this article in the shadow of the initiative’s successful first year, the shaky new ground that Experiential Orientation broke rumbled beneath my feet throughout the fourteen days of training and execution. Rather than feeling like an Orientation Leader (OL) for Project Lead, I felt like a human guinea pig.
The kick-off to OL training fooled me into thinking otherwise. On my first day, I lavished in the quiet of my early move-in block before excitedly greeting friends and my charming fellow OLs. The next morning, I was thrust into a buzzing room with over 350 OLs, 40 program directors, and 18 represented programs. The thick baskets of supplies and the roaring team chants betrayed the scope of what Experiential Orientation was trying to accomplish. At the same time, understanding the far reach of accommodating and accounting for 1740 first-year students begged the question of where Duke would fall short.
And I knew it was a question of “where” and not “if” when training week itself failed to strike the correct balance between preparation and conciseness. The week was both too long and not long enough. We spent far too much time sitting in lectures learning how to facilitate conversations about topics relevant to our program, and not enough time centered on the critical conversations. It was only when we had to inform ourselves about gender violence prevention and wellness at Duke that Experiential Orientation decided to break free from the lecture format in a rotation-style activity that didn’t give the information enough room to breathe.
By the time the buses were flying past us as we painted the East Campus bridge in a short and poorly-planned window, I realized that I wasn’t the only one wildly unprepared to greet my first years. Duke was as well.
Before I continue, I need to concede that my views on Experiential Orientation aren’t coming out of a place of malice or blame. On the contrary, I deeply cherish the seven days I spent with my fellow OLs, program directors, first-year students and even SIL staff members (Project Lead’s sponsor). My program directors Daisja and Arsha poured their blood, sweat and tears into the conception and execution of Project Lead, endeavoring to cultivate a sense of community that enabled me and many others to be authentically vulnerable. My fellow OLs became a family to me, etching memories of dances under neon paint and songs about moose and juices into my being. And my first years were bright-eyed and easy to love, slogging through the week with an air of relentless enthusiasm.
My views on Experiential Orientation come out of a place of unfathomable appreciation for everyone involved. They all deserve better than the immense inequity they received.
The largest equity issue was the financial discrepancies between the programs. I know that we can’t remedy the fact that some programs are more established than others. While frustrating, the equal amount of dedication contributed by program directors remedied much of the imbalance that programs created prior to this year brought. What could have been remedied was how some programs received obvious funding boosts compared to others. While Project Lead was struggling to afford Locopops and Project Research didn’t even have a p-card for most of orientation, Project Play was afforded the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with the basketball team and Project Citizen had an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington DC.
First-years were made sharply aware of these inequalities through the grapevines of East Campus. Listening to their frustration and discontent broke my heart; they were living through a financial and experiential hierarchy brewed right from Duke’s own administration. Watching as they sat through lectures that could have been engaging activities if Project Lead’s budget was more equitable made me feel helpless.
By the time orientation week concluded, my students—while having collected some remarkable memories—were drained and disheartened. The packed schedule (which commenced immediately after a chaotic move-in) and lack of rest times meant that everyone was just about ready to collapse under the weight of reflecting on what had just occurred. Unfairly so, students with disabilities, student-athletes, individuals in ROTC, marching band participants, and many more were left at a massive disadvantage in terms of preparedness for the first day of classes given the intense energy expenditure in managing their schedule. Not only did Experiential Orientation inequities echo out on a program level, they also did on an individual basis.
Given that every student is required to participate in this new initiative, and given that every student pays the same tuition and has the same right to exist at Duke as their peers, the fundamental structuring of Experiential Orientation needs to shift. There needs to be more exceptions provided for students without the physical, mental, or temporal capacity to partake in strenuous programming. More importantly, the funding given to programs should be dependent on the number of students in that program rather than the program’s sponsor or mission. A fixed budget for each student, coupled with the necessary exceptions, would transition the first-year class into FDOC on equal footing.
Experiential Orientation was, by and large, a success—with the management of over 1700 students and the accomplishment of one of the best move-in days in Blue Devil history. I’m not advocating for its repeal just because it hosted a slew of faults. I’m advocating for basic collegiate tenets of learning and growth. Listen to the voices of students reflecting on their time. Improve training so that it prioritizes pertinent information and makes OLs feel more adequately prepared. Make experiential student programs more financially and ably equitable. Welcome our Class of 2027 with the confidence that Experiential Orientation 2.0 will improve on its predecessor.
Viktoria Wulff-Anderson is a Trinity sophomore. Her column typically runs on alternate Thursdays.
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Viktoria Wulff-Andersen is a Trinity sophomore and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.