Every August, roughly 400 incoming freshmen line up on Widener Library’s 100-year-old steps, awaiting word of which peers they will join on the hiking trail for their trip with Harvard’s oldest pre-orientation program. They will soon spend a week backpacking, canoeing, or doing outdoor service projects with upperclassman leaders of the First-Year Outdoor Program, their official introduction to the College before they move into the Yard.
According to tradition, Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 speaks to the group before they take off. He realizes something, though, about the group of students congregated each year.
“When I look out at the group on the night we welcome them when they’re on the steps of Widener, it’s fair to say that they don’t look like the whole class,” Dingman said.
Harvard touts its pre-orientation programs as its way of introducing incoming freshmen to the College’s campus in a more intimate and controlled setting than the class-wide week of orientation called Opening Days. Pre-orientation programs set the tone of the first-year experience at Harvard for their hundreds of participants and are often the place where students make long-lasting friendships and their first impressions of the campus they will soon join.
FOP specifically frames its mission as a source of social support for incoming students; in a statement, leaders described the program’s goals as helping freshmen develop connections with both peers and older students and a full picture of Harvard’s resources and the diversity of its students’ experiences.
The program struggles, though, with representing that diversity fully. Black and Latino students are underrepresented in FOP, and while program leaders have made strides to encourage more minority students to participate through mechanisms such as financial aid, they acknowledge that they still have work to do. FOP is tasked with developing creative solutions to attract a base of participants that has, until now, strayed away from the program.
A BACKGROUND OF BARRIERS
Leaders of FOP’s steering committee both past and present are candid about the struggles they face in addressing the dearth of diversity within the program, citing a score of both institutional and social barriers as obstacles of closing that gap.
According to Paul R. “Coz” Teplitz ’03-’09, who has served as FOP’s director for five years, the program does not gather data on the cultural or ethnic backgrounds of its participants for privacy reasons. But in the absence of data, FOP leaders identify the problem anecdotally. Teplitz acknowledges that certain groups are historically not represented in the program.
“We would be surprising no one if we said that certain groups tend not to be represented in the FOP community as much as they are represented in the Harvard community,” Teplitz said. “Specifically, we tend to have rather white or rather Asian participants and not to have not that many of Latino/Latina descent, or [many] black individuals.”
Program leaders and administrators cite a myriad of reasons to explain why some groups of students are more represented than others. Katherine W. Steele, the College’s director for freshman programming who oversees FOP, cited a Freshman Dean’s Office survey from three years ago: According to that survey, most students who did not participate in any pre-orientation programs named prior summer engagements or an interest in staying home for an extra week before college as eclipsing other reasons.
Still, hundreds of students do come to campus early, but underrepresented minority students in that group still do not tend to flock to FOP.
Dingman and Steele cite student interest in the outdoors as a large factor in the origin of FOP’s diversity problem. Teplitz noted that the National Park Service has tried to make the outdoors more appealing to minorities when it historically has not been. A New York Times op-ed this year described park goers as a homogenous breed: “white and aging.”
There is also the cost factor. FOP will charge students $430 to participate in 2016, and although it offers financial aid and free equipment to those who need it, students have an option of making money through Dorm Crew, the only pre-orientation program that offers to pay its students and leaders for participating. For students on a budget, that is especially steep competition.
“Even if there’s no financial barrier, there’s an opportunity cost,” said Miles U. Graham ’16, who has led FOP trips since his sophomore year.
“It’s a program that is expensive and doesn’t appeal to everyone,” Dingman added.
Graham said FOP faces a two-headed problem—addressing minority representation within the leader corps by encouraging people without explicit interest in the outdoors to join the program and removing any barriers that would preclude students from doing FOP.
“In every single leadership position, if you don’t see a role model that looks like you, you aren’t going to feel welcomed,” Graham said.
Program leaders and others at the College say that diversity in pre-orientation programs like FOP matters. A recent report on diversity at the College argues that those programs “provide a shared institutional vocabulary and robust engagement with issues of diversity and cultures of inclusion” at Harvard and “enable attention to the needs of underrepresented students, especially those who are first generation and socio-economically disadvantaged, while fostering community for the entire population across lines of difference.”
To Steele, a lack of diversity among FOP participants dilutes the impact of the program.
“Part of the value of coming to Harvard is the high amount of diversity that we have, so any time that you have a situation where it’s not as reflective and representative of the class as it could be, then you’re missing out on something,” Steele said. “Everyone is missing out on something.”
Assailed as they are with a number of challenges keeping them from diversifying, FOP has, in recent years, spearheaded major efforts to compensate for those barriers. FOP’s answer to the conundrum of incentivizing minority participation in the program is a robust financial aid program.
“That’s a big, sort of incredibly practical solution,” Steele said.
FOP’s steering committee has set its sights on smashing financial barriers for its participants. Taking their cues largely from Princeton, which instituted a school-funded financial aid program to accommodate the costs of their Outdoor Action program before suspending student fees altogether, FOP has provided participants financial aid at the same proportion as their Harvard aid packages throughout the past few years.
