Rice University: ‘Truly magical’: O-Week welcomes new students despite pandemic pivots

As the second incoming class to matriculate during a global pandemic, the Class of 2025 had a slightly different O-Week experience this year. But if anyone embraces difference, it’s the Rice community, which went out of its way to ensure this year’s O-Week was as welcoming, whimsical and warm-hearted as ever.

Take, for instance, the inflatable bouncy castle that took up much of McMurtry College’s indoor commons area, the surprise water balloon fight outside Jones College, the Baker College paint war, the traditional shaving cream battles, the outdoor dance-offs and picnics throughout the week or the way Duncan College wrapped up its O-Week with a big group walk across Main Street for dinner in Hermann Park and line dancing under a full August moon.

And although many events were held online, including academic advising sessions and faculty addresses, a highly vaccinated community wearing masks indoors and practicing social distancing enabled other O-Week events to be held in-person. It was a welcome chance to make connections, especially for those sophomores who studied remotely last year and were also arriving on campus for the first time.

It’s an experience that’s much more intimate than you find at other universities, said Sid Richardson College freshman Arielle Hayon. A champion butterflyer from Agoura Hills, California, Hayon knew she wanted to attend — and swim for — Rice as soon as she first visited campus. It was an easy decision, she said.

“And honestly, now that I’m here, it’s only been validated for all the reasons that I chose it,” Hayon said. “This is a home away from home for me already.”

Duncan College freshman Precious Akinrinmade had already spent 10 days in July getting acquainted with campus as part of the inaugural cohort of RISE, a residential seminar for humanities or social sciences majors interested in exploring questions of racial justice, equity and urban life. But the experience of O-Week, she said, was special to her for its own reasons.

“This experience has really shown me what community I chose to be a part of, and that this community is so focused on my well-being, so focused on if I’m okay, if I have someone to talk to, if I have the resources I need, and I think that’s very important — especially when you’re moving into a new college and going through one of the biggest transitions in your life,” said Akinrinmade, a Cypress Springs High School grad who hopes to study creative writing.

“I couldn’t be more grateful,” she said.

For McMurtry freshman Luke Weber, a cancer survivor and activist who’s been giving eloquent and energetic speeches and interviews since 2013, meeting his Rice family meant meeting “truly magical” people who matched his own level of enthusiasm and engagement.

“When you think about what the first week of college is supposed to look like, this is beyond my wildest dreams,” said Weber, who came from New York City to study history at Rice after a gap year. “I mean, the energy here is palpable; it’s contagious. It really feels great to be on a campus where I feel like I’m part of the team, I’m part of the bigger world.”

Underpinning it all are the O-Week student coordinators and advisers, without whom the annual orientation would be impossible.

Martel College senior Stella Potemkin’s own O-Week experience shaped her time at Rice and introduced her to the people whom she still relies on as a support system, four years later. Paying that forward is essential to keeping the Rice spirit alive across generations.

“I loved that what O-Week does is it builds community,” Potemkin said. “I really wanted to have a role in creating that for the next community of Rice students.”

Pandemic conditions continued to evolve throughout O-Week this year, leading to many last-minute changes to events and unexpected housing issues. But throughout it all, Rice students rose to the moment, pivoting and pulling together to ensure a memorable O-Week experience for all.

“The advisers and the coordinators have all been super resilient in the face of that challenge, and they’ve adapted in every way they can to make sure that everyone is staying safe but they’re still having as much fun and they’re getting connected to the resources and communities here at Rice,” said Jones College senior Ishaan Richie, who served as student director of O-Week alongside Will Rice College senior Jordyn Wainscott.

“I think that’s all that we could ask for coming out of this, is that new students find that foundation that they can continue to build on,” Richie said.

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