Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Orientation: A Q&A with the Dean of Students

Julianne Ohotnicky, dean of students at Smith, says Orientation week is all about community.

Orientation for new students at Smith is more than a program—it’s a process.

“It’s all about students settling in and understanding their new community,” says Julianne Ohotnicky, dean of students. “It’s about making sure all of our students are comfortable and have a chance get to know each other.”

Campus activities begin well before Orientation on August 29, Ohotnicky notes.

In fact, she says, student leaders begin arriving at Smith as early as August 17 to be trained for ongoing roles in residence life, academic advising and other student leadership roles.

This year, more than 300 student leaders will be trained on campus before new students and their parents arrive for preorientation programs and Orientation, Ohotnicky says. The trainees include leaders of the Bridge Program for new students of color and the International Student Preorientation (ISP), as well as house presidents and heads of new students.

Check-in for all new Smith students is scheduled for August 28 from 1 to 4 p.m. and August 29 from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.

Orientation for all new and transfer students and Ada Comstock Scholars begins at 9:30 a.m. August 29 and lasts through September 3. Classes start September 4.

Orientation aims to be engaging, as well as informative, Ohotnicky says, with workshops, dinners, an outdoor carnival and other special events planned.

Among them is a presentation by acclaimed sociologist Claude Steele, whose book about stereotypes, Whistling Vivaldi, was this year’s summer reading selection for first-year students. Steele’s public lecture is set for August 30 at 7 p.m. in John M. Greene Hall.

In a recent interview, Ohotnicky shared some other thoughts about what Orientation means at Smith:

What’s the most important thing for students to know about getting started at Smith?

Ohotnicky: “Asking for help is key. My staff and I spend a lot of time and energy making sure students know who to go to when something’s not going well. We also spend time training student leaders who play an important role in letting their classmates know where they can go for help.”

What role does the faculty play in Orientation?

Ohotnicky: “Faculty participate in welcoming new students. Students also meet with their liberal arts advisers during Orientation for help in selecting their fall classes and to talk about majors and other aspects of the academic program. It’s a time when students can also begin building relationships with their class deans.”

How has Orientation changed over the years?

Ohotnicky: “Helping students really connect and engage with the community—that part has been in practice for years. I think the piece that’s changed the most is how we orient parents. Ours is a day-long program introducing parents to the various offices and staff who will work with their students during their four years at Smith. We’ve also changed the diversity component of the program. Among the students we are training are social justice and equity representatives who help classmates understand how to live and grow in a diverse community.”

Last year’s incoming students were greeted by a new college president. What’s new on campus this year?

Ohotnicky: “We have a new provost, Katherine Rowe, a new dean of the college, Donna Lisker, and a number of new faculty. Students will also find a brand new wellness facility, the Nancy and Henry Schacht Health and Wellness Center, located next to the athletic complex. And we’ve done a number of renovations on campus, including at Cutter and Ziskind houses and Seelye Hall, new lights on the turf field and renovations at the Smith College Museum of Art.”

How does Smith help students adjust to college life in the weeks following Orientation?

Ohotnicky: “In my 20 years of doing this, I’ve learned that Day 3, Week 3 and Month 3 of being on campus are really interesting times. We plan intentionally around that. So on Day 3, we have students meeting in smaller interest groups such as first-generation college students or outdoor enthusiasts. In Week 3, we have a student organization fair where all the clubs and organizations are seeking new members. Month 3 is when they’re wrapping up the first semester. So we spend a lot of time making sure students know what academic supports are there for them.”

What’s your favorite part of Orientation?

Ohotnicky: “I love arrival day. The students come in, and they run the gamut: they can’t wait to get going or they’re in tears. There’s so much pure, raw emotion. And every student is different. Meeting the new students is my favorite part. They know they’ve made a good decision to be here. And they know we’re there for them.”