"You're scared when you first come in, and you have questions like, `Is there a lot of racism here?' " said Hernandez, now a sophomore, who is from New York and identifies herself as African-American.
Hernandez is one of hundreds of Mount Holyoke students who have attended "Passages," the college's pre-orientation program to help minority students settle into a college where each might find herself the only person of color in a particular dorm or class.
But this year, officials at Mount Holyoke are questioning whether bringing minority students to campus early is a good idea. Spurred in part by the national debate on affirmative action and other minority preferences, they are considering opening the 16-year-old program to white students. Other schools are undergoing similar soul-searching.
"There's some thought that pre-orientation programs might actually be a force toward rigidifying racial boundaries rather than opening them up," said Lee Bowie, dean of Mount Holyoke.
Minority preference programs have become the topic of wide debate in higher education, largely spurred by two admissions cases that ended up in the Supreme Court. The court's decision on the University of Michigan admissions policy upheld affirmative action; but partly because of lawsuits, several premier universities, including MIT, have changed the race-exclusive character of their minority summer programs.
Orientation activities, which usually last just a few days, are seen as less vulnerable to legal challenge because they are geared toward discussion and bonding rather than academic content or counseling services.
Bowie said that Mount Holyoke is not concerned about lawsuits, but "the larger question of having separate structures that are racially based is a little bit up for grabs in the face of this wider interrogation of affirmative action." Until last year, Williams College offered a four-day minority orientation, "Windows on Williams." But after student complaints that the program encouraged self-segregation, the school changed it into a series of weekly dinners throughout September, followed by a daylong retreat, said Marcela Villada Peacock, who helps run the program.
Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr colleges in Pennsylvania collaborate on a weeklong orientation for 75 minority students. After reviewing the three schools' policies in light of the Michigan decision, officials decided they'll probably send letters of invitation to white students for the first time next year, said Haverford dean Joseph Tolliver.
Yet if a large number of the participants were white, Tolliver said, it would work against the program's goals.
"We want to support students of color because they are indeed a numerical minority," Tolliver said. "The task that confronts us is how to prepare them for that situation without appearing to recommend segregation."
Other schools, including Yale and Brown universities and the University of New Hampshire, are sticking with the formats they've been using for years. Ernest Jeffries, assistant dean of students at Davidson College in North Carolina, said minority orientation there has helped the college retain its minority students.
Students and educators say that the value of such programs lies in making sure minority students know they have the college's support in case they face racism or simply feel alone.
Mount Holyoke alumni association director Rochelle Calhoun, who helped create "Passages," said students who are confident about their racial identity are more likely to reach across boundaries.
"Once we as people of color begin to interact with our white sisters, we need to come to that space with a real sense of who we are, in order to really listen and communicate," she told the new students at a Passages meeting last week.
The Mount Holyoke program, held this year at the end of August, consists of two days of workshops, dinners, and parties. Although all incoming minority students are invited to Passages, not all attend. This year, 59 out of 100 who were eligible attended. At one workshop, a Latina woman described feeling cut off from her heritage because she doesn't speak Spanish. An Asian-American woman wondered why it seemed like the minorities at her boarding school were more politically conservative than average. A couple of students agreed that people are often too "politically correct" to face racial issues head-on.
Pre-orientation also introduces participants to other minority peers and upperclassmen, and to advising resources.
"Sometimes you feel like you're the only one," said Hernandez, who was the only black student in her dorm last year. Mount Holyoke is about 19 percent American minority students, and 16 percent international students. "My roommate was a Republican from the South and believed in the Confederate flag. It was good to feel like I had someone to go talk to."
But it can also create a sense of separation, critics say. Mount Holyoke is considered a tolerant, close-knit community, but race can still be an issue.
Last year, for example, a controversy erupted when the group that put together "African Caribbean Day" would not allow non-African or non-Caribbean groups to perform.
Ryan McLaughlin, who is white, said she felt left out when she arrived last year.
"I felt like I was meeting the kind of people I knew growing up, not the people I came here to meet," said McLaughlin. She added that some students in her dorm made their closest friends at Passages and never seemed very interested in getting to know others. "It's like, we can't meet them because we're just average."
To address such complaints, Bowie is considering bringing all new students to campus at the same time and offering events based on different themes. Anyone interested in the "identity" activities would be welcome to join.
Mount Holyoke officials are awaiting the results of an orientation survey they'll conduct this fall. Any changes will be at least as controversial as the current format has been.
"Mount Holyoke is the first place that taught me to be proud of who I am, the first place I found with people I could really talk to about race," said sophomore Julia Martinez Koch, from Newton, the child of one white parent and one Cuban-American. "I don't feel badly that the white people get excluded once in a while."
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.