Normally the Honors Program puts on a week-long orientation that includes bonding activities, a scavenger hunt, exploration into outer neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, an important service project and more to bring new students into the honors community. New students are given mentors, who are returning sophomore, junior, senior honors’ students. These mentors take students through every step of the orientation.
However, due to the coronavirus, certain changes were made to put students’ safety as the top priority. These changes have made a short orientation a months long process.
Mya Burns is the president of Point Park University’s Honors Program. Over the course of these past few months, they have been tasked with putting together a Welcome Week filled with fun, education and safety.
“We actually started planning Welcome Week during last semester before the coronavirus hit the United States and didn’t finalize the schedule until close to Welcome Week,” Burns said. “Obviously that schedule is nowhere near what ended up happening, but virtual options and other precautions were always floating around as ideas.”
Burns advocated for students to have a virtual orientation option, which the Honors Program provided. This allowed students to still be involved in orientation activities from the safety of their own home. They were able to join all of the presentation Schoology conferences and even participate in Zoom calls with their mentors.
“It’s important for students to get the experience of Welcome Week, but not at the cost of their health or the health of those around them, especially for commuter students,” Burns said. “One of the biggest changes we made was making activities less mandatory to where students could stay home if they didn’t feel comfortable. Especially since we have students coming from all over we want to make sure everyone feels as safe as possible.”
For students who participated in the in-person Welcome Week, there were many safety measures put in place. Students and mentors were instructed to wear a mask at all times whether students were inside or outside. Everyone was also recommended to check their temperature twice a day and before coming to sessions.
“We were spread between around 10 classrooms in West Penn so that mentors and mentees could socially distance from others as well as their own group,” Burns said. “We streamed all the panel discussions into each classroom which was interesting since we had technical difficulties but really provided us to be as safe as possible as well as provide those virtual options.”
The safety precautions by the Honors Program and Point Park University were abided by and appreciated by mentees and mentors alike.
“I appreciated how coronavirus has been handled by the Honors Program and the university,” said freshman journalism major, Caitlyn Scott. “I felt a sense of safety due to limitations like how many students could be in a classroom, staying six feet apart, wearing masks at all times, and limiting touch. I really think they’re doing their best to give us the safest return and keep us here as long as possible.”
Even though Burns made sure that students were safe, there was still a lot of fun and service learning through the orientation. Students were still able to cautiously participate in the scavenger hunt, neighborhood excursion called City as Text and annual trivia contest for a free dinner.
“We limited the excursion assignment to five neighborhoods, South Side, North Side, Strip District, Downtown and Mount Washington,” Burns said. “These neighborhoods are within walking distance so students could stay distanced and didn’t have to take public transportation unless they were going up the incline, decreasing the risk.”
New students still enjoyed the Welcome Week as much as in past years. Being out in the city for excursions and scavenger hunts are two of the main highlights for students during a regular Welcome Week and this year’s were no exception.
“I really enjoyed getting to know the city more than I already had,” said Scott. “ I had been to Pittsburgh a few times before orientation but still had never seen areas like the Cultural District, which was neat to explore.”
This year the Honors Program had to find a new partner for the service learning portion. Normally, the partner is the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Mentors and mentees clean up the litter on sidewalks Downtown. As a cleaner alternative, Burns found the Foundation of HOPE, which provides currently incarcerated and previously incarcerated individuals with a sense of community.
“We collected toiletries to put in tote bags with the Foundation of HOPE logo on them for the after-care program to help recently released individuals,” Burns said. “We also wrote letters of encouragement to those who are currently incarcerated. It was a very engaging and heartfelt activity but allowed people to stay socially distant and have limited contact while still giving back to the Pittsburgh community. It allowed us to share our message for the rest of the year of community engagement and support.”
Burns plans to continue on the mentor program throughout the semester since it’s such a vital part of the honors experience. Though, according to Burns, safety will always come first for the Honors Program.
“I definitely want mentors to stay engaged with mentees throughout the year,” Burns said. “REs are a great resource, but I want to make sure that new students in the program have access to someone who has experience in the Honors Program and honors classes. So once I figure out a safe way to have more mentor and mentee interaction there will definitely be more opportunities for that interaction.”