By Martha Hunter Shepard ′66
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
Ready, set, go! That’s how most alums and current students over the age of 20 would sum up the first days they spent at Rhodes. In one week’s time, they would move in, meet their classmates and a host of peer assistants, attend orientation sessions, register and begin classes. Depending on one’s class year, Parent/Family Weekend would be a long two or three months off.
That’s the way it was - until two summers ago, when Open Rhodes was born. It’s an aptly-named two-day residential summer orientation program for incoming students, parents invited. The concept was designed by a committee of faculty, staff and students who knew exactly what was needed and worked quickly during the 2007 spring semester to bring it about that summer. Why the change? Incoming students and their parents wanted—and needed— more time to assimilate, and they let the college know about it, says Marcus Langford, director of New Student Programs.
"In their evaluations of the old system, students said they felt a high level of anxiety because there was a lot to accomplish over a relatively short period of time," Langford explains. "In just a few days, they had to think about what they were going to major in, register for classes, meet their academic adviser and other new students and orient themselves to the campus. Plus, students didn’t have regular communication with the college between the time they’d paid their deposit in the spring until they arrived in August. There was a huge gap that wasn’t allowing them to develop a connection with Rhodes. All this, coupled with our desire to help students make that connection earlier rather than later, led us to Open Rhodes."
In June and July, students and their parents attend one of four two-day sessions. Each is geared to accommodate up to 125 students. Students are mailed an Open Rhodes Resource Book beforehand, a 32-page booklet filled with valuable information on how the college works. When they arrive for the session, students stay on campus, parents in hotels.
On campus, the entire Rhodes community is involved. Some 30 faculty participated this year, along with countless administrators and 45 current students, including 20 Open Rhodes Assistants, or ORAs, who met the incoming students, led panels and acted as tour guides.
At each Open Rhodes session, there are common informational panels, meals and receptions. There are also separate events for students or parents only. Everyone meets with faculty, current students and administrators in formal and informal settings.
There are faculty presentations on the Foundations Curriculum, humanities, fine arts, natural sciences and social sciences. Participants also hear from the dean of students and director of Campus Safety. There are sessions on academic transitions, Search/Life, community and diversity, community service, health and wellness and computer services. A panel of current students—a particular favorite—reveals what life is really like at 2000 North Parkway. Most important, each incoming student meets with a faculty member to plan his/her first semester schedule.
In addition, they leave with their ID cards and a sense of what their fall semester course schedule will be. At the end of Day 2, they and their parents know Rhodes backward and forward. In August, despite the temperature, move-in is a relative breeze.
Tom and Jacie Kuchan from Chicago attended Open Rhodes 2008 with their daughter Regan.
"I have a much better feel for the college, its environment, what its values are," Tom said on Day 2. "I know what to expect, the environment Regan will be living in, the opportunities and resources that are available to her."
Jacie enjoyed speaking with current students: "It was very informative and made me feel it’s a good fit for Regan."
Jeff Tucker from Franklin, TN, who participated with wife Allison and son Sam, said, "As a parent, I feel more acclimated to the campus. I have a much better idea of what the expectations are. Hearing from the administration, faculty and students helped me gain confidence that Sam’s going to be able to come here and be successful and independent on his own, and that there’s a good support system for all of that here."
Sam agreed, adding, "It’s also a good way to get to know people."
Jessica Cowan ’11, an ORA who went through the first Open Rhodes in summer 2007, concurs with Sam.
"It is a good way to meet people. I know that when the students arrive in August, they’ll see a familiar face and have someone to talk to. It’s good for parents, too. Last year, my mom remembered everything she heard from the panels and would remind me of things throughout both semesters."
Langford says Jessica speaks for other sophomores who went through the first Open Rhodes.
"It meant so much to them and their parents. But on the flip side, there were a number of juniors and seniors who hadn’t had the Open Rhodes experience and wanted to be involved—they wish they’d had that."
This year, 452 incoming students, more than 90%, attended Open Rhodes. (Other colleges and universities with summer orientation programs average 80% attendance, Langford says.) Of the 41 students who didn’t come, most live or were traveling abroad, and a few had conflicting plans. The $110 it costs for a student to attend (included in the fall tuition bill) covers meals, materials and lodging in a residence hall (women in Robinson, men in Blount).
"Rhodes is unique. Most small, private colleges operate under a ‘fall model,’ the way Rhodes used to, whereas larger institutions, those with 7,000 students in the incoming class, conduct several two- to three-day summer orientation programs," explains Langford.
"Open Rhodes makes a difference," he continues. "It allows students to make a connection with the college earlier and gives them more time to think about some of the many transitions they’re going to have to make, whether it’s related to academics or meeting new people and encountering new things. It gives parents an understanding that there are people here who have their sons’ and daughters’ best interests at heart and who will go out of their way to help them succeed."
Attending Open Rhodes is Step 1. In August, now-confident first-years arrive for an action-packed five-day academic, social and cultural orientation before classes begin. And these days, Parent/Family Weekend is only one month away.