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Week of Welcome — known as WOW — is the largest volunteer orientation program in the nation. But, before there were costume-clad WOW leaders rocking crazy choreographed dances, WOW actually began as a basic orientation program.
Since Cal Poly’s founding in 1901, there has always been an orientation program. The basic orientation program developed into Welcome Week in 1957. Welcome Week started as a leadership training camp for the heads of clubs and student government, according to the WOW website.
Over the years, though, WOW took on a life of its own.
In the 1960s, WOW began to look much more like it does today, particularly with WOW leaders and groups.
But WOW has come a long way since its humble beginnings.
“To me, WOW means love,” current Orientation Programs executive board member Ryan Vilfer said. “It’s a way for current students to reach out to new students here and make them feel at home at Cal Poly. You’re always a student’s WOW leader, and the Week of Welcome spirit doesn’t end when WOW does.”
WOW has become the best week of the school year for many and, for some, a way of life.
“The vibe is something that’s stayed consistent, though,” Orientation Programs executive board member Scott Kjorlien said. “There’s always an exciting buzz and feel of community during WOW because everyone’s a part of something. I felt a purpose with WOW. I didn’t have a good transition. It actually took me until halfway through my second year to feel like I had a place at Cal Poly, so it was neat to be a role model and help other students transition a year and a half earlier than I had.”
The more things change
In the past few years, though, there have been many structural changes.
The “week” has been shortened, and some traditional parts of WOW have been incorporated into the summer orientation program, SOAR.
“In the last year, there have been a lot of behind-the-scenes changes,” Kjorlien said. “The removing of SLO Bound from WOW and moving it to SOAR as Explore SLO is one. We’ve changed the way we introduce incoming freshmen to downtown. Instead of a huge horde of new students and leaders, where you could barely even walk on the sidewalk, now it’s broken up during the SOAR sessions. It was originally a lot of stress to put on a community.”
Also moving to SOAR are parts of awareness programming. WOW features awareness presentations on heavier topics, such as drug and alcohol abuse and sexual assault. Part of this programming has been moved to SOAR so that “students and their parents can start conversations over the summer,” Vilfer said.
And a speaker on bystander intervention will be added to WOW’s awareness programming.
“It’s really important to include,” Vilfer said. “Really living out the Mustang Way was missing.”
For the first time this year, WOW leaders will also help with the college connections portion of WOW, a time when students get acquainted with their academic department.
And, for the first time, there will be a large, ceremonial stadium-style welcome and kickoff for both students and parents.
The more they stay the same
Despite recent changes and changes over the decades, WOW really has remained true to its roots and its traditions, Coordinator of Orientation Programs Jason Mockford said.
Paul Wesselmann “The Ripples Guy” has been speaking at WOW for eight years.
“I was a student and on the board, and we randomly ran into him after a conference and made a more personal connection,” Mockford said. “He came and spoke in 2005, and since then, Cal Poly students have pretty much fallen in love with Paul.”
Some WOW traditions — such as WOW-A-RAMA — go back even farther.
WOW-A-RAMA is an evening mixer to help new students get to know one another. Frank Warren has hosted the event for 23 years, and, before him, a company was paid to host a similar social mixer.
“WOW-A-RAMA started as a dare,” Warren said. “We used to hire a program, and I was always sort of critical of it because I felt it wasn’t as much centered on what we were doing. I wanted something that was really about our WOW, so as a joke, I said I’d do it for nothing, and I would shoot my mouth off in meetings, and in 1990 after I graduated, they said, ‘OK, Smarty Pants, you do it if you think you can do it better.’ It was almost kind of mocking to call it this weird, circus name, but it stuck. Next thing you know, 24 years later, here we are.”
WOW-A-RAMA is never exactly the same, Warren said.
“This year, there will be over 5,000 people out there, and when I look out, they’re all this one, giant nervous brain that’s about to go nuts, especially the WOW leaders,” he said. “I’m constantly rotating through the games so WOW-A-RAMA is never the same one year to the next, and the WOW leaders are always excited. If the WOW leaders are enthusiastic, so are the WOWies.”
One of the biggest traditions of WOW is that WOW is always doing and trying new things, Mockford said.
WOW keeps changing as the student culture changes, but the No. 1 goal is to ensure it’s “the ultimate kickoff to college,” Mockford said.
“The spirit of the program has been maintained,” he said. “I can really think of two past WOW themes that still hold true. It’s funny, but ‘Make WOW Yours’ and ‘The Best Week Ever’ seem to stick for me and a lot of alumni.”
And the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“We’ve been playing the key game since I was a WOWie myself,” Mockford said. “Luckily, I figured out how to play it.”
While WOW is often associated with partying, (there were, after all, 22 arrests this past year, 50 the year before and 80 three years ago during that week), WOW officials are trying to make the distinction between WOW, the program, and WOW, the week.
There will be late-night socials to encourage students to participate in WOW, the program. These will include the famous dance party, hypnotist show and a concert.