For more than a half-century, incoming Wheaton students could choose between two orientation experiences. The first, Passage, was a pre-orientation program where students would spend a week away from campus with faculty and student leaders. Students could also choose to skip Passage and start their Wheaton experience with Orientation, which consisted of move-in, worship, group activities and a welcome celebration in the days before classes started. But this year, incoming first-year students all began the same way: with one long pre-college program that combined Passage and Orientation, mandatory for all incoming freshmen and optional for transfers. The move-in of new students into their campus residences by the Orientation Committee (OC) marked the beginning of the Passage experience, followed by students embarking on separate tracks, and ended with their Aug. 19 return to campus.
Steve Ivester said that the college’s senior administrative cabinet decided to combine the two programs partially due to data that showed students who participated in Passage were more “engaged” with campus in the rest of their four years, according to Dean of Student Engagement Steve Ivester.
The Passage program has four tracks: Northwoods, Urban, Wilderness, and Transfer. The Northwoods track, held from Aug. 10-19, took place at HoneyRock Center for Leadership Development, Wheaton’s camp in Three Lakes, Wis. Northwoods also offered an equestrian track at HoneyRock. The Wilderness track featured a variety of outdoor activities including backpacking, rock climbing, canoeing and sea kayaking in and around the Superior National Forest from Aug. 3-19. The Urban track took place in Chicago from Aug. 10-19 in the downtown loop and the Woodlawn neighborhood. Transfers spent Aug. 15-19 at the Harris Family Hostel in downtown Chicago.
The purpose of Passage is to bring students and upperclassman leaders to a place outside of campus to read, learn, and discuss practical basics of faith before starting classes at Wheaton while getting to know one another in small groups.
Passage was canceled in 2020, and ran with masking protocols in 2021. This year, in addition to the new attendance requirement, Passage added a downtown Chicago option to the Urban track and a transfer-specific track. Furthermore, Passage was also no longer offered as a two-credit course, but rather as a zero-credit, pass-fail class. Students were still required to complete pre-Passage work and meet with Wheaton professors in small groups.
Ivester says the switch to a pass-fail, zero-credit model was precipitated by a desire to get students’ minds off of grades.
“[We didn’t want] too much pressure that their first experience at Wheaton is going to be a GPA-affecting grade and [instead] set a vision for learning and engaging the life of the mind without the obligation or the pressure of performing,” he said.
Laura Mund, senior urban studies major, was a Passage leader for the downtown Urban track. She was surprised by her students’ interest in the course material, despite not receiving credit.
“It allowed for us to encourage them to rest while challenging themselves and balance that well so that they’re not straining themselves too much before classes start,” said Mund. “But they’re also thinking critically, and getting a taste of what discussion-based courses will be like at Wheaton.”
Transitioning Passage to a mandatory orientation experience also presented the need to support students with financial difficulties. Ivester said the college used FAFSA information to determine and match students’ aid needs in the Passage budget.
With the budgeted funds, the college was able to cover 25% to 75% of the cost for students requesting financial aid. The new model also allowed for a slight price drop: the sticker price of Passage was $795 in 2021, and Orientation was an additional $125. In 2022, the Passage/Orientation combined program totaled $895, with scholarships available.
Amy Black, a political science professor, expressed concerns over the potential financial issues that can come with attending Passage. From her conversations with students over the years, Black was made aware of the significant expense of Passage, especially for students who work during the summers.
“[The concern is] not just the cost required for Passage, but it’s also the lost income from coming here earlier than you would have,” Black said. “If students are going to have to pay extra money for something that’s required, I want to make sure that’s very clear to them.”
Additionally, Passage nearly doubled in numbers this year, with 499 students in comparison to the 262 total last year. Logistical changes had to be made in order to accommodate 389 students at HoneyRock and 110 in Chicago.
“I think the best way to describe Passage this year from last year is with a Lego tower,” said Emily Norbeck, Passage coordinator for the Northwoods and Wilderness tracks. “We had the tower from previous years. We took the blocks apart and put them back together just in a little different way, with the new number of anticipated students in mind. So all the pieces were there, they just looked a little bit different.”
Previously, all of the tracks finished Passage at HoneyRock, with students meeting other freshmen and transfers at a night called Convergence. This year, only the Wilderness and Northwoods tracks were combined from Aug. 14-19, while the two Urban tracks converged in Chicago on their own. All of the tracks then traveled back to Wheaton on Aug. 19.
“The downtown convergence is a solution to a real problem, which is that there’s not enough space for everyone [at Honeyrock],” said Isis Toldson, a junior biblical and theological studies major who was a unit leader on the Urban Woodlawn track. “Many people who choose Urban Passage are people choosing it because they don’t want to be outside and in the wilderness.”
OC was also involved in Passage for the first time in an attempt to smooth out the transition when students returned to Wheaton for the more traditional orientation experience. OC led activities and worship at HoneyRock and at the downtown site before returning back to campus to prepare for the returning Passage students.
“They got to take some of the activity time and put a new spin on it, which was really fun,” said Ivester.
Freshman Clarissa Meadows, elementary education major, chose the Equestrian track at HoneyRock.
“I enjoyed meeting a variety of peers and engaging in fun activities with the equestrian girls,” Meadows said. “We laughed so much and had so many funny moments together at the barn.”
Tyler Holaday, a freshman biblical and theological studies major, said his Northwoods Passage experience was important to his transition at Wheaton.
“It was a really formative experience,” said Holaday. “I am so thankful we had the opportunity to go before classes started. Going into Wheaton already knowing so many people, we were all in it together.”
Spencer Mistele, a freshman who attended the Northwoods track, enjoyed his Passage experience, but can see the pros and cons.
“It was a great time, and I think it has a lot of benefits,” said Mistele, a business and economics major, “but I don’t love the idea that it was forced and every single freshman was forced to go.”
New students were not the only ones who enjoyed Passage. Sophomore Sam Westra, a history and secondary education double major who led the Northwoods track, forged new friendships going into his second year at Wheaton.
“Being a Passage leader has exceeded my expectations,” said Westra. “Through it, I was able to become a better leader, form new friendships, and connect with my student group and others in the new freshman class.”
Jacob Elsen, a junior biology major, also worked on Orientation Committee this year, and he feels strongly that the mandatory Passage experience is beneficial for all students.
“The time spent building friendships that will last for years to come bumps the balance down hard in favor of a Passage experience for every freshman student,” said Elsen. “The foundation of both Christlike community and spiritual practice that passage fosters will provide the basis for the life transformations that occur at Wheaton.”
Holaday said that the worship at Passage was what stuck with him most.
“Starting the day every single morning in praise with like-minded brothers and sisters is something I would trade the world for,” he said.