Peer group eases transition for McDaniel freshmen

The Baltimore Sun

Two at a time, cars piled high with boxes and bins pulled into a spot near one of the dormitories.

"Welcome to McDaniel College," Christine Frieman said to the occupants in the Jeep Cherokee. "We're about to swarm on your car, could you please open the doors and the trunk?"

As if on cue, the doors opened and students dressed in yellow T-shirts descended upon the Jeep. In about two minutes, the contents were on their way to the designated dorm room.

"This is our first gift to the freshman class," said Frieman, a senior who is in her second year as a peer mentor at the college. "It gives the peer mentors a chance to do something to make things easier for the freshman from the moment they arrive on campus."

And making things easier for the college's 439 registered first-year students was the focus of the five-day orientation last week. Activities included meeting faculty and peer mentors, attending an introductory first-year seminar class, a book discussion and briefings on Internet and campus safety.

"We want the orientation to be a comprehensive introduction to social and academic life at McDaniel," said Gretchen McKay, the associate dean of academic affairs.

A prelude to the opening of classes tomorrow, the orientation is designed to help students overcome their bewilderment with college, McKay said.

"For many of the students starting college can be a difficult time," said McKay, an associate professor of art history. "Some of them have never had a roommate, or they have no idea what to expect once they get here."

The event began with freshmen moving into their residence halls with the help of peer mentors -- upperclassmen who show them the ropes at the college, a private liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 1,600, McKay said.

To make the transition smoother, some of the students met their roommates beforehand. Sarah Maize of Manchester and Christina Paluskievicz of Essex met for lunch last week.

"We talked about what she had and didn't have," said Paluskievicz, 17, who wants to be a pharmacist. "We were lucky because I had everything that she didn't."

While decorating their dorm room, Maize said the room was a perfect home away from home.

"During the orientation, I'm hoping to learn my way around campus," said Maize, 18, who plans to major in business administration. "I don't have a good sense of direction, so I plan on being lost a lot."

After moving in, the students attended an introductory convocation and president's reception, and then the parents were asked to leave.

Although getting his daughter settled in college came too soon, Stephen Paluskievicz has high hopes for his daughter's transition to independence, he said.

"She's never been on her own," he said. "And being independent is a big responsibility. But I've told her she's an adult now. She has to get to her classes and manage her own money. I know she can do it."

Her mother, Lenamarie Paluskievicz, had mixed emotions.

"I'm excited, and I'm sad," she said as tears welled up in her eyes. "I'm excited that she has the opportunity to pursue what she wants to do. But I'm sad that she's leaving home."

Her other concern is campus safety, she said.

"Christina wanted to attend Virginia Tech ... that was her dream," Lenamarie Paluskievicz said. "We were there Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and the killings happened on Monday. She was very scared after that. What happened at the school took her dream away. She couldn't attend the school knowing that it was the site of a massacre."

During the orientation, students were briefed on Internet safety and campus safety procedures, said Sarah Stokely, the associate dean of student affairs.

During the Internet session, two Web sites were highlighted in the discussions -- and, she said.

"When students use these sites, some of them post photos of what they are doing," Stokely said. "Their mentors tell them that this isn't wise, and that they shouldn't post their address and schedules on these sites. We have the mentors tell them because they might listen to a peer over an administrator."

Campus safety also was covered during the orientation, said Elizabeth Towle, the associate dean of student affairs for the past six years. Students received information on campus policies and procedures, in the event of an emergency, she said.

"We want them to feel safe," Towle said.

Down the dormitory hallway, Rachel Smiroldo of North Beach in Calvert County was excited about her first days away from home. But she predicted her biggest adjustment would be homesickness, she said.

"My goal is to grow up," said Smiroldo, as she fought back tears. "I want to be able to take care of myself."

Her mother, Jeannemarie Smiroldo, though confident of her daughter's abilities, said she'll be a mess for a while.

"My concern is that she doesn't revert into herself," said Smiroldo who was fighting her own tears. "I just want her to be OK."

But students kept busy during the orientation. An introduction to their First Year Seminar class was scheduled for Friday, a course designed to help students make the transition from high school to college, she said.

Topics for the introduction included how to use the library, what services are available on campus, and how to manage their time, McKay said.

"When students are in high school they have bells that ring when it's time to change classes," she said. "Then they get to college, and they have to get themselves to class."

Then the students were scheduled to spend the weekend getting acclimated to the campus, Stokely said. The student population is a diverse one, with students coming from 31 states and about 20 countries, she said. Some students adjust easily, while others have issues about the college scene, she said.

"Some students worry about the unknown," she said. "Others worry about the other students not liking them, or that they will be homesick, or that they won't like their roommate. And for some students it's a chance to start fresh."

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