This year, new students from six states and ten countries will board planes, trains, and minivans to travel to their new home on the Dana Hall School campus. I can’t help but reflect on my first day as a new boarding student over 25 years ago. A sophomore from Marietta, Georgia, countless questions filled my head: How would I find my way around campus? Would my roommate and I share anything in common? Would I survive the New England winter? No matter one’s age, the first day in a new school brings excitement, curiosity, and a tinge of nervousness. However, for new students enrolling in a boarding school, they aren’t only curious about their new classes, teachers, and peers, but they also wonder how they will build trust with their new roommates, how they’ll manage occasional bouts of homesickness, and how they’ll spend their time on the weekends far from their neighborhood friends.
At Dana Hall, we pay close attention to this transition. It actually starts well before new boarders arrive on campus. Soon after they are admitted to Dana Hall in March, new boarders receive a special communication introducing the members of the Student Affairs Office. These experienced, compassionate, and resourceful individuals are solely focused on Dana Hall students’ happiness, health, and safety, and they are here throughout the summer to help new families navigate the important transition to boarding life.
New boarding students are also sent an electronic roommate questionnaire, which encourages them to consider their personal characteristics and habits (e.g. Do you wake up early? Do you like to study with music?). This questionnaire helps the team pair students who will both challenge and support each other as roommates. In addition, new boarding students have access to a comprehensive website designed to address the many questions new boarding families have, from move-in dates to permissible dorm décor (no, you can’t bring your dog!) to contact information for banks, hotels, restaurants, and stores in the area. This important information allays concerns early on, months before students arrive on campus.
When new boarders finally arrive at Dana Hall School in September, families find every major corner of campus peppered with upbeat student leaders: current students whose sole purpose is to guide new students through their first few days on campus. They direct them to their new dorms, help them haul their luggage from their cars, and accompany them to registration where they obtain their student IDs and configure their iPads. Our student leaders serve as big sisters, tour guides, and friends throughout the first few weeks of school to ensure each new boarding student feels welcomed, connected, and reassured.
Among other activities, the first day on campus also includes a dorm meeting with House Directors and House Assistants who, through fun and thoughtful icebreakers, help new boarders learn more about the members of their dorm “family” and the ins and outs of boarding school life. Then, all new boarders and the nearly 40 faculty-families who live on Dana Hall’s campus enjoy a delicious dinner together in the Dining Hall. Residential community members end the evening with a festive activity (think Cupcake Wars!) back in the dorms to relax and continue getting to know each other.
With such a thoughtful, proactive approach to “onboarding” our new boarding students, it’s no wonder that as they unpack their bags, hang pictures of their loved ones on their tack boards, and decorate their walls with their new roommates that first night, Dana Hall already feels like home.