As another Autumn Quarter arrives at UW Tacoma, so has returned another round of Welcome Days. What's new about Welcome Days in Autumn Quarter 2020?
As another Autumn Quarter arrives at UW Tacoma, so has returned another round of Welcome Days. The program is designed to help new and returning students acclimate to life at school, through recreational and educational activities that introduce them to available programs on campus.
But in a year when 85% of UW classes are being held online to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, Welcome Days has had to steepen its learning curve at a time when it was already in transition.
A little more than a year ago, Student Activities Specialist Steve Ayden arrived at UW Tacoma from Carleton College with a clear purpose. During his job interview that spring, he had presented a clear vision for Welcome Days: an intentionally crafted series of programming designed to help students fresh from orientation transition into the social culture of college.
“I quickly discovered that’s not what Welcome Days typically is, and that it was more of a collection of recreational events put together by SAB,” Ayden said. “But one of the first things [Director of Student Involvement Liz Hansen] told me was ‘I saw your presentation, and I agree that what you suggested is what Welcome Days should be. Go for it.’
“There were a lot of changes happening across the board at UW Tacoma at that time, so I got on board and decided to make changes right away.”
Things went according to plan through Autumn and Winter quarters. Ayden took big picture planning duties off his student employees’ plates and built a partnership with Stephon Harris and Monika DelFierro of New Student and Family Programs, the department responsible for orientation.
He and DelFierro worked together to develop a long-term plan for Welcome Days, as well as a comprehensive curriculum for the program. Then they focused on making their work user friendly.
“We decided students probably don’t care about learning outcomes,” Ayden said. “They care about about ideas they can understand. So behind the scenes there’s a lot of documentation about the learning outcomes, but we turned those into intentionally crafted programs that fit into four neat categories: Connect, Learn, Socialize and Succeed.”
The transition unfolded according to plan in Autumn, and continued for the smaller Welcome Days programming the following Winter Quarter.
Then, amid rising COVID-19 diagnoses in Washington state, UW President Ana Marie Cauce announced on March 9 that all three campuses would immediately cease in-person classes and programming, and transition to online-only services.
“‘Slammed’ is the perfect description for how we had to make that transition into Spring Welcome Days,” Ayden said. “By that point we knew what we would have done for Welcome Days had we met in person. But we had to accept that the reality we had anticipated for Welcome Days was not our reality anymore. We lost things.
“There are a good number of events we transferred virtually. We transitioned Bingo virtually and that was very easy. We also transitioned the Involvement Fair into a digital space. We were making plans for [school mascot Hendrix the Husky’s] birthday party and attempted to transition that to digital as well, but unfortunately we couldn’t make it work and we made the decision to push that celebration into the future.”
Welcome Days’ new reality—regardless of how sudden and drastically different its demands were—turned out to be filled with opportunities.
First, Ayden learned what a tremendous resource his student employees in SAB were when it came to creating online programming.
“They had a better sense on how to transition some things than I did, so it was important to empower them,” he said. “They’re really killing the game at this point.”
Second, the situation forced Ayden and DelFierro to write a comprehensive online guidebook for Welcome Days. Without access to the physical campus, students could no longer stumble upon a program on their way from one building to another; that meant they needed to be explicitly told what was available.
“It was like we hit the fast forward button on our plan for Welcome Days,” Ayden said. “Writing that guidebook was originally going to be a Year Three or Year Four project, but the pandemic made it a Year Two project.”
In the end, the crash-course circumstances of spring translated into a smooth planning process for the current Welcome Days program, which is going on now through Oct. 16. Ayden and DelFierro created a full roster of online student programs under the theme of “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The move was a gesture to take into account the full spectrum of residential, commuter, and non-traditional students served by UW Tacoma. Students can play bingo, learn how to build their resume and LinkedIn profile, or connect with peers in their own identity groups, depending on the experience they want to tailor for themselves.
Ayden said he was gratified to have the Autumn Welcome Days programming come together so cohesively. Now he’s looking ahead to a future when the program returns to campus.
“I think we’re going to have to look at a couple of hybrid programs as we transition away from the pandemic response,” Ayden said. “We won’t have a lot of students gathering in one place at first. So Involvement Fair will still be virtual, but something like bingo can be held in person with social distancing measures in place. We’ll probably have a lot of events that for safety reasons are half-virtual, and half in-person.”
A link to the Welcome Days guidebook and schedule of events can be found at tacoma.uw.edu/welcomedays. Programs are open to all registered UW students, and will continue through Oct. 16.
“To make a (career) change at the age of 50 and to move away from a career that I am good at is the stuff of craziness. But when I really sat down and really thought about why would I stay ... they were safe, they were comfortable, but they didn’t support my own growth.”