Skip to main content

Behind the Scenes at Orientation

Behind the Scenes at Orientation by Kelly Wilcox '97

Kelly Wilcox '97, assistant director of student life and academic counselor, is a professional life coach who has conducted workshops with students, faculty, and staff. Prior to joining the Dean's Office, she served as head field hockey coach for six seasons. A McCabe Scholar, Wilcox earned All-American honors in both field hockey and lacrosse. She holds several college and Centennial Conference field hockey records as a goalkeeper and was a member of two Conference championship field hockey teams. Write to her at
hen you compare the number of first-year students arriving at Swarthmore at the end of August with the number of College employees preparing behind the scenes to receive them, I'd be willing to wager on a one-to-one ratio. I'm just one of those individuals. After a year as a member of the Dean's staff at the College, I've gained a deep appreciation of the thought and caring involved in welcoming our new students.

I am drawn to teams because of the energy and bonding they create. My first experience of Orientation was as a first-year field-hockey player joining the team for preseason in 1993. In the years to follow, as the College's head field-hockey coach for six years, I was to welcome teams of my own to preseason each year. Now, as assistant director of student life and academic counselor, I feel part of a new team - along with Myrt Westphal, associate dean for student life; Paury Flowers, assistant coordinator of student activities; and Rachel Head, assistant dean for residential life - as we welcome hundreds of new team members to campus. Now, however, instead of 20 strong young women wielding sticks, our team comprises almost 400 individuals. Each has a unique story that makes you wish you could devote a whole day to each of them, listening to them reveal their hopes and passions over a cup of coffee - each one of them unique and integral to the energy fabric of Swarthmore.

Kelly works closely with Paury Flowers (center) in advising all student organizations and activities and facilitating programs among students, faculty, and staff.
However, in the Dean's Office, time is of the essence. The first six weeks of a first year's life on campus are critical in shaping his or her experience and development during the next four years - and no week is more critical than the first one. For this reason, the entire staff of the Dean's Office starts to plan for this one week almost a year in advance.

As a first-time participant of the discussions and brain storming sessions that took place, I quickly became aware of my colleagues' commitment to values upheld by the institution such as diversity, respect, intellectual curiosity, wellness, sensitivity and fun, to name but a few. Building upon feedback from past student leaders and participants in Orientation, groups began to design activities and events that would embody these values or provide forums for discussion surrounding these and other values.

During orientation, the campus is full of students offering help with directions, moving and ...
My role evolved as that of conceiving fun events for the new students, as well as introducing them to the concept of wellness. As a member of the Swarthmore community, which offers more opportunities than anyone could take advantage of in a single lifetime, I followed a very simple philosophy in my planning process. To fully take advantage of these opportunities, one should be proactive and invested in having fun and in being "well" on a daily basis. Practicing wellness isn't merely about avoiding sickness. It's about creating a personal state of being where you can fully recognize and participate in events that are fun and, at the same time, foster learning, growth, and personal connections.

The Orientation schedule offers multiple opportunities for students to be proactive in enhancing their personal well being, such as guided hikes in the Crum, introductory yoga classes, a session on breathing techniques for reducing stress and anxiety, and a guided bike tour around campus. I truly believe that the development of such life skills and a commitment to personal wellness should become part of the campus fabric, serving as enhancements to the already well-established commitment to academic excellence and intellectual curiosity.

... answering questions.
This philosophy also applies to social events, with particular reference to alcohol consumption. We would be failing to provide our students with crucial social skills if we didn't encourage them to enjoy and immerse themselves in social events without the potential crutch of alcohol—not to mention, a certain level of raw energy and enjoyment is sacrificed if the focus shifts to alcohol consumption instead of the event itself. With these things in mind, alcohol will be unavailable not only during the Orientation events, where most participants are underage anyway, but also during those of Welcome Weekend that follows, to which the whole student population is invited.

The students of the Orientation Committee, under the direction of Paury Flowers, have created so many opportunities during that period for fun, relaxation, and social interaction that it would be impossible to list them all. Looking back on my own Orientation, there were so many exciting events that I couldn't stand to miss - even if it meant making the painful hike up Parrish Beach with legs so sore from three-a-day field-hockey practices that I felt like I was climbing Everest at times. This year's events will be no less worth the hike up Magill Walk.

After getting settled, students can enjoy a number of activities designed to introduce and welcome them to the College.
Once the buzz of Orientation comes to a close for freshmen, all students can look forward to a packed Welcome Weekend that kicks off with a Dean's Social on Thursday afternoon - a Mexican feast with a huge grill in front of Parrish. The first Parlor Party of the year is planned for Thursday night - every week during the year, students organize a themed party in Parrish Parlors and Shane Lounge with plenty of food and nonalcoholic drinks. For Friday night, relaxation in and around Tarble is on the agenda. Inside, students can compete head-to-head in modern or old-school video games on giant screens, while Parrish Beach will be the venue for Movie Night under the stars. The weekend culminates with this year's Large Scale Event - the hugely popular group Broken Social Scene.

Throughout the planning process, and in particular these final weeks leading up to Orientation, I am drawn repeatedly to my initial thought - the one-to-one ratio. If we achieve our goal, each student arriving on campus will feel that personal touch. We will have provided opportunities to create those initial meaningful relationships. The values we all cherish yet sometimes take for granted will be woven seamlessly into activities and conversations. And, most importantly, each student will appreciate the benefit of being one of 374 students but will come away from their first introduction to the College having experienced the one-to-one ratio that so clearly defines Swarthmore and the people that make it unique.

Associate Dean Myrt Westphal, one of two deans for the Class of 2012, addresses parents during a student life discussion on move-in day.
My first hours and days on campus are etched clearly in my memory. I can still remember the alternating feelings of excitement and nervousness that permeated every minute. I did not know that when I introduced myself to my teammates during that first practice that I was meeting eight individuals who were to become my closest lifelong friends. Nor did I realize that the professors who gave such personal and caring advice in those early weeks would one day become trusted colleagues in the development and education of future Swarthmore students.

My story is unique and personal, and it reminds me as a member of the planning committee to keep the personal aspect at the heart of the process. This personal touch defined my amazing experience as a student and has guided me as both a coach and a member of the Dean's staff.

As for those morning coffee conversations, I would love to hear the stories of the incoming first-year students. Just come find me. Parrish 117. Coffee is on me...