It’s the last night of college orientation—the beginning of your freshman year. You’re standing on the bleachers of a large pavilion amid a sea of almost 2000 of your peers sporting hats, shorts and college t-shirts. You’re all holding a thin white candle, its flame bouncing around in the dark, as projected images of orientation memories flash across a giant screen.
For the last four days you’ve trekked the entire college campus together talking, playing games, reciting chants, doing dances, watching performances, listening to faculty and student speakers, and filling up on college food. You’ve become well acquainted with the group you were assigned to (What was your group number? Seven?) and may have already made some good college friends, including with your orientation counselor (O.C.) who steered and cheered you and your group through the entire process. Maybe your group was the one with the awesome counselor everyone kept talking about. Or maybe you were part of that mellow group that made fun of the dances, or the group that kept getting everyone to do the “Bugaloo.” At the end of the night when the slideshow’s over, 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This” suddenly blasts through the giant speakers of the pavilion as one hundred O.C.’s groove to the music on the high bleachers across the way. They endure a “Shark Attack” and then proceed to “Get Down” and “Go Bananas.”
You may have been part of something just like this when you were a college freshman. No? It all seems intense, but is only a small glimpse at the freshman experience at Villanova University—one of the many opportunities the college offers its freshmen, and one of the reasons Villanova was recognized in U.S. News’ “First Year Experiences” list for the unforgettable year it provides for first year students.
The list, formulated this past spring 2011, began to take shape with administrators’ (from over 1,500 schools) nominations of up to 10 U.S. colleges they believed offer the best freshman year experiences. Those most frequently mentioned were included in the rankings of the 18 total schools recognized. Villanova’s orientation and ACS (Augustinian Culture Seminar) classes are two notable freshman year programs that make it worthy of this special recognition.
Will the school make the cut again this year? From what it looks like, it just might.
Meet the Freshmen
If you’re ever around campus, you’ll find freshmen everywhere. Whether they’re getting down to business in Bartley, learning the nuts and bolts in the Center for Chemical Engineering & Education Research (CEER), nursing their way through Pharmacology in Driscoll, or hammering legal terms into their heads in the School of Law, they’re almost always around. If you’re lucky, you may come across Marcos Lopez* sitting out on a bench near Driscoll Hall reviewing notes or listening to some tunes on his iPod, waiting for his 1:30 class to begin. He’s a freshman studying business and, like many other freshmen, is so far undecided as to what he’d like to major in. His first impression of ‘Nova has been very positive so far, and he seems to be enjoying his time in college. “I liked orientation, my living arrangements are good, and I like everyone on my floor.” Within just a few weeks of starting school he applied to join Ambassadors (students who work in the Admissions Office welcoming prospective students and their families to the college) intramurals (he hopes to play flag football and tennis in the spring), and has become a part of a Learning Community, an opportunity that enables freshmen to live in a residence hall with other first-year students studying similar subjects. He’s also happy with his professors and says they are one of the best things about the school. “They realize that you need more guidance as a freshman. They’re pretty great.”
Orientation: “Your Journey Has Begun, Embrace Each Moment Together as One”
“Can you do it?” one orientation group shouts. “Do what?” another group responds. “The Bugaloo!” they say. “No way!”—“Come on!” they insist.—“Okay!” “Put your hands up high, Put your feet down low, and this is how we Bugaloo!” The provoked group does a dance pivoting their knees in and out and moving their arms from side to side as they shout, “Bugaloo, Bug-Bugaloo, Bugaloo, Bug-Bugaloo.” They jump up with a “Woo!” and are overtaken with laughter. This orientation dance is one students can’t help but remember long after their freshman year.
Orientation is one of the ways Villanova makes a great “First Year Experience” like Lopez’s possible, as it serves to integrate students and prepare them for the years ahead. “It's designed to help freshman succeed in and out of the classroom,” says Program Director Alicia Dunphy-Culp. “We try to give new students a strong foundation to base their Villanova experience on, and it’s a nice way to welcome them into our community.”
The program began in 1975 and has since become bigger and more student-run, requiring about a year of preparations for the 4-day event. Student leaders of the program are selected in the fall, and O.C. selection, scheduling and planning begins in the spring. O.C’s, who each lead one of 76 groups of about 22 freshmen through orientation, return to campus 12 days before the first day of classes to begin their 8-day training program. “It’s really busy,” says one of this year’s O.C.’s Bridget Kelly (2013) about training. “There’s a lot of bonding with the other O.C.’s, workshops, and learning what to expect from the new students.”
