Welcoming the Class of 2021

Class of 2021 Orientation leader wearing orientation t-shirt designed by Julian Kelly 19 GD

Amid the whirlwind of emotions that accompany moving in and acclimating to the steep incline of College Hill, 768 incoming students have been getting acquainted with life at RISD this month. The 459 new first-year, 60 transfer and 249 graduate students attended orientation programs and welcome events that set a tone for the semester and years ahead by encouraging new friendships, introducing campus resources and providing a moment to pause and consider all they have accomplished and all they hope to achieve.

Viktor Hübner MFA 19 PH finds a German-language novel at the international student “yard” sale
Viktor Hübner MFA 19 PH finds a German-language novel at the international student “yard” sale.

For Orientation 2017 the value of considering “context” rose to the surface, both in casual conversation and during the week’s activities and information sessions. First-year undergraduates—the class of 2021—are among the most diverse students RISD has accepted to date: students of color represent 37.3% of the class and those from abroad account for 30.5%. This range of backgrounds and breadth of experience is integral to the originality and ambition of RISD’s creative community—one with “values that direct a different perspective,” as President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID noted at Convocation on Tuesday, September 6.

New signage for RISD's gender inclusive restrooms
New signage marks RISD’s gender-inclusive facilities.

During a training session for resident advisors and orientation leaders, guest speaker Reverend Dr. Jamie Washington encouraged upperclass students to keep context in mind as they guide fellow students over the course of the year. “Part of your work as a leader is to listen to where people speak from. If they come to you with a concern, consider: are they speaking about themselves, their experiences as an individual? Are they speaking about a dynamic of a particular system? Or is it a cultural dynamic? The challenge is to remember that all three contexts are at play in any given situation,” he counseled.

For first-year students like Lena Al-Kaisy 21 EFS, context is exemplified by an almost 24-hour trip from Amman, Jordan to arrive at a school she’s long heard about but never before visited. “My mom and dad and I walked all around yesterday,” she noted during move-in day for international students. “I find that, actually, I love Providence. I had no clue what it would be like.... I first heard about RISD three or four years ago when I was researching art schools online. Also, Nadine Zaza BArch 17 went to my high school and she came back to give a talk about her RISD experience, so I applied and now I’m here.”

“Bring what you know and let others enjoy that. You are here to learn but you will teach as well.”

Associate Professor of Industrial Design Paolo Cardini

International students arrive a few days prior to the general orientation for all new students, which gives them time to get over jet lag, tackle logistics and get a better sense of their new learning environment. In an information session about RISD’s unique classroom/studio culture, Associate Professor of Industrial Design Paolo Cardini (a former international exchange student himself) gave grounding advice to the new students. “You need to be able to navigate your new context without forgetting where you come from,” he explained. “Bring what you know and let others enjoy that. You are here to learn but you will teach as well.”

Such words of wisdom weren’t in short supply over the course of the week, particularly from fellow students. International orientation leader Yan Diego Wilson 20 PT shared tips for newcomers struggling with homesickness by recalling his first year. “I handled it by finding new friends who spoke Spanish and hanging my Dominican flag in my room to remind me of home,” he said. “My other piece of advice is to stay in touch with family. Sometimes you have a lot of work to do and you forget to reach out, but I think it’s important.”

With some of the highest GPAs (a class average of 90.3) and SAT scores (a combined average of 1298 on the critical reading and math tests) in recent years, first-year students have plenty of questions about the competitive nature of studio learning. Rising junior Florence Liu 19 PR put their minds at ease by reminding them “that they’ll be more productive if they sleep and then work, rather than try to stay up all night to get a project done. Sleep and food are necessary for all animals, especially RISD students,” she cheerfully advised during move-in day.

A Pre-Orientation Service Group conversation led by Emma Werowinski 18 TX
A POSE group led by Emma Werowinski 18 TX debriefs on “RISD beach.”

It’s important to look beyond the classroom too, suggests Paridhi Mundra 17 IL, president of the Community Service Club and a leader of this year’s Pre-Orientation Service Experience (POSE). “First year is not only about studios,” she says. “You learn a lot from the people around you. Try to go beyond and get involved,” she told incoming students. Dashaun Sutton-Harris 21 EFS is among a cohort of new students who started by doing just that—by participating in the POSE program. His experience volunteering with peers at City Arts on the west side of Providence and at the Southside Cultural Center gave the midwesterner a better sense of his new surroundings and an inspiring introduction to the service-oriented community at RISD.

Hands holding a heart-shaped shell

“I might be a POSE leader next year. It’s a great way to make a lot of nice connections before school starts,” Sutton-Harris said. He also attended the Labor Day bayside event for new students at RISD’s Tillinghast Farm in Barrington, RI. Among 34.6% of the incoming class hail from the northeast, while 18.1% of first-years are from the southwest, where students more typically head to the west coast versus the east for college.

“I think my best advice is for them to forget everything they’ve heard and make the most of their own experience.”

Orientation Leader Emi Chun 19 PT

As classes got underway last Thursday, orientation leader Emi Chun 19 PT encouraged incoming students to welcome the unexpected and embrace the context of being newcomers. “At this point they’ve heard so much about RISD—on social media, on the internet, from other students, from so many people, really—that I think my best advice is for them to forget everything they’ve heard and make the most of their own experience.”

Lauren Maas / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

September 11, 2017

Related Stories

Students involved in RISD’s Leadership and Community Engagement (LACE) program develop valuable skills through volunteer work with local nonprofits.