Ashley Dolnack is tall and has a fearlessly outgoing personality, a forceful speaking voice and a talent for using it while walking backwards. This is an unusual skill set, to be sure, but it’s perfectly suited for the task at hand.
On a hot Father’s Day Sunday morning, that task involved shepherding a small group of newly minted high school graduates and their parents around the Gannon University campus, pointing out the sights and addressing questions.
In the fall, those graduates will arrive on campus as first-year students. Dislocation, curiosity and a large slice of trepidation— served cold—are all on the menu, but, to be fair, so are excitement, exhilaration, hopefulness and a sense of limitless possibilities.
Finding oneself transported to Gannon, it helps to have a tour guide. This summer, Dolnack and 19 other Gannon upperclassmen signed on to be advisers at the four orientation events for incoming students. Thirteen of the advisers were new to the program, and all but one were volunteers.
The exception was Kaleigh McCarthy, the student coordinator of the advisers, a 40-hour per week work-study position. Not surprisingly, McCarthy is a true believer in the advisers’ mission.
“I am always one to volunteer to do things. If anyone needs help, I’m the first one to raise my hand, because I’ve needed help in the past,” McCarthy says. She admits that on her first visit to Gannon she “cried all the way to Erie from Buffalo,” her hometown, before the exhilaration of college and campus life set in. She has never forgotten what it meant to her to have an older student mentor when she first set foot in Erie.
“It’s very touching to me to serve as a New Student Orientation adviser,” she said. “I know how nervous you can be and what it means to have someone be nice to you, ask how you’re doing, see if you need anything.”
McCarthy’s excitement is understandable, but she’s hardly alone. Jerry Miele ’73, ’85M, Gannon’s director of New Student Services, has been easing the transition to college life for so long that some of the students he once greeted at orientation have returned with their own children in tow.
He says the incoming students today are pretty much like those he saw at his first orientation 28 years ago. What has changed is the maturity level and commitment of each class of advisers as they gain experience.
“Over the years, I have seen advisers grow from being shy or reserved toward being more confident. I believe being an adviser has helped them develop their skills, and the new students will connect with them because they see them as peers,” Miele said.
As Chris Sambuchino, a marketing major in his first adviser year, observed, “I’m pretty good at talking in front of small groups, but I want to learn how to talk in front of large groups.” He swept his arms wide toward the 150 or so eager, burbling incoming firstyear students crowded into Club LaRiccia.
That event, a freewheeling question-and- answer session where parents were absent, was one of the more loosely structured parts of the day. The noise level increased as the hour went on, and both the incoming students and the advisers were clearly enjoying themselves.
And although the four, two-day orientations are the most visible and satisfying portion of the job, advisers have plenty more to do by way of preparation. In the week before the Father’s Day event, advisers created 1,300 orientation packets stuffed with guides, brochures, information sheets and more. “We did it in two and a half days,” McCarthy says with pride. “And I have the paper cut scars to prove it.”
In his remarks at the mass meeting of parents and students in Yehl Ballroom, President Keith Taylor, Ph.D., concluded his remarks with this statement: “When we say ‘Have a great day’ at Gannon, we don’t just ‘have’ them. We make them.”
That is largely due to the efforts of McCarthy and her entire crew of advisers. She undoubtedly speaks for all of them—and for the office of New Student Services—when she says, “It’s a lot of work, but in the end to know that it all goes smoothly and we’ve welcomed the next generation of students into the Gannon community, that’s a great feeling.”