Every August, about 200 first-years flock to Medford five days before orientation begins to participate in Tufts’ popular Freshman Orientation CommUnity Service (FOCUS) pre-orientation program, according to Director of Campus Life Joe Golia.
For some of these first-year participants as well as upperclassmen who participate in the program as support staff, leaders and coordinators, FOCUS is a significant part of their campus lives, beyond the program’s annual five-day duration.
“FOCUS is really important to me,” Barton Liang, a fifth-year student and a FOCUS leader for three years, said. “I’ve been part of it every year that I’ve been at Tufts.”
The program was placed on probation shortly after multiple alcohol-related incidents took place at Fall Gala in September 2016, according to Golia. While the FOCUS student coordinators declined to comment on the incident or aftermath, Liang said he believes it involved multiple first-year FOCUS participants receiving treatment from Tufts Emergency Medical Service (TEMS) at Fall Gala.
“To my understanding, there were some FOCUS-ers who were TEMS’d for alcohol, and that’s all I really want to say,” Liang said. “I guess there were enough that maybe the program was being looked at.”
Liang said that while pre-orientation programs may have traditions of organizing gatherings before social events, these practices are not sanctioned by the program and in no way require alcohol consumption.
“We don’t have any sort of coordinated drinking social events as FOCUS,” he said. “If the [first-years] choose to pregame [before] a party together, that’s up to them. If they invite the leaders, our role there is to make sure that they’re safe.”
Golia said the probation was meant to push FOCUS program leaders to think about whether the future direction of the organization was still positive.
“We as administrators felt that FOCUS … as a group … needed to be put on a level of disciplinary sanction to improve for the future and keep the organization around,” he said.
Golia said that there were no uniform criteria for what could cause a pre-orientation program to be put on probation.
“It was determined that FOCUS — the idea of FOCUS [and] the messaging of FOCUS — led to putting students in uncomfortable, negative, unhealthy situations,” he said.
Golia explained that the status of “probation” for a student organization is similar to that of individual students placed on academic probation at Tufts on account of failing to achieve a certain GPA.
“It’s a level of disciplinary sanction based on something that happened for a group,” he said. “It’s more [or less] the same thing — violating policies that come up.”
However, Golia said the consequences for a larger group were not as clear-cut as those for students placed on probation, because organizations are not put on probation as frequently as individual students are.
“With students, sometimes it could be [that if] you violate this status, you could be expelled [or] suspended,” he said. “With a group, it doesn’t happen that often.”
According to Golia, many FOCUS leaders themselves participated in the program as first-years, contributing to what he characterized as difficulties defining FOCUS leadership roles as well as the leadership roles of some other pre-orientation program leaders.
“What is it to be a leader? That’s the other question, and I think a lot of students struggle with that,” he said. “[Students] want to just be a part of FOCUS. They want to continue to be in FOCUS, or TWO, or SQUAD.”
He argued that the minor age difference between leaders and first-years can also make it difficult to draw boundaries within the group.
“We put the leadership label on them, but they also put it on themselves, so what does that mean, and what are our expectations of them, as [upperclassmen] coming back early and having this impact on first-year students?” he said.
Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon also brought up the difficulty of defining the expected relationship between leaders and students once pre-orientation ends.
She mentioned a “code of conduct” established for pre-orientation leaders as an area in which FOCUS potentially violated campus guidelines.
“Everybody who leads a pre-orientation group signs a contract around their responsibilities as leaders, and one of the major things they’re responsible for is supporting a safe experience for first-year students and not promoting things that might compromise health and safety,” McMahon said.
McMahon said that because first-years usually arrive at Tufts knowing few other students, program leaders can easily become the most authoritative figures to them at the school.
“I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but … a student’s going to be interested in hearing from [other students] in understanding how this place works,” McMahon said.
Liang said FOCUS staff members have always emphasized creating a space for participants to ask questions they might have about first-year student life.
“Because our philosophy is that we’re there to support them throughout their entire time at Tufts, we want to get them off on the right foot and really equip them with useful knowledge to help them figure out their place on campus,” he said.
McMahon noted that the code of conduct was established to create certain guidelines on how mentors should interact with their group members.
“The code of conduct has all kinds of things: ‘Don’t break the law, think about ways that you as leaders have influence over first-years,”’ she said.
To be taken off probation, McMahon explained that FOCUS would have to prove it could abide by the code for an unspecified amount of time in the future.
“There’s a period of time, if you’re on probation, [when] you [don’t want to] have a further incident that violates the code of conduct that your group is responsible for,” she said.
She also offered some more specific advice for the group.
“Keep yourselves in good shape, make sure that as a group you are moving forward in a way that is complying with the code of conduct,” McMahon said.
Golia added that it is important that FOCUS works to clarify the role its group leaders play in the lives of first-years, as both mentors and fellow Tufts students, before the probation is lifted.
“We hope to work with them on training, clarifying boundaries and rules of leaders… we’ll continue to work with them and the new coordinators when they get hired in the coming year,” he said.
Liang expressed disappointment that FOCUS had come under fire for something he believed was not the fault of the program itself.
“I just feel like it’s really unfortunate that here we are trying to create a safe environment and we’re being called out for it,” he said.
But McMahon stressed confidence in the ability of FOCUS’s pre-orientation leaders to employ safer practices going forward.
“The FOCUS program is full of incredibly thoughtful leaders,” she said. “They have done a terrific job creating welcoming, energetic, positive experiences for first-year students. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what the leaders do.”