Preserving the spirit of O-Week Amidst an unprecedented campus environment, student directors and coordinators STRIVE TO PROVIDE AN exceptional O-Week experience for the Rice Class of 2024.

The start of Rice’s orientation week, known as O-Week, is like a scene from a movie: students and families arriving on campus, cars packed to the brim; the Texas heat beating down; excited students lining the streets outside of the residential colleges; handmade “Welcome home!” signs bobbing in the air. For many students, alumni and parents, it’s engrained in their memories.

Every August, new students are welcomed on campus to move in, register for classes and absorb the university’s values, resources and policies. It’s also when they are introduced to their college’s unique traditions and where lifelong friendships find their origin story. While this year’s O-Week on Aug. 15-21, 2020, looked a little different with masks, social distancing and other precautions, the students behind O-Week strived to capture the unique qualities that make Rice feel like a home.

The O-Week 2020 leadership team — consisting of two student directors and three coordinators from each of the 11 colleges — faced unique obstacles, requiring even more thoughtful preparation and flexibility to ensure that students experienced many of the cinematic scenes as past Owls. We talked with O-Week Student Directors Erica Lee '21, a senior in Weiss College, and Matthew Burns ’21, a senior in Lovett College, as they prepared to welcome the matriculating class through the O-Week experience.

“We’re here to serve as guides for the coordinators and support them with anything that may pop up,” Lee said. “O-Week is a hectic time, especially in times like these … but we’re here as a support system.”

Support was the guiding principle behind Lee and Burns’ leadership, especially as the details of O-Week fluctuated since March when students, faculty and staff were moved off campus. In addition to the usual planning that takes place each year, coordinators were responsible for ensuring university-enforced health guidelines from Rice's "Do Your Part" campaign were followed during the week’s events, including social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing.

New logistical plans were also needed to incorporate the unique changes necessary to make sure students felt safe on campus. “Coordinating is a very difficult thing to do,” Burns said, “but you typically have the previous years to fall back on. You have all of the documents related to the events — their shopping lists and the logistic spreadsheets. But this year, so much of that doesn’t work.”

On top of this, they managed to do it all almost entirely through virtual communication during the spring semester and summer months. Scattered around the country, directors and coordinators communicated through Zoom calls and the occasional socially distanced meeting to ensure deadlines were met. And while a virtual work environment was manageable, the students missed being together as they planned one of Rice’s biggest events.

Despite the challenges, Lee and Burns made sure to keep the most important thing at the forefront of everyone’s minds. “It’s all about the new students,” said Burns. “At the end of the day, we do this so the new students can have a proper O-Week experience.”

That experience mirrored those of years past, including the commencement ceremony where students walk through the Sallyport, but with slight modifications to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved. Extra attention was also given to remote students — those who have chosen to not return to campus this semester and continue instruction entirely online — to make sure they felt included while attending O-Week via Zoom. Read about Mohammed Abead's experience as he tuned in from Cairo, Egypt.

“It’s really important they feel welcome and that they have a second home,” said Lee. “They may not be here physically, but there are still a lot of connections that can be built.”

Overall, Lee, Burns and their team of hardworking coordinators were excited to welcome new students to campus and help them experience what many Owls remember for the rest of their lives. While the journey wasn’t exactly what they expected — developing a memorable orientation week in a shortened planning time frame while being scattered across the country during a pandemic — these students made sure to preserve the spirit of O-Week in reimagined ways.

Photos by Jeff Fitlow and Tommy LaVergne for Rice University