What is Colby? What distinguishes the Colby experience? Why are we here?
Tough questions with no simple answers. And never more germane than during orientation for new students.
When 468 members of the Class of 2011 arrived on campus August 28, the Office of the Dean of Students, faculty and student volunteers, and a handful of young alumni were ready with a whole new approach.
This year, rather than shipping students out on COOT trips first thing, a full day of discussions and activities set the table. “At the core of it,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Jim Terhune, whose team overhauled the orientation program, “the primary purpose of orientation is to acclimate a new class into an academic environment.”
Terhune’s emphasis on “academic” reflected the deeply felt mood of the faculty and administration. As they grappled with how best to launch a new class into the Colby experience, officials were aware that the direction of that first push would help determine the path of the College community as well.
For more than 30 years COOT trips—four-day outdoor excursions with upper-class leaders and eight to 10 fellow freshmen—have been the central component of orientation. As the COOT program developed, though, faculty and staff participation diminished and COOT trips evolved into a largely student-determined exchange of information.
College brochures suggested that the trips provided new students an opportunity to “get their bearings,” to bond with an initial group of friends, and to get candid answers from upper-class trip leaders to all kinds of questions.
“COOT became more of a social activity than one able to reflect the intellectual component of the College,” said Professor of Economics Michael Donihue ’79, who over the past year chaired a subcommittee studying the transition from high school to Colby as part of the College’s reaccreditation self-study.
Terhune and his staff worked with Donihue’s committee and with Professor Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center, on a day-long program that came before the trips and that engaged COOT leaders. They recruited the authoritative voices of young alumni and Colby professors for two panel discussions that addressed common apprehensions of new students. Those discussions were moderated by Peter Hart ’64, a leading political pollster and an animated emcee.
Professors Phil Brown (economics), Andrea Tilden (biology), and Cedric Bryant (English) talked briefly about how they got to Colby, what they expect from students, and Colby “myths.”
“It’s the myth,” Bryant said, “that there’s an absolute correlation between your high school academic success and your academic success here at Colby. A very quick example. ... Students get their first essay back and it has a grade on it that is totally alien to you. … The response in one way or another (and I think every professor here has experienced it) is something on the order of, ‘I never got a grade like this in high school.’ And my rather cryptic response is usually, ‘That was then and this is now.’ The point is ... we are all, as professors, invested in the same thing, and that’s getting our students to the next level of intellectual and academic excellence.”