How WOW got its big break

Leaders participate in many team-building events in preparation for Week of Welcome. Courtesy photo.

Week of Welcome, more commonly known as WOW, has come a long way since its start. Over the years WOW has not only become a tradition at Cal Poly — for many, it has become a way of life.

Cal Poly was founded in 1901 and has always featured an orientation program. It is seen as a way for new students to ease their transition into life at Cal Poly.

“WOW is an initial push out of your comfort zone. It’s about starting a new chapter in your life and realizing that you’re not the only one in that boat,” said Evan Ruhwedel, Executive Board member and recent graphic communications graduate.

An increase of enrollment over time brought about an increase in participation and the program developed into “Welcome Week” in 1956. Originally, this week was designed to train a team of student leaders, which generally consisted of club leaders and members of student government.

“One of the key areas that has evolved is growth in participation. With the rise in new student participation, we have also experienced a rise in interest of our student leaders,” said Andrene Kaiwi-Lenting, assistant director of Student Life and Leadership.

According to the WOW website, the program began as a week-long event with a two day retreat, called “Welcome Round-Up Camp,” at Camp Pinecrest and Camp Ocean Pines in Cambria. Bonding activities included ping-pong, volleyball, baseball, dances and discussions. WOW groups on average had 30 new students, or WOWies, and four leaders.

The 1960s were essential to WOW and set many of the standards that are still around today, such as smaller groups with only two Orientation Leaders, meeting times and campus knowledge quizzes.

“Although helping new students have a smooth transition has been the main catalyst of our program, we have been more proactive in our leadership training to prepare our leaders to be advocates of the program’s objectives and goals,” Kaiwi-Lenting said.

Kaiwi-Lentig said the program is always evolving to better itself and more efficiently meet the needs of new students.

“Orientation programs, especially WOW, have always been progressive in implementing new approaches to some very common topics and issues,” Kaiwi-Lenting said. “WOW is not timid about being innovative.”

Meet the Staff

There are six Executive Board members, 61 WOW Team members, 680 Orientation Leaders and thousands of hours of volunteer work that go into planning WOW. According to the WOW staff, it is the largest student-run orientation program in the nation.

“Cal Poly’s WOW is so big that the reputation precedes it — people know who we are,” said Hillary Caudle, Executive Board member and recent art and design graduate.

Each year the executive board attends the National Orientation Directors Association conference to collaborate with other student leaders from all over the nation. Cal Poly’s WOW stands out as one of the more distinguished orientation programs at the conference and has been used as a model for other university orientation programs.

WOW is now structured into three student leadership tiers: the Executive Board, WOW Team and Orientation Leaders.

The Executive Board is made up of six student volunteers that put in approximately 20 hours per week throughout the school year. Each member is assigned to a committee on top of a handful of other responsibilities, such as building a mutually beneficial relationship between WOW and the community, planning events for the week, creating training programs and overseeing the orientation program.

“Our WOW program is very structured, intentional and planned. There is a lot of front work that goes into WOW,” Kaiwi-Lenting said. “Who better to (plan this program) than students, for students?”

Members of WOW Team are also assigned to committees to assist the executive board. While all team members undergo the same training, some are part of the production crew and the others are facilitators. Production crew members create training materials and help with projects for their assigned committees, while the facilitators train and lead a group of student leaders. Production crew members also assist facilitators with their groups.

After the student leaders (or leaders in training) fulfill their training, they graduate and become Orientation Leaders. The Orientation Leaders work in groups of two to welcome freshmen and transfer students and provide them with necessary knowledge.

“A lot of times people don’t realize how much programming goes into getting students the information they need,” Caudle said.

More than doing it just for the sake of doing it

Students spend nearly 100,000 hours every year planning and organizing WOW. What’s more: all of this time is volunteer work.

“Everyone involved makes a conscious choice to give their time. Nobody is forced to be there. Everyone is there for the benefit of someone else,” said Charlotte Cashello-Varga, WOW Team member and history senior. “Most people get involved to benefit the transition of the new freshman class and transfers and find that they are rewarded in the process.”

Many of the students think the benefits of being a volunteer far outweigh their time spent.

“I like volunteering because it gives me a lot of things to do and so many things to be a part of. For me, it’s more than doing it just for the sake of doing it,” said Paul Banel, Orientation Leader and electrical engineering senior.

Recently Banel turned to his fellow WOW leaders to ask for help with a 5K run he is organizing for the Cal Poly Trail Runners club and immediately received several e-mails from eager WOW volunteers. Banel said the members of WOW have been a great support system for him.

“Everyone that does WOW loves to help others,” he said.

The volunteers learn the importance of inclusiveness, helping others, and much more throughout their training, but for many the biggest benefit is getting to know oneself on a deeper level.

“It’s a great way to develop as a leader, to see yourself evolve and become more comfortable with who you are, and also seeing others go through that too,” Caudle said.

WOW is unique to Cal Poly and a gateway into the university life for freshmen and transfer students.

“All I know is that there is nothing like WOW,” Ruhwedel said.

  • Bg

    Amazing story! Brings back memories.

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