New semester brings unique O-Week experience

Planning for O-Week begins nine months ahead of time. Rice’s orientation program held before classes start in August is the official welcome for new Owls, packed with everything from academic advising sessions to fun annual traditions.

After a May 17 decision to stage a dual-delivery O-Week — conducted both online and in-person — coordinators this year had only three months to adapt Rice’s weeklong orientation.

Araceli Lopez, the associate director of first-year programs in Rice’s Office of Student Success Initiatives, is responsible for organizing and executing O-Week each year along with a team of 33 student leaders from all 11 residential colleges. As soon as the decision was reached in mid-May, she rallied her students and began formulating a new plan.

“Let’s go through every event,” Lopez told them. “What is mandatory? What is required? What can we move online? What has to be in person?”

A new O-Week 2020 committee was formed: “Reimagining O-Week.” It brought together stakeholders from across campus to conceive of how to deliver affinity group sessions, wellbeing conversations, healthy relationships discussions, campus tours and much more in an engaging online format.

Soon, they delivered an entire remote plan to Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman. It included prerecorded speeches from Rice President David Leebron, Provost Reginald DesRoches, Gorman and Student Association President Anna Margaret Clyburn; advising sessions and associate dinners via Zoom; and a live-streamed, fireworks-blazing end to a socially distanced, masked-up matriculation that spread out across campus Aug. 21.

Wiess College approaches the Sallyport. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Wiess College approaches the Sallyport. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

On that Friday, all 11 colleges marched their new students through the Sallyport — the symbolic act that officially makes them Owls — starting at 10 a.m. with Baker College. The processions ended at 9:30 p.m. after Duncan College and Rice’s incoming athletes passed through. Some students carried open laptops or phones held high to bring their remote classmates along for the ceremony.

An afternoon rain shower provided the only moment of chaos during the final day of O-Week. Lopez and her student leaders made sure everything ran smoothly from their stations near the Sallyport. Under a night sky illuminated by fireworks, they were finally able to relax and enjoy the show along with the rest of campus.

“Everybody really pulled together,” Lopez said. “I always say it takes a village, and I think this year, that village got stronger, got a lot bigger.”

Making it work

O-Week officially kicked off this year on Aug. 15, with students moving in a day earlier than usual to accommodate rapid COVID-19 testing and social distancing protocols.

Over the course of two days, 833 freshmen and other new students made their way through testing at the Waltrip Indoor Training Facility. Out of 4,595 tests administered by Rice between Aug. 1 and Aug. 17, seven undergraduates and one graduate student tested positive, including two O-Week advisors at Will Rice College, which prompted that college’s O-Week activities to move fully online.

Rice students took advantage of the week's sunny weather. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Rice students took advantage of the week’s sunny weather. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Kate Abad, director of the Rice Student Center, was among 84 Rice employees who volunteered to staff testing sites across campus. Abad was proud of the investment Rice put into testing and other safety measures that allowed students to return to campus this fall.

“They’re the reason we do what we do,” Abad said. “The students are why we’re here, so it’s nice to see their faces and remember that it’s all for a good reason.”

Within two days, move-in was complete and O-Week was underway. Many of the traditional events such as the academic fair, introduction to the college system and diversity training with Catherine Clack simply shifted online. Others, such as college bonding activities, required more brainstorming.

Scavenger hunts across campus were a popular option — outdoors, easily done with social distancing — as remote students led teams of their in-person peers using maps and clues only they could see. Online game nights — like Rice Jeopardy! convened late in the evening —also offered digital downtime. There was even a mini Beer Bike and a virtual escape room.

Baker College O-Week coordinator Rapha Onyeka participated in a socially distanced water balloon fight. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Baker College O-Week coordinator Rapha Onyeka participated in a socially distanced water balloon fight. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

“I’m glad to just be in person, even with the restrictions in place,” said Lovett College freshman Dimitri Galterio. His family spent four days driving from New York to deliver him to the campus where he’ll study piano at the Shepherd School of Music. “I mean, we’re going to be socially distancing and we’re going to be wearing masks, but it’s better than just quarantining at home and doing Zoom classes.”

But of course, many students didn’t have the option of coming to campus this semester. Some remote Owls worried their O-Week experience wouldn’t be as immersive.

Here from afar

Mohamed Abead was one of those students. The Lovett College freshman is at home in Cairo, taking classes online this semester. He thought virtual O-Week would feature days of boring lectures, to say nothing of the challenges posed by the seven-hour time difference.

“At the beginning, I felt that we weren’t going to be included,” said Abead, who plans to study computer science. “I wasn’t really expecting much.”

Mohamed Abead is "happy to be virtually at Rice" from his home in Cairo, Egypt.

Mohamed Abead is “happy to be virtually at Rice” from his home in Cairo, Egypt.

But a week of nonboring, nonlecture activities quickly demonstrated to Abead why Rice attracts students who are both leaders and innovators. Breaking into the classic, small O-Week “families” allowed for interactions among his group, which met together throughout the day for casual meals, getting-to-know-you games, catch-up sessions and moments of reflection.

“The coordinators actually did a really good job including us, even with in-person activities like matriculation,” Abead said. “I feel that they have exceeded my expectations by creating some truly innovative solutions.”

Abead gave credit, too, to the attitude of the O-Week advisors and coordinators, a sense of enthusiasm regardless of circumstances.

Wiess College senior Erica Lee and Lovett College senior Matthew Burns coordinated O-Week for their respective colleges in 2019 and were eager to return this year as student leaders. Together, the two student directors brought an attitude of “reframing,” as Burns put it, this year’s O-Week.

“We’re trying to highlight how this is an opportunity to do something that’s never been done before, rather than being like, yeah, this sucks, everything got taken,” Burns said.

Lee agreed, pointing out that most freshmen already had a senior year of high school  cut short. Now, she said, was time to focus on how to make the most out of an unprecedented situation and give them a memorable welcome.

O-Week 2020 ended with the traditional fireworks display following matriculation. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“Coordinating (last year) was really fulfilling,” Lee said. “I learned a lot, I grew a lot and I wanted to help guide the next set of coordinators to become better leaders. So it’s been really fulfilling (this year) because they far exceeded my expectations —as coordinators and also in this situation as well.”

When the fireworks went off at 9:30 Friday night in Houston, it was 4:30 a.m. in Cairo. Yet Abead was among those Rice students who watched from across the world as the celebration was livestreamed on YouTube.

“I felt a bit disappointed that I couldn’t make it in person,” Abead said. “But with the whole event and talking to my O-Week family — which is really open — we have bonded over several things. I think we are starting to create our friendships.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.