Something that makes Willamette University stand out from other schools is its student-directed and led orientation program, known to students and faculty as Opening Days. Every Willamette student can recall the experience: moving into their residence hall and then attending a group session and their first colloquium class just a few hours later. The rest of the week remains equally as busy, right up until the first day of classes. While many people might question why Opening Days is designed to be such a busy week for first-years, students involved in organizing Opening Days, as well as the students who recently went through the program, agree that the program, despite its hectic schedule, is critical to the first-year experience at Willamette.
To Jaelin Sonoda (’20), the 2019 Opening Days Coordinator, Opening Days is much more than just an orientation program. In her experiences as coordinator, Opening Days isn’t a typical ‘Welcome to campus!’ event, which is a common theme of other college orientations. Instead, the program is designed for new students to recognize that “Willamette is a liberal arts college, where you’re going to be a student, but also an activist and leader.”
This notion is reflected in the Opening Days program Bearcats Give Back, in which leaders and new students volunteer their time by providing service at a variety of organizations around the Salem area, allowing new students to exercise Willamette’s motto of “Not Unto Ourselves Alone Are We Born” and find what activism and leadership mean to them.
Another critical part of Opening Days is Reality Check, a show directed and performed by Opening Days students that covers topics including sexual assault, stress and anxiety, racial and gender-based discrimination and eating disorders. Opening Days leaders and students alike view the show as effective due to its incorporation of humor and ability to offer solutions to a variety of scenarios associated with these situations. In essence, Reality Check is an essential introduction to the first-year experience because it introduces situations that students may encounter throughout their time at Willamette and shares the resources available to them if they need them.
Opening Days also helps students find their place on campus and meet a wide variety of people. Cate Leach (‘23), who completed the Opening Days program this fall said, “[I] felt a sense of community building so quickly. Opening Days made it so easy to make friends.” The College Colloquium program allows students to continue building this sense of community and place. Not only do students get a taste of the typical Willamette course structure before the regular academic year commences, but they quickly grow close to their fellow group members by spending significant time with them in and out of an academic setting.
Leach can attest to this: “The connection in this class wouldn’t have happened if all our classes had started right away. It would have been a wildly different story if our Colloquium groups hadn’t been the same as our Opening Days groups because we wouldn’t have been able to grow as close.”
After three years of being associated with the Opening Days program and assisting in the process of continuously improving it, Sonoda concludes that “Opening Days serves as an introduction not only to campus and resources but also to Willamette’s culture. It’s an interactive experience that shows how Willamette functions as a community. The experiences of this week are much more than being introduced to college and contain lifelong takeaways.”