Each August, UC Berkeley’s Golden Bear Orientation (GBO) is the first sign — both visual and audible — of fall semester. Suddenly, the campus is abuzz with thousands of new students, who arrive before classes start for a multi-day, morning-to-night schedule of training sessions, ice breakers, tours and academic programming.
Not this fall. As COVID-19 continues to rage worldwide, most students won’t be stepping foot on the campus — in fact, it’s discouraged — and will attend classes remotely. An estimated 6,200 first-year and 2,500 new transfer students will be joining the Berkeley community; about 2,200 of them will move into campus housing.
But five-day, four-night GBO will go on, starting this Friday, to help Berkeley’s new first-year and transfer students make a successful transition — albeit virtually — to campus life. Special focus is being placed on helping this year’s incoming students build connections among each other and with the rest of the campus community, despite the miles — and even the states, continents and oceans — separating everyone during the pandemic.
“This year, community is at the heart of every GBO program,” said Micki Antovich, Berkeley’s assistant dean of students and director of New Student Services. “From resource fair presentations to small group discussions to sessions with academic advisers, all have student connection as the main priority.”
Learning all about Berkeley permeates the programming. For instance, a tour will acquaint new students with the more than 1,200-acre campus via Blockeley University, a fantastical recreation of Berkeley built last semester by students and alumni using Minecraft, a video game.
“Our team developed a route and script around campus, and the Blockeley team is leading the tour that was built within Minecraft,” said Antovich. After the online outing, GBO student leaders will be available to answer general questions about the campus.
Students can take lessons in drawing iconic Berkeley landmarks at a Crafter Dark event, held in partnership with the Berkeley Art Studio, and find out about Berkeley traditions and get a dose of school spirit in a Zoom session with the UC Rally Committee.
Two special live evening performances by popular entertainers are being held for GBO attendees. This Friday, Aug. 21, they’ll spend time with Issa Rae, an actor, writer and producer best known for her show, “Insecure.” Saturday night’s event will feature comedians and Cal alumni Sammy Obeid and Maz Jobrani, who have their own show on Netflix.
A major GBO tradition that can’t take place this year is an in-person group photo — in 2017, for example, 7,196 new students formed a giant Cal “C” on the football field, setting a new Guinness World Record for the largest human letter.
But as a gift from GBO to new students at Friday’s 10 a.m. New Student Convocation, an intricate, virtual, photographic mosaic of the Campanile will be revealed. Made of thousands of their Cal1 cards — each incoming student was asked for consent —Berkeley’s newest Golden Bears have been united for posterity, but without need for social distancing or masks.
When Chancellor Carol Christ announced on June 17 that fall semester 2020 would begin remotely, said Antovich, “my first reaction was disappointment. … Still, there was never a question of cancelling GBO.”
Her team, which requires most of the year to plan GBO, quickly pivoted and brought on board more student orientation leaders — about 550 — than it’s ever had. Each of those leaders, who will help lead GBO from their homes around the world, is in charge of a small group of 30 to 40 incoming students and will provide each student with a daily check-in.
In addition to connecting one-on-one with incoming first-year and transfer students, Antovich added that GBO student orientation leaders will urge new students, especially while they’re attending Berkeley remotely, to be bold and contact student leaders, staff and faculty for help with academic, technology-related or other issues affecting their academic success and well-being.
“The skills of reaching out, of actively engaging and using their voices,” she said, “are essential for them to succeed.”
Marilyn Luna, one of hundreds of current and former Berkeley students who help run GBO, said “shifting our mindset from losing in-person GBO to, ‘How can we make this a good experience for the students?’ helped a lot.”
As a GBO student coordinator, Luna, who graduated in May, worked with staff on using GBO’s social media accounts to introduce the program to incoming students, to showcase its 2020 events and “hopefully to demonstrate that we care for our new students,” she said, “and are looking forward to seeing them, even if virtually.”
By now, students who will attend GBO have received their full schedule of events, all of them taking place on Zoom. Key activities will include daily small group meetings and discussions; tomorrow’s livestreamed 10 a.m. convocation; welcome sessions hosted by various schools and colleges and a high profile speaker or comedian each night.
As part of Berkeley’s On the Same Page program — this year, new students are reading Exit West, a novel about two migrants who leave their country seeking new lives, by Pakistani author Moshin Hamid — GBO also will include a Aug. 21 keynote lecture by Hamid.
The official kick-off of every fall semester is convocation, which this year can be watched live by anyone in the campus community through UC Berkeley’s YouTube and Facebook accounts. It will include remarks for the entire student body by:
- Chancellor Christ
- Dacher Keltner, psychology professor
- Shawna Dark, chief academic technology officer
- Cruz Grimaldo, assistant vice chancellor and director of the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office
- Femi Ogundele, assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions
- Sunny Lee, assistant vice chancellor and dean of students
- Victoria Vera, ASUC president
- Luis Tenorio, Graduate Assembly president
Incoming first-year student Kimi Galang Villegas will sing the “National Anthem.” She auditioned remotely for the role.
New students can pick and choose from a variety of other GBO sessions, including some created by their student orientation leaders and others hosted by campus groups including University Health Services, the PATH to Care Center, the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, the LEAD Center and Bears That CARE.
Each evening, Q&A sessions about the Berkeley experience will be held, led by current Berkeley students, and special small group discussions on topics of interest to transfer students.
There also will be nightly virtual game rooms, some orientation leaders might even hold virtual campfires — GBO has compiled a list of Bay Area and California ghost stories and urban legends — and larger community-building events will include Trivia Night, Bingo Night and a Saturday night Murder Mystery.
In sharp contrast to previous GBOs, where students were busy with in-person programming from 9 a.m. to midnight each day, Antovich said “a priority for GBO this year was to not ask students — including the GBO student orientation leaders — to be on their computers all day,” attending one event after the next.
“Some students might be parents and need to provide child care,” she added, “or might have siblings, roommates or family members who are part of their living arrangements. We are encouraging students to engage with GBO when they can and how they can.”
The majority of GBO events are being recorded, so that if students can’t attend because they are unable to, are in another time zone or are interested in two events held at the same time, they can listen to what they missed after GBO ends.
Antovich said that, prior to GBO, incoming students relayed to her team their worries about making friends, finding community at such a large university and knowing how to access campus resources — understandable concerns for all new college-goers, but especially acute when schools are closed and instruction is via laptop, at home.
“At this year’s GBO, we’ll demonstrate how they can do those things,” she said, “no matter where they are in the world.”