Gift helps new Oles navigate ‘hidden curriculum’ and SOAR
When Gabriel Contreras ’24 came to St. Olaf College as a first-year student in Fall 2020, he had already had some experience living away from home. But COVID-19 restrictions added challenges.
“My first month was a bit slow socially,” says Contreras. “Our orientation and several classes were all online. But as initial COVID restrictions were lifted, I finally had the chance to start exploring opportunities and activities. Finding what to do at St. Olaf is a slow process but definitely rewarding once you find that thing that clicks for you and that you share with others.”
Contreras wanted to help other students make those connections and adapt to college life, so he is now a peer leader in St. Olaf Orientation to Academics and Resources (SOAR), an extended orientation program that introduces new students to resources supporting their experience on the Hill. New Oles meet with their peers and peer leaders to learn study techniques, time management, off-campus study opportunities, wellness, registration/advising, career and vocation, conflict resolution, and how to engage in campus life, all informed by student-serving offices.
Thanks to a gift from David H. Olson ’62 and Karen B. Olson, SOAR was expanded to serve all first-year and transfer students this year.
We really try to pull back the veil on what can be a ‘hidden curriculum.’ Having a community to discuss and share in these experiences really helps level the playing field for every student.St. Olaf Assistant Director of Academic Support Tara Hupton
“The first year of college is a major life transition,” says St. Olaf Assistant Director of Academic Support Tara Hupton. “We’ve been able to create a well-rounded series of workshops with partners across campus that help students make good connections with a lot of different resources. The Olsons’ gift really helped us hit the ground running this year.”
A core focus for SOAR is helping students connect with their peers. Students gather with their groups on move-in day right after their families leave the Hill. In addition to bi-weekly workshops, SOAR groups meet for meals and social activities. SOAR leaders work to create an inclusive environment and check in one-to-one with group members too. One of the workshops focuses on how to build relationships with faculty and offices that can support vocational discernment and career development.
“We really try to pull back the veil on what can be a ‘hidden curriculum,'” says Hupton. “Having a community to discuss and share in these experiences really helps level the playing field for every student. A lot of SOAR group members become good and close friends.”
Family studies courses help any student develop the skills needed to get along with others and work together. Having good relationship skills is important for success in all professions.David Olson ’62
The Olsons are no strangers to relationship building. A psychology major, David Olson worked at a residential treatment center for youth after graduation. That work convinced him of how important healthy relationships and families are to mental health and personal development. Following his graduate work and post-doctorate, he and Karen Olson created Prepare-Enrich, an assessment tool for couples that uses evidence-based skills and insights to foster healthy relationships. It is a business they built and managed together for 30 years.
“I enjoyed my time at St. Olaf; the relationships I had with my professors were important, as were those I had with my hockey teammates,” says David. “As first years, we were all in the same boat, and maybe a little naïve. Eventually, I learned it’s about teamwork — building a cohort and connections across the college helped see us through.”
The Olsons’ gift for SOAR builds on their ongoing support for St. Olaf’s Family Studies Program. An endowed fund established by the Olsons supports research, internship experiences, and courses. An exciting addition is a new interdisciplinary seminar open to all first-year students examining family relationships, including communication, commitment, and stressors that impact interpersonal relationships. For this and their support of SOAR, St. Olaf named the David and Karen Olson Family Studies Program in their honor earlier this year.
“Family studies courses help any student develop the skills needed to get along with others and work together,” says David. “Having good relationship skills is important for success in all professions.”
“We learned the value of these relationship skills when we ran Prepare-Enrich together,” says Karen. “And it helped us maintain a healthy and happy relationship.”