They could hear it before they could see it. Music blasting from speakers on the steps of George Washington Hall, a vast, red-brick building with soaring ionic columns.
They carried with them book bags and blue folders and wore on their faces the hopeful, uncertain expression of teenagers teetering on the brink of something new and profound.
Although it was not yet 9 a.m., the heat index flared into the 90s and the air felt stiff, making what they saw next all the more unlikely.
Four students danced on the stately steps where the music played, squinting and sweating and cheering each person who climbed them – 165 incoming students and nearly as many parents. Over the next day and a half, the new and soon-to-be high school graduates would orient themselves to college life at the University of Mary Washington.
It started with a celebrity’s welcome home.
UMW had planned their arrival for a year. While many high school seniors filled out college applications and toured campuses, Assistant Dean of Student Involvement Melissa Jones was already thinking about Orientation 2018. Nearly 1,000 incoming students attend one of six overnight sessions over a two-week period in June, rooming in dorms and eating in campus dining and attending sessions on everything from first-year budgeting to how to join a club and travel abroad.
The stakes were high. Enrollment at degree-seeking institutions fell across the board in 2017, dipping slightly at public, four-year colleges and universities after several years of incremental upticks. College students, for the most part, now had more choices. Some parents, Jones said, made deposits at two or three universities; they attended each of their orientations before making a final decision.
All that aside, Jones understood this was a milepost for both students and parents. That 18 years – sometimes more – had led them to this moment.
“There is so much hope and promise in the eyes of the new class. There always is,” said Jones. She made it her mission to ensure every student that stepped on campus had someone here who believed in them.
“It’s our job,” she said, “to see the potential in every student we come across.”
If this new chapter didn’t quite seem real before, it was hard to escape now that they were on campus, sitting in George Washington Hall’s Dodd Auditorium listening to a university welcome and getting a crash course in the “first-year experience.”
Then Jones took the microphone. A dozen orientation leaders – including four who’d spent the early morning dancing on the steps – rushed to the front like rock stars. They unfurled the poster boards they’d decorated with their names and held them high above their heads.
It was time. Time for the incoming students to say goodbye to their parents. They’d see them again at the end of the day.
Redd Niero ’21, like the rest of UMW’s student orientation leaders, had trained for months for these two weeks in June. Just one year earlier, she’d been on the other side of it, sitting in Dodd and listening to a college welcome. She remembered how much fun she’d had, and she wanted to give the same experience to others.
Outside in the sun, 165 new students broke off as they found their assigned orientation leader. Smaller groups, Jones knew, made connections easier to create. Niero rolled up the poster board with her name spelled out in giant red letters and led her charges into a shady spot off the sidewalk, where she asked them to share their names and one interesting fact about themselves.
There was a long pause before someone decided to start.
Jules’ birthday fell on Valentine’s Day. Anna had lived in the same house her whole life. Kree was from Tappahannock, Virginia, but doubted anyone had heard of it. Brianna worked with kids, Noelle had taken a gap year, Dana wanted to study art, Jackson liked to fix bikes and Hayden was a libertarian.
Niero nodded enthusiastically as each incoming student spoke.
The ice was broken. This is how connections started.
Brianna Reaves grew up an hour from UMW, in Culpeper, Virginia, where she decided in seventh grade she was going to Virginia Commonwealth University. That was the place she could see herself. That was where everybody who knew her could picture her.
She’d served as senior class president and dreamed about all the things she might do with her life. She wanted to become mayor one day. She wanted to be an activist and work with underprivileged kids. She wanted to major in psychology and minor in political science. Or maybe major in criminal justice.
Reaves wasn’t quite sure. Except that VCU was the path that would take her where she wanted to go.
Then she visited UMW. “I fell in love,” she said, “because I wanted to be viewed as a person and not a number. This is a place I can leave an impact. I can come out of my comfort zone.”
Now she was here. Now she was walking across campus, and asking questions about how to become class president, and lunching on UMW Dining’s signature dish – smoked pork barbecue – and standing in line for the Eagle ID card that would make it official, and browsing the UMW merchandise in the university bookstore, and swapping stories with Kree Small, another incoming student who’d grown up in a small town in Virginia.
By the end of the day, they’d be inseparable, sitting together through “UMW Live” in the Digital Auditorium of the Hurley Convergence Center – a series of gut-splitting skits written and performed by orientation leaders. The vignettes, set to music hits, covered everything from roommate conflicts and falling behind in class to the consequences of cheating on tests and the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, calling on Harry Potter and Sesame Street and Charlie’s Angels.
Later, as the sun went down and Reaves stopped to take a photo with her cell phone, Small would stop to wait. They’d sit side-by-side on the floor of Virginia Hall while two dozen students played a game of Pterodactyl, trying to say the word without showing their teeth. When it was time for the choose-your-own-adventure portion of the evening, they scanned a list of activities – Four Square and campus golf cart tours and adult coloring and video gaming – and settled on Bingo in the Underground, where they pulled stools around a tiny, crowded table.
If there’d been any doubt about the college Reaves had settled on, any tinge of regret she’d given up the place she’d so long pictured for herself, it was gone now.
Reaves had come home.