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Getting Their Bearings

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

On a late-August morning in the Smith crew house overlooking Paradise Pond, yoga teacher Sara Rose was guiding some 25 Smith undergraduates through a sequence of poses. "Place your left foot forward. Inhale. Now lean forward," she instructs. "Find your courage to be here, moving forward into the unknown, knowing you have so much to offer this community."

As they inhaled, balanced and lunged, the students looked like your average group of college kids participating in a morning yoga class. What was not so obvious was their newness: they were new to Smith College, to college life and perhaps to ever being away from home.

To make their transition to Smith easier, many young women arrived on campus several days early -- before orientation for all entering students began on Sept. 2 -- to participate in one of seven three-day preorientation experiences offered to first-year students. Each unique program provided a comfortable environment in which newcomers could settle in to the community, make new friends and prepare for college life.

One such program, Inward Bound, offered its 50 participants a series of workshops in creative writing, art, yoga and meditation. The program was created three years ago by Hayat Nancy Abuza, M.D., interfaith program coordinator with the Smith Office of the Chaplains "to keep the new students busy and to provide a positive and caring experience in their very first days at Smith." She adds, "Inward Bound seems to fill a niche for students who want a quiet and reflective experience in preorientation."

For those who wanted a bit more action, other available options included backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, canoeing on the Connecticut River, volunteering for a local community service project and exploring the dimensions of robotic technology in an intellectual setting.

I Robot Dog?

Laughter and energetic conversation drifted from a Seelye Hall classroom as Joe O'Rourke, Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor of Computer Science, and computer science major Kristin Baldassaro '05 demonstrated Aibo, a robotic dog, equipped with its own software, program chips and pink ball. Baldassaro inserted a chip into the robot, and the 19 students enrolled in the Technology and Society preorientation program fell silent as they waited for the $1,500 "entertainment dog" to spring to life. It was a long wait.

"It takes a minute," Baldassaro explains. "He's loading the data right now." Once loaded, however, the robot's programmed motions resembled more clown than canine. "We're trying to show that [robots] can be intelligent," says O'Rourke with a laugh. Earlier in the day, he had demonstrated another robot -- the Roomba floor vacuum.

In addition, O'Rourke taught his students some Web design fundamentals and asked them to develop their own Web pages summarizing the relevant technical information on robotics. Laced throughout the structured activities was ongoing intellectual discussion focusing on the myriad weighty philosophical, ethical and cultural issues raised by robotics technology. Over dinner one evening, the group tackled such questions as "Can robots be conscious? Alive?" The following night, they watched the Steven Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence and explored whether robots might be evolving into a new species.

Although only in its first year, the Technology and Society program appeared to be off to a good start. As its creator, O'Rourke has high hopes for its future. "Maybe as sophomores [these students] will want to come back and do it again next year," he mused.

Computer science major Kristin Baldassaro '05 shows first-year students the location of a sensor atop a robotic dog's head during a technology-focused preorientation program. Below: Inward Bound participants start their day with an hour of morning yoga. Photos by Gregory Cherin.

A Great Way to Meet People

Most first-year students give the programs high ratings. "Preorientation is a great way to meet new people….I hang out with the women from my program all the time now, and they are some of my best friends," says Lisa Goldenhar '06.

Recalling her anxiety as a newcomer, Chris Frascarelli '06 notes, "I was scared and had no idea what lay ahead of me." However, Inward Bound "offered a small slow step into the doorway of leaving home and starting a new lifestyle. I hoped to have fun and to be too occupied to be homesick. [It] gave me all that I wanted plus a peaceful look at Smith College."

Now each fall, Frascarelli returns to campus early to serve as a student leader for the program, assisting with events and living with participants. "I love being a leader. I am such a cheerleader for this program," she says.

As first-year students moved into their permanent campus residences, they were only beginning to get their bearings in the college community. They were, as teacher Sara Rose urged during Inward Bound, "finding the courage to begin this new adventure that will be yours at Smith College."

Meet the Class of 2008

This fall some 700 new first-year students entered Smith as the class of 2008. Among the members of Smith's incoming class is international student Dawa Yangzom, a Tibetan who was raised in India after the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

"My parents fled Tibet in search of security and, of course, to have a better life," says Dawa, whose parents work in a handicraft center in India. "A better life, I am not sure they have had, but they at least got to educate their children, which they view as their greatest achievement in life. My parents are very passionate about education, especially my mother, and so I always knew I had to satisfy her aspirations and moreover, pay her back for all her hard work."

As Dawa sees it, getting a Smith education is about fulfilling her parents' hopes for her. She is also one of four first-year students attending Smith as a Coulter scholar. Altogether 16 international students from 14 developing countries have received four-year scholarships from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and are currently pursuing degrees in engineering and the sciences at Smith.

"I chose Smith because it promises to give women the education that they deserve in a predominantly male-dominated society," she wrote in an e-mail from northern India in July.

Altogether, 2,993 prospective students applied for admission to the class of 2008; of those, Smith accepted 1,694, or 57 percent. Dean of Enrollment Audrey Smith characterizes the class of 2008 as one of the most diverse classes ever. Twenty-six percent of the new enrollees are women of color. Of those, 12 percent are Asian American, 7 percent African American, 6 percent Latina and 1 percent Native American. International students make up another 7 percent of the class total.

The newcomers bring to Smith an impressive variety of backgrounds and accomplishments. They include a New Hampshire native who has traveled alone, twice, to Uganda as a volunteer to work with the AIDS Orphans Education Trust-UGANDA; a graduate of the Hotchkiss School in New York who has already earned membership in the Screen Actors Guild through modeling and acting assignments; and a student from New South Wales, Australia, who worked with her two sisters to develop a Web site that some 600,000 children have used to design their own Web pages in the past five years. -- JME


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