PULLMAN – Gregory Jean got up early Tuesday, loaded the car and left Tacoma on a five-hour drive to a completely different world.
Like thousands of other young people all over the Palouse, Jean gave up home for a dorm room this week. The 18-year-old – helped by his mother and older brother – was hauling boxes and hanging clothes at Washington State University’s Stephenson dorm complex. Among his possessions, he brought a box fan, a basketball – and a guitar he plays a bit. “I’m planning on getting better while I’m here,” he said.
“It’s a lot of mixed emotions,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been away from home.”
The annual migration of the matriculated was visible everywhere in Pullman and Moscow, Idaho, this week. Pickups bearing couches and mattresses weaved through downtowns. Fraternities and sororities rushed new members. Parking spots became scarce, and grocery store lines grew. Get-to-know-you picnics and orientation sessions were scheduled at both campuses, and classes were scheduled to begin Monday.
“It looks like it’s going to be a full town and a fun year,” said Bob Bates, WSU’s provost and recently appointed day-to-day administrator in charge of the Pullman campus.
Jean is among an incoming freshman class of about 2,900 – a figure that WSU officials limited because they felt last year’s group of about 3,100 strained resources. But universities are eager to keep the students who are here, and offer orientation programs that begin in the summer and continue all week.
WSU has adopted an approach called Freshman Focus, in which students in the same dorm are placed into some classes together, an attempt to prevent the university from feeling large and impersonal. Other steps are taken to make connections between students, counselors and faculty – “So they don’t get lost,” said Diane Undi-Haga, of Kirkland, a WSU alum who brought her daughter over to start her freshman year.
“It really is about making connections,” Bates said.
That may provide some comfort for parents, some of whom were clearly struggling with more than the strain of moving boxes.
“It’s scary,” said Susan Jean, Gregory’s mom. “He seems so young to be out here on his own. But all the kids do, so that’s OK.”
Bill Nelson, of San Diego, drove his son, Patrick, up from California. It was a big move for his son, and a “bittersweet” moment for Nelson.
“I’m not his best friend, but he’s mine,” he said.
At UI, Dean of Students Bruce Pitman said the university tries to make its orientation valuable for both students and parents. The school expects roughly 1,500 students fresh from high schools this fall.
“These parents are tremendously engaged in their sons’ and daughters’ lives – more so than five, 10 years ago,” he said.
It can be difficult for parents to let go, but at some point students need to begin living independently, he said.
“There is a point where you have to tell parents they have to go,” Pitman said. “We try to do it humorously.”
UI is also trying to help freshmen make personal connections within the university quickly. University officials and student leaders are wearing “I Care” buttons this week to signal they can answer questions, meet students or point out the right dorm, and orientation events are scheduled through the weekend. Students began moving into dorms today; rush at the Greek houses has been going on all week.
“This is the week Moscow doubles in size and transforms itself from a very quiet summer place to a very busy, bustling university environment,” Pitman said.
Both WSU and UI open the academic year boasting of new buildings on campus. In Pullman, the new Plant Biosciences Building sits across from Martin Stadium. It will host research labs and teaching labs, and is meant to be the first of a complex of world-class biotech buildings, said President V. Lane Rawlins.
In Moscow, UI’s new Teaching and Learning Center opened, a high-tech classroom building connected to the University Commons in the heart of campus.
The administration at WSU also will be refigured. Rawlins has handed over day-to-day authority over the Pullman campus to Provost Bates, in order to focus on working with state officials and the statewide system of campuses and extension services.
Rawlins, 67, became WSU president in 2000. He said Tuesday that the change came from a recognition that the two tasks – running the Pullman campus and dealing with external demands like lobbying the Legislature – needed to be separated, and that it wasn’t a half-step toward retirement.
“It might be a pre-pre-retirement step,” he joked.
Meanwhile this week, the couch-laden pickups and the box-hauling families soldiered on, all over the Palouse.
In Pullman, 18-year-old Josh Adams, who graduated from Spokane’s Lewis and Clark High, moved into the Stephenson dorms with the help of his mother – WSU alum Becky Byerly-Adams. “I actually stayed in the same dorm,” she said.
At the Kappa Delta sorority on the UI campus Wednesday, new members were hauling boxes into the house while the rain fell. Wednesday was bid day – when sororities select new members. Idaho fraternities were just beginning rush.
Boxes and plastic containers were stacked in the living room at Kappa Delta, and a steady line of young women carried them to rooms.
“Everybody helps everybody,” said Megan Sowersby, an 18-year-old freshman from Sun Valley, Idaho.
Sowersby moved up late last week for sorority rush, with help from her mom and sister. She plans to major in bilingual elementary education. Wednesday was an exciting and chaotic day, as she found out where she would live and with whom – all part of a wholly novel experience for Sowersby and the rest of the freshmen.
“It’s a little scary,” she said, “but I’m getting used to it.”