Benjamin Astrachan spent his last night in West Hartford driving his high school friends around like it was any other summer night. It was fun, but also a bit scary because it represented the end of an era, he said.
The next day, the high school graduate would be living away from home for the first time and moving in with a stranger.
Astrachan was going to college.
“My mind is so clouded,” he said Sunday, standing in his new dorm room. “I’m nervous because I don’t know what I’m even nervous about.”
Sunday afternoon, more than 800 first-year Brandeis University students moved into their freshman residence halls, marking the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of Boston’s transformation back into collegiate central.
The Boston area has 53 institutions of higher learning. At Brandeis Sunday, move-in day was a full-blown production, teetering in tone between that of a joyful carnival and the workmanlike focus of an assembly line.
Volunteers guided families across campus as students set up dorm rooms, solidified meal plans, picked up ID cards, and met with peer academic advisors. Beyond the paperwork, student volunteers, university sports teams, and residence hall staff members worked hard to provide an enjoyable atmosphere.
Cars were greeted with a dancing cheerleader holding a “Welcome to Brandeis!” sign. Student volunteers, also called orientation leaders, chanted encouraging words for shy students as they exited their cars. Festive pop music blared over the loudspeakers.
Most notably for parents, orientation leaders carried all items from car to dorm.
“Room 104! Welcome!” yelled Maggie Ziegel, an 18-year-old rising sophomore from Canada. Her fellow orientation leaders whooped as they unloaded a new student’s family vehicle. Ziegel said she signed up to be an orientation leader because she remembered how a friendly face turned her stressful move-in experience into something more bearable.
“There is a culture and tradition that has been built over the years here,” said Dr. Andrew Flagel , senior vice president for students and enrollment.
“They’re hauling fridges and overpacked suitcases, and they’re all volunteers,” he said.
Brandeis’s freshman class includes students from all 50 states and from 22 countries, Flagel said, although more specific demographic numbers were unavailable. Flagel said a culture of service and inclusivity is baked into the fabric of the institution.
Brandeis, founded in 1948 to combat widespread exclusionary admissions practices toward Jewish students, was this year’s top-ranked college for student engagement in community service, according to the Princeton Review.
‘It’s a diverse campus with many different types of people. I feel good here.’Talya Ackerman, Brandeis University freshman from New Jersey
“My concern was that [Benjamin] would feel lonely, but this feels so welcoming,” Bethany Astrachan said about her son. She said she had cried Saturday night at the prospect of sending her first child away to school.
“If you can figure out a way to pay for it, it’s one experience you don’t want to miss,” she said.
Talya Ackerman agreed.
The 17-year-old New Jersey native had not been planning to visit Brandeis, but after feeling disenchanted with other New England colleges, she decided to give her mother’s alma mater a chance.
Minutes into the campus tour, her mother, Stephanie, said she felt her daughter changing her mind. Thanks to a fun tour guide and a welcoming campus, the “mom effect” had been overcome, she said.
“During the tour she kept asking me if I’d been to a certain library or dining hall, and I’d tell her ‘no’,” Stephanie Ackerman said. “At first she said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ but then she realized that this would be her school and not mine.”
At move-in day, Talya Ackerman said she was nervous about her classes, but felt reassured by the support systems available. She plans to major in neuroscience.
“It’s a diverse campus with many different types of people,” she Ackerman. “I feel good here.”
Ackerman’s roommate, 18-year-old Danielle Davidoff of Newton, had the opposite experience. Her sister, also named Talya, graduated from Brandeis in 2012. But this family connection drew Danielle toward the school, instead of pushing her away.
“It seemed perfect,” she said.
Before her family left the dorm room, there was one last tearful embrace between Danielle and her mother, Naomi.
In parting, Naomi Davidoff promised Danielle that the family would not visit without warning, although they live only 12 minutes away.
Danielle’s sister, Talya, offered more specific advice: If you want to survive Brandeis, find the free printers.Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.