Bulldog Bites

News and Views from the University of Redlands

Convocation and new student orientation kick off unusual school year

Ken Nwadike, Jr., a peace activist and founder of the Free Hugs Project, addresses entering students at the 2020 College of Arts and Sciences student orientation. (Photo by Coco McKown ’04, ’10)

On August 24, the University of Redlands College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Class of 2024 made history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of gathering in the Memorial Chapel on the scenic Redlands campus, entering students logged into the President’s Welcome Convocation on Webex. 

CAS Dean Kendrick Brown opened the event by welcoming the College’s 625 new students (547 first-years and 78 transfers) to the virtual fall semester. Entering students represent 18 countries of citizenship, from 42 states; 35% are first-generation college-bound, and 8.5% have a family legacy with the University. 

When President Ralph W. Kuncl spoke, he noted, “Students at the University of Redlands have been part of a close-knit community since 1909—that means our community survived the pandemic of 1918, and we will survive this one.”

Kuncl also observed the group will be one of the most resilient classes the campus has ever seen. He noted that, even as the University is prioritizing health and safety by opening the new school year remotely, Redlands is still very much committed to providing an engaging and personal education. 

This year’s two-day virtual New Student Orientation reflected that commitment. Director of Student Involvement and Success Erin Sanborn said the event was planned with the same care and love as in previous years: “We’re still focused on giving our students academic support, getting them excited about college, and building community.” 

On the first day of orientation, University Dean of Student Affairs Donna Eddleman spoke to parents about cultivating a partnership with the University to provide support to students. Later in the day, breakout sessions provided information on how to use University resources virtually for academic success.

On the second day, Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Ken Grcich started the programming advising students on finding balance and growth. His talk was followed by a student panel on staying connected while off-campus. 

Ken Nwadike, Jr., a peace activist and founder of the Free Hugs Project, closed the orientation sessions with an in-person appearance broadcast from the Memorial Chapel. Nwandike, who gives talks at universities nationwide, said it was a first for him, too: “This is my first ‘live’ event since the pandemic started!” 

Known as the “Free Hugs guy,” Nwadike gained national recognition with his shirt reading “Free Hugs,” which he wore to protests and rallies, and by hugging people to spread positivity and light. His goal was to de-escalate violence in challenging situations. He recommended that Bulldogs encourage opposing sides to engage in dialogue and to respect each other as human beings: “That is a major step toward peace.”

Having a guest speaker at the event was another new development, said Sanborn, but a welcome one. “Even though we are starting the school year remotely, we wanted to make orientation a meaningful for our students,” she says. “After all, this is their first semester of college!”

Student orientation leader MacKenzie Mills ’21 admits she was initially worried about not being able to establish a mentor-mentee relationship with the first-year students due to the virtual nature of the event. However, Sanborn and Assistant Director of Student Involvement and Success Darci Manzo-Piron’s passion and optimism for the virtual experience was infectious. 

After daily Webex meetings to engage her group by playing virtual games, Mills says, “I met such an awesome group of new Bulldogs, and I plan to stay connected with them!”

Orientation leader Natalie Thayer ’21, provides this advice to first-year students for the upcoming semester: “Make as many connections as you can through joining clubs, participating in class, and checking your year’s social media.”

To learn more about student programming and support, see the Student Affairs web pages.