Changes to Passport structure aim to bring students to campus sooner

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“There’s no perfect way to do orientation” said John Witte, dean of students. “We’re always assessing how orientation is going. I’ve been in conversations in other years where we have asked, ‘should we make a change in structure?’”

New student orientation will look a bit different next year. This past fall, a working group made up of faculty and staff across departments and interests was commissioned by the Vice President of Student Life, Sarah Visser, and the First-Year Council, to reimagine new student orientation. The reason for the changes is outlined in an official document issued from the Provost’s office: “While our long-standing Passport and Quest orientation programs have served the college remarkably well, the reality of complex timing and financial pressures on families, limited options for campus visit dates, and a desire to provide earlier contact point for enrolling students led the project team to consider some changes for the 2017 orientation schedule, as well as some possible longer-range changes.”

The most drastic changes have been applied to the Passport program, though there have also been some changes to Quest as well.

One reason for the changes is to encourage newly admitted students to connect with current students, faculty and staff earlier in the enrollment process. Annie Mas-Smith, the new assistant director of campus involvement and leadership, stated: “Students want that connection earlier, sooner — more touch-points with the college.”

There will now be two additional Passport dates in the spring, April 21 and April 28. These dates correspond to Fridays at Calvin and as such, Passport on these days will feel similar to a Fridays at Calvin visit — students will have the option of staying in the dorms with host students, if they want, and there will be Fridays at Calvin programming that the Passport students may also participate in. “We’re trying a couple dates in April this year, and if that goes well, we might think about doing [Passport] earlier next year, in March or something like that. And these are options for students — they pick one that fits their schedule best,” said Witte.

The motivation behind all of the particular decisions has been convenience for students, parents and families. “Student and parent voices have been coming to various people every year. Data is gathered by John Britton [associate dean for campus involvement and leadership] and his team every year,” said Witte. That data has been synthesized and interpreted over time, and acted as the catalyst for many of the changes.

According to Mas-Smith, the working group “looked at things they could condense or tweak, like ‘what’s the most important thing that students want to hear and understand before coming in the fall?’” According to Mas-Smith and Witte, those are the things that were given priority in the reimagining process, things like: faculty/student advising, understanding what kind of place Calvin is, understanding the reformed tradition and identity, different ways for students to get involved and helping prospective students get an understanding of the place they can have within Calvin rich make-up.

This year, most students will take language and math placement tests online, instead of on campus. Instrument and vocal auditions will be scheduled and held when students move onto campus, instead of during Passport as they have been done in the past.

Academic advising will still be one of the main things that students accomplish at Passport, but scheduling will be completed all at once by the Registrar during the month of July and first semester schedules will be sent out at the end of July or the beginning of August. Then, if any students need to make changes to their schedules, those changes can take place during Quest.

Students who don’t attend Passport till right before Quest will receive their schedules without an advising appointment, but Witte was clear to assure students that attending a later Passport does not mean that a student will be in worse classes: “We want to counter the idea that if you come to an early Passport, you get better classes … that was never actually true because the registrar did a good job holding spaces open and things like that. But this will work better, I think: the registrar’s office will make schedules for the entire incoming class during the month of July so everyone will have equal opportunity to courses and the registrar will have ultimate flexibility in creating schedules.” Students who attend Passport after schedules have already been sent should rest assured that they will be able to make changes after they finally do have their appointments, if they choose to move in a different direction than the registrar had already started them on.

There are a few changes to Quest as well. The most notable is that it usually began with move-in day on the Wednesday before Labor Day. This coming school year, move-in day for new students will be on the Thursday before Labor Day. International Passport (a unique program for International students, to which there is no major change) will begin the weekend before Quest and Impact orientation (a unique program for American students of color, to which there is no major change) will begin the Monday before move-in day.

A change that will affect all students in some way is related to the start-of-the-year Convocation ceremony. Usually, this is a ceremony that all students are invited to, faculty wear robes, major department banners are proudly displayed in the Van Noord arena and class schedules are altered to make room for the ceremony which is typically followed by a picnic on commons lawn.

This coming year, Convocation will have the same internal format, but will instead be the opening event of Quest and will be geared more toward new students and families — a kind of commissioning. Because of this, the first day of classes will not have an altered schedule, which will make the day less confusing for all. It will also allow Convocation to act as a kind of welcoming into the Calvin community for new students, parents and families.

According to Witte, Convocation will “still be an academic kick-off event …but students will be there with their families, and it will be a ‘welcome’ and a kind of marker moment just before the big dinner on the lawn, which faculty will be invited to, and then Quest will kick off how it always does. We’re going to try it.”

Reflecting on the changes and the new shape of orientation, Witte mentioned: “there was no huge brokenness we sought to address, we just want to give students a chance to engage with Calvin earlier and more often.” This act of changing and reimagining has been good for the Student Life Division in ways that the staff had not initially considered. Witte concluded, optimistically, “people are beginning to rethink things, even things no one had previously thought to change.”