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Making Connections Before Day One

This year, more than 200 new students participated in Pre-Orientation
Adventure programs (Pre-O), including two days of outdoor adventures,
ropes courses and hiking at the nearby Diakon Wilderness Center.

This year, more than 200 new students participated in Pre-Orientation Adventure programs (Pre-O), including two days of outdoor adventures, ropes courses and hiking at the nearby Diakon Wilderness Center.

First-year Interest Groups and mentoring program add new layers to Dickinson’s supportive community

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson 

Before they set foot in a classroom—before Orientation, Pre-Orientation or Move-in Day—members of the class of 2018 had already taken an important step in their undergraduate careers. It began during the summer, when they signed up for a First-year Interest Group, or FIG.

New this year, the FIG program helps first-year students build a supportive network of mentors. Each group of 10-15 first-years is led by an upper-level student mentor who works with adult mentors and staff to organize small-group social gatherings, beginning during Orientation week. Student mentors also meet individually with each first-year student in their group throughout the year.

Like the individualized attention students receive from Dickinson’s faculty members thanks to the college’s 9:1 student-faculty ratio, these small-group and one-on-one interactions with peers and adults add to the rich network of academic and social resources available to all students throughout their Dickinson careers and beyond.

Friends with like interests

Each FIG centers on a theme, like outdoor activities, music, religion, technology or social justice. Most get together regularly for meetings and meals; FIGs also perform volunteer work, take day trips and host special events.

“We got along really well from the beginning, and it was a relief to have a solid group of people I could count on to eat with and hang out together,” says Julia Mercer ’18, one of 15 students in a FIG centered on sustainable development and green technology, which took a trip to a pumpkin patch for fall-themed fun. Members of her FIG have gotten along so well, in fact, that they’ve organized dinners and ice-cream runs in between the group’s official FIG meetings.

Similarly, students in Alexandra Bennett ’15’s Campus Activities and Leadership FIG took a Halloween trip to Hersheypark and have enjoyed off-campus dinners together. Bennett, a psychology major, also extended their social circle by two when she invited her FIG to her parents’ Carlisle house for a home-cooked meal.

Anastasiia Khlopina ’18, an student from Russia, also broadened her support network in unexpected ways when she joined a religion and spirituality FIG led by Jessica Klimoff ’16 and Tracy Wolf ’15. “We always have a fun time together, and my FIG members have become close friends,” she says, noting that she appreciates the guidance from student leaders as well as adult mentors Donna Hughes, director of the Office of Community Service & Religious Life, and alumnus Robert C. Paull ’62, a professor emeritus at Pepperdine University, who attends the FIG’s regular meetings via Skype.

Along with this new program, Dickinson has overhauled the class dean system to provide students increased support. Whereas previously all 619 students had the same first-year dean, each incoming student now has been assigned to one of seven individuals who will be committed to his or her success throughout the next four years.

“We already have seen a difference,” says Joyce Bylander, vice president and dean of student life. “When students have felt the tension or anxiety of adjustment, they’ve reached out to their college dean. When parents have had concerns about their child’s adjustment, they’ve reached out to us as well. Our ability to have caring adults touch base has been helpful in making a successful transition to college.”

First-Year Interest Groups met throughout the fall for a variety of activities, including the Law & Policy FIG having lunch and a discussion with State Rep. Steve Bloom.

First-year Interest Groups met throughout the fall for a variety of activities, including the Law & Policy FIG having lunch and a discussion with State Rep. Steve Bloom.

Peer-to-peer advice

In addition to getting advice from their assigned deans, FIG students receive increased access to advice from peers who may have experienced the same challenges. Bennett, for instance, helps her 16 first-years adjust to the rigors of college academics by passing along her own time-management strategies and encourages students to meet regularly with professors and visit the Writing Center.

Sophia Miller ’17, another student mentor, has offered tips on everything from how to get tech support for a misbehaving laptop to how to deal with homesickness. “Many first-years arrive with a set idea of what [their experiences on campus] will be like, so it can be jarring when they encounter the unexpected,” she says. “A little reassurance from someone who has been there goes a long way.”

One of her students, Grace Crossland ’18, agrees. “Sophie has great insight,” Crossland reports, “and she’s a great resource for all of the simple questions freshmen often have.”

A Sustainable Local Adventure Pre-Orientation group posed for a photo at the top of Pole Steeple.

A Sustainable Local Adventure Pre-Orientation group hiked to the top of Pole Steeple.

Multilayered support

While student mentors help ease first-year jitters, new students also receive advice and support from staff, faculty and alumni. Trained student leaders, known as first-year-experience coordinators, keep tabs to ensure that all mentors’ and FIG members’ needs are addressed.

An interdisciplinary team of staff members also oversees the coordinators and offers feedback. But if the first-year students themselves are any indication, the FIG program and the student mentors appear to be doing an excellent job.

“Coming into Dickinson knowing only one person was nerve-racking,” says Zoe Rollenhagen ’18. “But being part of a group that holds the same interests as me and met frequently during the first couple of weeks made me feel more welcomed and comfortable here.”

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Published February 20, 2015