The struggle to be new

When Jack Plocica (’17)  first arrived at ASL, he faced the typical issues new students struggle with; Plocica had to adjust to living in a new city, in addition to mastering ASL’s complex geography of multicolored staircases.

However, Plocica also experienced something revealing about the community. He didn’t feel that the difficulties inherent with being new were eased by the school.  “People were not trying to help,” Plocica said.

Zeb Berg (’17), had a similar experience. “I came to ASL not knowing what to expect because I had never changed schools and I honestly thought ASL would be a more welcoming school,” he said. But, “people did not go out of their way to help me.”

Coming to a new school, especially when it is far away from one’s previous home, is a stressful experience, according to Monica Brendsel (’15). “The whole aspect of moving scared me and coming in senior year is hard because friend groups are formed already,” she said.

The experience of moving can be exacerbated when a community is not welcoming. When students struggle to become integrated into the community, the effects can be long-lasting. “I think the longer it takes to be integrated, the harder it becomes later,” Counselor Stephanie Oliver said. “One starts to become resentful of the community.”

Oliver explained that there are various factors that can cause a new student’s experience to be negative. She believes it is difficult for new students because their confidence is low coming into a new environment. It can also be “risky” for returning students to reach out and be inclusive to new students, Oliver said.

When Zainab Mahmud (’15), was new six years ago to the community she experienced what Oliver described. “[As a new student] I struggled to make friends at first. I’ve always been pretty confident in myself but there were times when that confidence wavered and I just didn’t feel I belonged here.”

Furthermore, Oliver believes that London itself often presents challenges. “I also think just living in London can really wear someone down if it is not familiar to he or she,” she said.

Oliver believes the best way to make a new student’s experience positive is not through actions inside school, but rather outside. “I think it is important for returning students to take it upon themselves to invite someone to a specific event outside of school,” Oliver said. “It seems that new students are loneliest when it is not school hours.”

While in the past some new students have struggled, initiatives have been introduced this year to make ASL a more welcoming place and to strengthen the community. These initiatives include the Back-to-School Bash, changes to Alternatives and to the Student Ambassador program, to name a few.

Director of Student Life James Perry was pleased about the outcome of the Bash. “I was delighted at how it played out. To ask a bunch of high school kids to come out on a Friday is a big ask and the fact that most people came out speaks a lot to the school,” he said.

While some thoroughly enjoyed the Bash, others found it overwhelming. “It felt sort of forced. I think the idea was really good but as a new student I felt that it was a lot at once,” Emma Bareihs (’16) said.

Although Neil Meehan (’17)  had a great time at the Back-to-School Bash, he, “did not use it to meet new people, I just hung out with the friends I [had] already made.”

In addition to the Back-to-School Bash, changes to the the Student Ambassador program have been implemented.

While the program last year assigned one ambassador to each new student, this year, two ambassadors were assigned to groups of roughly six new students.  “The program was made to be more inclusive and more about teamwork instead of an individual experience,” Student Ambassador Kevin Fribley (’15) said.

The aim of this change was to make the community feel stronger and for new students to become familiar with as many faces as possible. Fribley believes the change achieved that goal. “With the new program the six new students got to know each other well and they seemed to feel calmer and more excited for the first day of school than I remember being,” he said.

The goals of these new initiatives have been to make the high school more welcoming to new students. Principal Jack Phillips has expressed on several occasions since he began his work in the High School last year that he wants the school to feel like “home” for students.

“When people feel that they belong, and they feel safe, their academic performance improves tremendously,” Phillips said.

Edward Black (’15), amongst many new students this year has found his experience to be positive. “Its been quite welcoming,” he said.

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