Rob Ullman

Walking into Newcomb Hall, four University students share smiles as they discuss the day’s events. While Ally Asaro, Hayden Gray, Marilyn Harvey and Deeva Shah navigate the building like seasoned upperclassmen, in reality they are incoming first-years who have yet to experience the noon rush at Newcomb Dining Hall.

With flip-flopped steps, these friends of only a few hours join their orientation classmates in Newcomb Ballroom to hear about Honor Council, University Judiciary Council and Student Council. The orientation folders that the women pass create a sea of orange that would make football coach Al Groh proud.

The community these students have already begun to create emulates the group focus that orientation director Tabitha Enoch and orientation leaders emphasize. “Orientation is important in establishing what it means to be a part of the University community,” Enoch says.

Between orientation events, incoming students have a chance to learn about this community through conversations with the 31 orientation leaders. These current students, who are eager to share their love for the orange and blue, happily explain the difference between Bryan and Bryant halls and the reasoning behind saying “first years” instead of “freshmen.”

The OLs are aware that their enthusiasm can strongly influence a student’s initial experience and opinion of UVA.  “We’re the first faces they see,” says veteran OL Nicole Ponticorvo (Col ’09), who served in the summers of 2006 and 2007.

The honesty of the OLs reassures the orientees, who are both excited and overwhelmed with the busy two days of orientation. “The OLs understand how we feel,” Shah says.

In a “Joining the UVA Community” discussion about anxieties, students share concerns about maintaining a balance between academics and social activities and missing friends from home. One young man reveals that he is worried about packing and leaving something important at home—like all of his pants. Ponticorvo has seen the benefits of such openness at orientation. “They find out their concerns are the same that everyone else has,” she says.

Robbie Forrest, who attended an early session, says his nervous excitement about attending UVA comes naturally from being in a new situation—but it’s a good feeling. “UVA has everything,” says Forrest, who plans to be active in the University community by singing in an a cappella group in the fall.

To offer further insight into everything from streaking to secret societies, OLs field questions in a candid “no adults allowed” student life panel. From queries about decorating policies in dorm rooms (“How strictly are the rules enforced?”) to leisure activities (“What do you guys really do on the weekends?”), the questions reveal the kinds of preoccupations on the minds of first years.

Anxiety surrounding the social side of University life is heightened for many new students by their unfamiliarity with dorm life.  A possible solution to this uneasiness is found through Facebook. As students find other “UVA ’12” users on the popular social networking site, many choose to avoid the uncertainty of being paired with a random roommate and find a more compatible roommate through the site.

Through Facebook, Shah found a fellow vegetarian to live with next year. Although she has not met her future roommate, she is comforted knowing they share a common lifestyle.

Even with the focus on the social aspect of University life, make no mistake: These are serious students. The adjustment to the rigors of University academics appears as a frequent topic in numerous orientation sessions and discussions. And scheduling is a major part of orientation, as students pick 25 potential classes before narrowing the list to a semester’s course load.

While the opportunities provided by different classes are exciting, first years agree that scheduling is the most stressful part of orientation. Some students come in with no idea of what classes to take, OL Emily Kusiak (Nurs ’10) says, while others come in with color-coded Excel spreadsheets of potential courses.

The scheduling process at orientation changed significantly last year, Enoch says, and that same system continued this year. Rather than meeting individually with an adviser as in years past, 20 students meet with a faculty member and two orientation leaders. This group setting is less intimidating for students and emphasizes the breadth of classes available.

While the large number of classes can be surprising, Harvey’s greatest realization about UVA during orientation is hardly related to academics. She doesn’t hesitate when asked what surprised her most about the experience. With a sigh and a smile, she glances at her tired legs and says, “There are so many stairs.”