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Pioneer Valley incoming freshmen Link up on orientation day

Pioneer Valley incoming freshmen Link up on orientation day

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Transitioning from middle school to high school can be daunting for any incoming freshman. Pioneer Valley High School's annual Link Crew orientation day is filled with bonding activities and a campus tour that helps them ease into the next four years of their academic lives.

Hosted the week before school begins in the fall, from 8 a.m. to noon Friday, 150 upperclassmen Link Crew leaders and staff showcased all that the high school had to offer for the best possible academic and social experience. 

"It's a great way to alleviate stress that comes along with starting a new school," said Marcie Guerra, faculty member and Link Crew coordinator for the ninth annual event. The orientation allows incoming freshman to begin forming a strong, positive connection with the campus, she added. 

The difference is very noticeable in students from when they first walk into the campus gym at 8 a.m. to the end of the event, when they return after their small group activities and appear more at ease, said Brooke Baarstad, faculty member and Link Crew coordinator. 

Crew leaders are juniors and seniors who serve to be mentors once they're accepted into the program, Baarstad said. They give up the last weeks of their summer every year to prepare for the orientation day event, putting up posters, decorating the campus and familiarizing themselves with their duties to lead the games. 

During the first hour and a half, the 716 freshmen joined together to do quick ice-breaker activities, like Simon Says, to help them mingle with each other. 

"This is important to begin with because it allows them to step away from the person they came here with, because they probably won't be with that person once they're separated into different groups," Baarstad said.

The activities also help students build a sense of community through team success and apply their skills to reach goals. A Q&A segment, "What Every Freshman Should Know," with the students offered advice from avoiding procrastination to getting involved in clubs, leaving comfort zones to making supportive friends, Spirit Days, listening to teachers and, most importantly, how to "be loud and be proud to be a Panther." 

Shortly before 10 a.m., the students were split into 53 groups and sent off to a different classroom, each group joined by three Link Crew leaders. 

In a portable classroom adjacent to the gym, Link Crew leaders Jheremy Casabar, Lylah Sherrod and Kelsey Marshall kicked off activities with their group that focused entirely on each and every student's name -- from the origin of their name to their life story to finally ensuring that everyone in the group knew everyone else's name, remembered it and formed a connection.

The next activity, Team Juggling, focused on learning how to juggle a lot of different responsibilities for the next four years -- from having to deal with difficult classes, friends, social lives, sports, family time and extracurricular activities. 

Everyone sat in a circle and started with one ball. They tossed it to the person whose name they called out. By the third round, everyone went from their knees to their feet, with three balls thrown around to each other.

As it got more challenging -- having to deal with a ball tossed at any second and still having to remember each person's name -- the students got more anxious and frantic as they erratically threw the ball at each other, dropping it more than catching it. But they all laughed and kept on with it. 

Freshman Damian Valenzuela, who graduated from Tommie Kunst Junior High, said he didn't expect orientation to be this fun. 

"I expected the usual -- maybe walk around campus, get your schedule," he said. "I didn't know it'd be this fun. It's definitely helping me meet more people. I felt awkward at first, but now I feel more comfortable and I'm really glad I came today. It's helping me ease into high school for sure." 

Marshall, who's serving as a leader for the first time, said she was inspired to join Link Crew following her own orientation experience just two years ago, "as the leaders then helped me have a lot of fun and enjoy starting high school."

"I was supposed to go to Santa Maria High School so it was weird for me," Marshall recalled. "I didn't want to be here, was nervous, but orientation changed my mind and made me look at all the possibilities offered here that we could take advantage of." 

Juggling a lot of responsibilities as a Link Crew leader herself, Marshall said she looks forward to mentoring freshman not just Friday, but for the rest of the school year -- from knowing where classrooms are to which water fountains and bathrooms are the best to use on campus. 

She added: "Pioneer Valley High School has been a great experience for me so far, and Link orientation really helped."

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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