Eighty-six-year-old Arlene Chandler still has plenty to be proud of when the city is swarmed with incoming students at the start of each school year.
In 1961, as director of student activities, Chandler was one of the founders of the very first “Welcome Week,” as it used to be called.
“I really take great pride in driving around the city when the Week of Welcome groups are here, the various clubs,” she said, almost laughing with delight. “I always brag on them a little at that point.”
Before WOW was officially founded, a leadership retreat at Cambria’s Camp Ocean Pines in 1957 was the closest thing to an orientation the university had.
The leadership camp was intended for members of Cal Poly’s student government and few, if any, freshmen attended, Chandler said.
But after an influx of students in 1960 when two new women’s dormitories opened, Chandler knew the college needed a better orientation program.
The college orientation she experienced as a student at the University of Wisconsin provided some inspiration.
“It had helped me make a transition from high school to college,” she recalled of her early days as a college student. “I really felt that Cal Poly needed such a transitional program because it wasn’t there.”
She proposed the idea of bringing an orientation to campus and Dan Lawson, who was then the associate dean of activities at Cal Poly, supported her.
In the fall of 1961, Welcome Week was born and run by student leaders from the off-campus camps in Cambria.
“They worked very diligently and it was always a student-planned and student-run event, right from the beginning,” Chandler said.
WOW was originally split in half, with one group still attending Camp Ocean Pines and the other staying on campus.
To this day, Camp Ocean Pines still plays a pivotal role in the preparation for Week of Welcome.
“We still kept a component with that camp,” said Jason Mockford, the assistant coordinator for orientation programs who has been involved with WOW since he was an incoming Cal Poly student in 1999.
“Every year, our 50 orientation trainers, we go back to that camp and do training in January.”
New adviser brings change in ’70s
According to a Mustang Daily article from University Archives, 1973 was a year of huge changes in the way Week of Welcome functioned.
Bob Walters, who was then the newly-appointed WOW adviser of 1972, realized students who attended orientation off-campus had an awful time.
“They’d come up to camp, stay a day and then want to go home,” Walters said in the archived article.
He and the new WOW board took a survey of college deans and concluded that WOW needed to be entirely on-campus instead of being split in half.
Cal Poly had a WOW tradition of not wearing the color red because of a rivalry with Fresno State. Walters dropped that tradition in 1973 when he said students no longer understood it.
Walters also brought an “effective studies” course during WOW in 1973, which consisted of a three-hour, one-unit class in the Cal Poly Theater that focused on adjusting to Cal Poly life.
It was also in that year that WOW went from having three “WOW leaders” per group of students to only two. It has stayed the same since.
The 2,000 students who went through the program in 1973 were the first group to ever receive a WOW album that included top 40 songs and narration that involved “character playing.”
Eventually, the then-student but now-famous “Weird Al” Yankovic helped involve KCPR with WOW through the album’s creation.
WOW: Present and future
The community has always played a large role in Cal Poly’s orientation.
In the ’70s, students took tour buses around town. Today, students still go downtown for a gathering at Mission Plaza and farmers’ market where they are introduced to all the local businesses.
“I think the nature of having a program that’s been around so long is that the community knows that it’s a great opportunity for people to get connected to their new, prospective customers,” Mockford said.
In his nine years of involvement with WOW, Mockford says the best addition to the program was the community service component that was added in 2004.
“We have a lot of leaders who really care about this community,” Mockford said. “Sometimes the community only sees us as the people that go downtown and are everywhere in bright shirts and are loud.”
To show that Cal Poly cares about the San Luis Obispo Community, WOW added a “day of service” that happens in the winter with trainers, in the spring with leaders, and during orientation with freshmen.
WOW used to host a dance at the end of the week, but the popularity of such an activity had since dwindled away, and the dance is no longer held.
“Now, the students that we have are really excited and want to bring that back, so it’s interesting to see how things come and go,” he said.
As for the future of WOW, it looks as though the program will keep evolving to meet student and community needs.
“I didn’t have any idea that it was going to be so successful, but I’m awfully glad that it is,” Chandler said. “They’ve got some tremendous staff working with it now.”
The history of the organization is important as ever in today’s executive decisions, WOW Board member Alex Dunks said.
“Whenever we make big changes, there’s a little resistance due to the tradition,” Dunks said. “Every year we tweak little things, but the feel of the program stays the same.”
The main goal, he said, is improving the program – even if sometimes traditions have to be broken.
“We care about what happens. We put in the time because we want to make things better,” Dunks said. “Just keeping in mind the new students, that’s what the program’s about, that’s why we’re here.”
It’s that spirit of the program that keeps him coming back.
“It kind of sucked me in every year,” said Dunks, who has served as a team member for two years, staff in charge for a year, and on various planning committees.
“The more I did it, the more I loved it and the more ownership I felt in it.”
This year is WOW’s 51st orientation and the program is making efforts to reduce waste and diminish the environmental impact on the community.
Instead of making a printed schedule for the week, Mockford said, all information will be posted online and on a flash drive that each student gets to keep.
The program will also give out reusable grocery bags and water bottles.
“I think it’s just going to be better and better as the years go by because it seems to be just improving every year,” Chandler said.