Each summer, thousands of newly admitted UC Berkeley students flood campus for two-day crash courses on time-honored Cal traditions and to sign up for their first set of classes. Since its inception in 1968, CalSO was intended as a space where baby Bears could learn to navigate the campus and meet some of their peers before officially starting school in the fall.
Cal Student Orientation first began as an ASUC-run program called “Cal Prep.” When the campus’s Office of the Dean of Students took over operation of the program in 1968, Fred Peterson was appointed the first student chair of the program.
The program — with a budget of about $900,000 — was run by primarily student staff, and it ran five weekend sessions that first summer.
“Over the years, the schedules, programmatic components, CalSO Leader uniforms, dining locations, and featured speakers have changed,” said Director of New Student Services Chrissy Roth-Francis in an email. “What has not changed is the sense of pride, school spirit, community building, intellectual development that can be found in every CalSO session over all the 50 years.”
The name was switched to “Cal Summer Orientation Program” around 1970 to move away from “high school-ish sounding Cal Prep,” according to an a written account by the campus’s first dean of orientations, Peter Van Houten.
Peterson’s parents and both of his grandfathers went to UC Berkeley. As a kid, he’d been around Berkeley “a bunch,” but new student orientation, he said, still served as an invaluable introduction for him to the ins and outs of the campus.
Peterson most vividly remembers a panel discussion “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll,” as one of the most popular and well-attended orientation events. A representative cross section of the students, faculty and administrators would sit on the panel and address issues raised by students and parents.
During the politically charged ‘60s, Peterson said a lot of the parents were concerned with issues such as drug use and political unrest.
Cal Prep was founded in a trough between the Free Speech Movement that rocked the campus in 1964 and the People’s Park protests in 1969.
Furthermore, Peterson said, students of color and community members at the time were demanding the creation of an ethnic studies program — centered on the understudied histories of underrepresented minorities such as Black people, Asian Americans, Chicanos and Native Americans — and the campus was resisting this demand.
The late ‘60s ethnic studies movement arose out of national and global decolonial uprisings under the title of the “Third World Liberation Front.”
Later that year, then-governor Ronald Reagan, who had been critical of widespread student demonstrations, sent about 700 National Guard troops to quell protests that arose around People’s Park. The troops essentially occupied Berkeley for several weeks, Peterson recalled.
“There were roadblocks on every corner. … (Reagan) tear gassed the campus and most of the city of Berkeley,” Peterson said. “There was such massive use of tear gas that it was unprecedented.”
The first prototype of CalSO encountered several historical moments.
Van Houten, who was involved with the campus orientation program for many years, wrote that the program organizers screened the first landing on the moon during one Sunday lunch that first summer.
“These are my memories of mostly happy years with CalSO,” Van Houten writes. “I say ‘mostly,’ as the late ‘60s were the time of the war in (Vietnam) and the protests on campus with all the windows broken in Sproul Hall, and many parents (were) scared to death that their children were coming to a dangerous place.”
CalSO has evolved with the times throughout its 50-year history but maintained its role as an integral new student experience, according to Roth-Francis.
The most prominent longstanding tradition at CalSO is the Time Warp, Roth-Francis said. What began as a movie-watching social eventually turned into all of CalSO’s participants learning the Time Warp dance from the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
This summer will be the last one in which CalSO in its current form will be offered. Beginning next summer, the two-day long orientations dispersed throughout the summer will be replaced with a new program called “Golden Bear Orientation” during which the new student class will attend a mandatory week-long orientation just before the start of school in the fall.
“This is a fundamental and philosophical shift for our (campus),” Roth-Francis in an email. “This will ensure all new students receive the same access to orientation, and the same opportunities, resources, and experiences.”
Roth-Francis added that the new format will allow students to see each other as a single cohort, instead of myriad smaller cohorts, and will allow students to better transition into the start of classes.