This year, orientation began on August 20 with information sessions for parents, a University Welcome, freshman group meetings with O.C.’s and academic colleges, and mass. The students say goodbye to their parents at the end of the first day and spend the next three days learning about campus resources, how to make healthy decisions, diversity, the history and mission of the university, online safety, and the academic colleges into which they’ve been enrolled (Nursing, Business, Liberal Arts & Sciences, or Engineering).
So, what do students think of the program? “It’s a convenient way to meet people and a good means of initiating friendship,” says Roshni Patei (2015). They also seem to like some of the fun activities incorporated into the learning aspects of orientation. Lopez enjoyed “Mission Improvable,” an interactive comedy sketch in which 3 or 4 comedic “agents” create comedy from audience suggestions. “It was kind of like a ‘Whose Line’ show,” he says. Along with the people in his group, this was his favorite part of orientation.
And who could forget the famous games, songs and chants? “Baby shark, shark, shark, SHARK, SHARK!” students shout as they move their hands to imitate a baby shark opening and closing its mouth. “I know some people don’t like the songs, but I like them! I like ‘Baby Shark’. That’s my favorite!” says Victoria Wise (2013). On numerous occasions students also sit in circles with their groups out on the campus fields and play games like “Psychologist”, “Mafia”—Ashley Karmen (2013) is partial to this murder mystery game—and “Wa!” Some join in enthusiastically, while others just go along with the activities wondering how they got dragged into such humiliation.
A student in a brown T-shirt sits at the front end of a table near his teacher who’s initiating discussion on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. “Here’s how I see it…” He has a lot to say—likely a relief to the group of weary-eyed peers sitting around him who didn’t do today’s reading. He talks for several minutes about his take on Aristotle’s idea of friendship as everyone sits listening—or pretending to listen—or not listening at all. The teacher asks another question and a female student with bright eyes and curly blonde hair pipes up to do the talking. “Students have to get over their fear of speaking and be willing to interact,” Professor Noel Falco-Dolan says. They also have to come prepared—they have to do the readings.
Augustinian Culture Seminar (ACS), another major program at Villanova, is a writing, discussion and reading intensive course students are required to take both semesters of their freshman year (each worth 3 credits). Students gain experience with some of the most important writers and works of literature through the seminar in pursuit of wisdom and self-discovery. Topics of truth, friendship, God, and life in general are studied and discussed in groups of about 16 students who all share particular interests or commonalities in things such as leadership, art and performance, and commuting.
Several outings are another exciting part of the seminar. Students meet at their professor’s home, as well as theaters, exhibits, and restaurants where they’re given room to learn and grow outside of the classroom environment. Students might watch a man quickly pound out “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the piano at the Kimmel Center; wander the Franklin Institute to gaze at mummies and King Tut’s sarcophagus; or walk the streets of Philadelphia in search of a nice place to eat.
Falco-Dolan says students enjoy the sense of community and support ACS provides, and the ways in which students go above and beyond to relate texts to real life. Her students gather once a semester at her house, where they snack, converse with peers, and present CD’s they’ve burned with songs representing certain things they’ve learned over the course of the seminar. Some of the students, feeling completely at ease with their teacher and peers, proceed to climb the tree in her backyard and call her “Mama D!”
Beyond the Freshman Experience
First year opportunities at Villanova are important to students and faculty alike for various reasons. Dunphy-Culp enjoys working with student orientation staff members and seeing their impact on the new students. “Seeing the student leadership thrive, and the new students who benefit from the program, is very rewarding,” she says. Falco-Dolan likes that students can apply what they learn in the ACS courses to their own lives and how it enables them to display their own individual talents.
Students are directly impacted by these freshman opportunities. Lopez says programs like ACS and orientation help him feel more adjusted and a part of Villanova. “The people are great,” he says. In the coming years he looks forward to internships, gaining work experience and studying abroad. He hopes to eventually find a good job and contemplates going to Graduate School.
Whether they’re in their first, fourth or even seventh year at Villanova pursuing an advanced degree, most students venture through a similar first year experience that unites the entire college community and prepares them for the future. Through these moments they gain a sense of who they are now, what paths they would like to follow in life, and who they would like to become. “You can’t build up without a good foundation,” a high school teacher once said, and this is especially true of the college years. Lucky for Villanovans, their “First Year Experience” has been considered one of the best in the nation.
*Students' names have been changed