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College leadership looks to increase community with changes to first year orientation programming

| Friday, August 23, 2019

Each academic year, Saint Mary’s focuses on one of its four core values — learning, community, faith and spirituality and justice — with this year’s focus being community. Seniors Terra Nelson and Olivia Allen, student body president and vice president respectively, said they plan to incorporate the Saint Mary’s sisterhood in as much of first year students’ experiences as possible, beginning with orientation.

After receiving feedback on previous orientation experiences, Nelson said the pair have worked to make lasting changes to the peer mentor program as well as the weekend’s events to focus on community and wellness. These steps, along with the College’s increased focus on student life, sets to assist with first year students’ successes.

Anna Mason

Saint Mary’s students celebrate Belles Beginnings with designed posters welcoming incoming first years to campus.

“That will really help girls target: ‘Who am I? What am I about? What are my passions?’” Nelson said. “When you get to college, you can have the study skills and you can have the intellect, but if you don’t have the confidence, if you don’t have the coping mechanisms, you’re going to kind of flounder. That wholeness framework is going to focus on that.”

The road to begin building strong relationships, Allen said, starts with understanding the self through the new peer mentor program.

“It’s all about exploring your core values and digging deep to know what makes you you, how you can take what you know about yourself and apply that to your friendships and how you get along with other people,” Allen said. “I think giving that to the freshmen is going to give them a huge leg up on being here and making strong relationships and having an amazing experience here.”

Student Government Association (SGA) members welcomed incoming Belles with milk and cookies in their dorms Thursday night to make sure the new students felt ”really loved and special,” Nelson said.

Friday will feature the Belles Outdoor Fiesta, a party with pinatas and guacamole, to provide students with another opportunity to meet one another as well as SGA members. Nelson and Allen said they hope to become familiar faces to first year students as another way to ease the transition to college.

“It’s kind of like the more people you know and the more faces you’re familiar with, the more you feel at home,” Allen said.

The new pre-Domerfest event will sport an ACDC-inspired theme with giveaways and t-shirts featuring the incoming class’ graduation year, Nelson and Allen explained.

“We’re having food — we’re not making it, ‘You must be in by this time or you can’t go,’” Nelson said. “This year, it’s come between 8:30 and 9:30, and we’re going to hang out and have fun. You’re not going to feel miserable and then we’re going to walk you over to Domerfest.”

Additionally, there will be an alternative event on the College’s campus for students who do not want to attend the traditional Notre Dame Domerfest.

“[It’s] for the girls who don’t feel comfortable or maybe who don’t want to go to Notre Dame yet,” Allen said. “It gives them the option if they feel more comfortable staying, and that’s something we really want to emphasize — there’s a choice there, and we support whatever. We’ll have SGA girls at both, so the [first years], whether they want to go or not, they’re supported in both decisions.”

The pair said they find it important that every first year student enjoys themselves at the pre-Domerfest happenings but know that they can stay on campus to build relationships with other Saint Mary’s women.

“We just want each girl to be able to find their space, find their people, and it’s going to look different for each Belle,” Nelson said. “There’s no same girl, there’s no same interest. We just really wanted to create that space, and we’re really proud of the work that’s been done. We’re hoping that this gives them a good taste for what the rest of our term is going to look like.”

The community-driven events will continue throughout the first week of classes with each night featuring a different event. Allen said this will continue first year students’ involvement around campus as well as encourage returning students to strengthen the relationships they have already made.

“On our platform, where we talked so much about how we love the tradition of the College, we love the community and we want to enhance it. We want to make it better,” Nelson said. “Olivia and I, we hate when girls say there’s nothing to do at Saint Mary’s. We want them to say, ‘There’s awesome things to do at Saint Mary’s, and I was given a lot of opportunities.’”

When it comes to the Saint Mary’s experience, Nelson said she hopes to provide first year students with an experience that will help them love the campus as much as a student returning for her final year.

“It’s senior year, you come back and see your friends and it feels like home,” she said. “That’s the beauty of Saint Mary’s. It clicks; it happens. That’s senior year though. Freshman year, that feeling isn’t there yet. That’s where we lose retention, that’s where girls transfer, that’s where they say, ‘I don’t fit in here. There’s nothing to do here. I’m bored.’

‘We want to start getting that ball rolling with the feeling that we have coming into senior year where ‘I am good and I love Saint Mary’s’ — we want them to be introduced to that feeling early on. They’re going to fall in love with it, I think, anyway. We just want it to happen sooner.”

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About Maria Leontaras

Maria Leontaras is a junior at Saint Mary's pursuing a student-designed major in Interactive Journalism with minors in mathematics and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Maria serves as the Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when she isn't busy tweeting about movies and One Direction.

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