Opening Days gives the class of 2021 a proper Willamette welcome

by Jennifer Johnson,

New students move in, explore campus and prepare for the year during Opening Days.

  • Willamette Opening Days leaders
    Willamette Opening Days leaders rush into the crowd for a performance.
  • Opening Days leaders dance
    Opening Days leaders perform a dance for new students and families.
  • Selfie time
    Opening Days leaders capture the fun.
  • Willamette staff and students
    Willamette staff and Opening Days leaders direct families around campus.
  • Panhellenic Rummage Sale
    Parents pick up great finds at the Panhellenic Rummage Sale.
  • Dancing
    Opening Days leaders can't help but dance.
  • Moving in
    American Studies Program students help families during move-in day.
  • Moving in
    No refrigerator is too big for university athletes, who helped students move in.
  • Opening Days leaders
    Never a dull moment with Opening Days leaders.
  • Singing for Opening Days
    Male Ensemble Willamette sings during Opening Days events.
  • Opening Days Family Picnic
    New students and their families enjoy a picnic dinner on Brown Field.
  • Convocation
    Yesenia Gallardo '10 served as featured speaker during Opening Convocation.
  • Thorsett Welcome
    President Steve Thorsett shakes students' hands during the matriculation ceremony.
  • Matriculation Ceremony
    Current Willamette students and alumni light candles during the matriculation ceremony.
  • Matriculation Candles
    New students float candles down the Mill Stream to signify their upcoming journey through college.
  • Explore Salem
    On Friday evening students explored Salem, including a trip to Riverfront Park.
  • President's Office Visit
    President Thorsett hosted Opening Days groups in his office for cookies and conversation.
  • Grass Volleyball Tournament
    Opening days groups engaged in friendly competition during Sunday's grass volleyball tournament on the Quad.

Yesenia Gallardo ’10 knows what it’s like to start a new company, achieve recognition for it, fail — and still try again.

As guest speaker at convocation on Thursday, Gallardo told incoming students to be courageous and hold themselves accountable to their dreams. Above all, they must take risks.

Gallardo took risks herself after she graduated from Willamette. In 2015, she co-founded edible-insect company Poda Foods while she attended Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She rode an emotional rollercoaster — she won an award for most innovative startup, but the company failed so she worked in a grocery store to make ends meet and ultimately dissolved the company — but the only thing that mattered was being “resilient enough to get through it.” Today, she has founded two other food-based startups and also works for a nonprofit that helps healthcare institutions source more sustainable and local food.

With every decision, she said, erase expectations and “walk into the future one step at a time.”

These new Bearcats took their first step as official Willamette students on Wednesday morning for Move-In Day. Dance music filled the air as student athletes, American Studies Program (ASP) students and other Willamette volunteers picked up new students’ belongings curbside and moved them into the residence halls. Families and students who traveled from afar said having help moving was amazing, easy and a relief — they were more excited than emotional.

Henry Tillman ’21, a Willamette linebacker, clutched a box and climbed the stairs in Matthews Hall. “I’m a freshman and I had help this year moving in,” he said. “It feels good to give back.”

Residence hall move-in kicks off the Opening Days (OD) program. After that, first-year and transfer students are introduced to every part of the college experience — from navigating new daily routines on an unfamiliar campus and understanding academic requirements to meeting their roommates and exploring the city.

Students settled in and picked up last-minute essentials at the Panhellenic Council Rummage Sale — then later gathered with their families on the Quad to watch OD leaders rush into the audience for a high-energy, synchronized dance. Later in the week, students met with President Steve Thorsett over cookies and checked out a few new events, including joining Rabbi Gary Ellison for kiddush and challah to learn about the university’s Jewish Student Union.

First generation students and their families had the opportunity to attend “First-In-Family!”, a welcome reception that introduces students and families less familiar to the higher education environment to the Willamette community. These connections ensure students “get everything they can from the next four years,” from relationships with faculty to help with financial aid, career development and housing, said Mat Barreiro, director of the learning center.

But the centerpiece of events happened Thursday, when students gathered for a special Willamette tradition: matriculation.

Bagpipe music guided students into the Quad as dusk fell. Each student was given a candle. Chaplain Karen Wood greeted students and encouraged them to be compassionate to others and a bit of a Bearcat — not fierce like the mascot, but more like the “cute, cuddly, popcorn-smelling” binturong Bearcats are named after.

“Look at your neighbor,” she said. “At some point in the next four years, you’re going to need some help from the person next to you, and sometime you’re going to offer some help … that’s how we do it here.”

As she does every year, she taught them the university’s Latin motto, word by word: Non nobis solum nati sumus, or “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

After welcome remarks from Wood, vice president and dean of students Edward Whipple and Associated Students of Willamette president Jack Wellman, the students grabbed their candles, shook President Thorsett’s hand and filed towards the Mill Stream. Their candles were lit by alumni and other members of the Willamette community, and they released them into the slack water amidst cheers and applause.

First-year student Heather Pincus said she placed her past in the candle and let it go. “This is a new beginning,” she said. At that, she joined other students and walked into the night. 

The Matriculation Ceremony is a special Opening Days tradition.

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