“That was something we were really psyched about because, obviously, financial consideration is something that is a barrier to people thinking of joining FOP,” Jacob C. Barton ’17 said.
In 2015, FOP gave 43 percent of its participants direct financial aid, distributing $57,250 total. This number is a more than $25,000 increase compared to the previous year, because program leaders upped their fundraising efforts. FOP gave some students—187 of its 393 participants, some on financial aid and others not—free gear rental as well.
Teplitz cites Princeton’s Outdoor Action program as an example of the power financial aid has on the makeup of outdoor pre-orientation programs. FOP used data from Princeton’s program to conceptualize their financial aid program.
“That data strongly suggests that making additional money available affects people’s choices on whether or not to do pre-orientation,” Teplitz said. “They were essentially a program that got a lot of money in one year and, going forward, within a few years the makeup of their program changed from being skewed to people who aren’t on aid, to matching the university's financial aid program.”
Funding for the financial aid program comes largely from three sources: donations from program alumni, the parents of FOP participants, and the parents of FOP leaders. FOP reaches out to potential donors using fundraising letters crafted by participants of the program, who share their individual experiences.
In the past, FOP has explored other funding sources for their financial aid initiative, looking to the University for funding. For the last several years, the Freshman Dean’s Office has made that funding requests through its yearly budget proposal, according to Steele, but has not had much success.
Sheila C. Thimba, the College’s dean for administration and finance, said Harvard has not used budgetary funds to supplement FOP’s program in the past, but administrators have been discussing whether to use discretionary dollars from the dean’s budget to help fund the financial aid initiative.
FROM THE INSIDE, OUT
Despite their goals of increasing the reach of financial aid, FOP leaders acknowledge that the program alone will not be enough to flesh out the makeup of their participant pool, prompting them to discuss other potential solutions.
One of those solutions is increasing the diversity of their own staff.
“Definitely something we are trying our best to actively think about and take steps towards is this goal that we see as making any FOPer that goes on FOP feel like they can see their personal background experience mirrored in someone in the leader community,” said Barton, one of the members of FOP’s steering committee. “Ideally, our leader community and our program is representative of any type of background that an incoming student might have, and therefore might identify with in a leader.”
Creating this diverse leadership background means attracting students who normally would not see FOP as a viable extracurricular experience. Students who either did not have outdoor experience before freshman year or did not participate in FOP for pre-orientation typically do not seek to join the program’s leadership ranks. The lynchpin of FOP’s publicizing efforts is to make sure students know that experience is not necessary to be accepted into the program, and leaders hope to increase FOP’s exposure through social media and their visibility on campus as a community-oriented group.
Additionally, Graham said pre-orientation programs at some peer schools have made the switch to paying their student leaders for their services. FOP might be able to attract students who elect to continue summer jobs, or work for Dorm Crew, to instead lead program excursions, Graham suggested, if it followed suit.
“My vision for FOP is that you can apply to be paid for the two weeks you train or lead FOP if that’s a concern for you,” Graham said.
In the meantime, as they still try to increase the diversity of their participant and leader corps, every FOP leader bridges the topic of campus diversity during their trips with incoming freshmen. FOP’s steering committee requires that leaders hold at least one structured discussion about diversity on their trips, but leaves the format of that discussion up to trip leaders.
On her trip, FOP leader Jenny Choi ’16 facilitated an activity this past year called “included, excluded,” asking students to share stories about a time when they had felt either included or excluded. The goal is to discuss diversity issues. While she was satisfied with how her group received the activity, in retrospect Choi said she would now approach it so that it would better address “a lot of the pressing real-time issues with diversity head on.”
“It was sort of going around them by pretty much opening it up to anything and everything,” said Choi, who writes a column for The Crimson’s editorial board. “You could say that you felt excluded when you didn’t make tryouts, or something.”
Moving forward, Choi said FOP should solidify a universal curriculum for diversity discussions to make sure conversations are well constructed and received. Teplitz said FOP may need to rely on the help of campus organizations and affinity groups to adequately frame those discussions.
FOP has previously collaborated with the Harvard College Women’s Center to train its leaders on gender issues. But it has not recently reached out to affinity groups to recruit from their ranks, according to FOP leader Lynn Miao ’16. Leaders have discussed reaching out to student affinity groups for feedback on how the program might address its issues with diversity, said Miao, who is a former Crimson Blog chair.
Program leaders agree that fixing its diversity problem will be a collaborative effort. As students on colleges nationwide debate diversity issues and the experiences of minority students, FOP will need to continue to think critically to develop creative solutions to diversifying its leader and participant populations, they say.
“A big part of the dialogue is acknowledging that we have to work extra hard [to ensure] that the outdoors is not a white space, and that it’s a space for everyone, and also we have to work extra hard to make sure that people know the outdoors is an accessible space,” Graham said.
To Choi, discussing the issue itself is imperative.
“It carries a lot of racial and socioeconomic weight, and I think part of it is to be forthright and honest about that,” she said.—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.
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