NORTH ADAMS — The campus gates of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts were ceremoniously opened on Tuesday afternoon to one of the college's largest and most diverse freshmen classes.
The Class of 2020 is 440 members strong, represents 16 states and U.S. territories as well as several other countries, and some 27 percent of the freshmen self-identify as coming from a nonwhite racially and ethnically diverse background.
This year, with support from a federal grant and encouragement from the state, retention will be a key initiative on campus — to make all students feel welcome, to give them opportunities for growth and support to succeed.
At a noontime convocation in the MCLA Church Street Center's Eleanor Furst Roberts Auditorium, first-year students were greeted with words of welcome, encouragement, a surprise performance from the NeXXus Step Dance Team and a post-ceremony outdoor barbecue gathering on the campus quad.
"Today marks a new beginning for all of us," said MCLA President James F. Birge, who convened his first convocation in his first full academic year in the role.
"I'm a little nervous and excited," said Courtney Crafts, a first-year student from the neighboring city of Greenfield.
Her personal goal in the coming days is simple, "To get done the things that I need to do," she said, noting that this is her first time living away from home.
Student Government Association President Tim Williams said that homesickness, struggles and mistakes are common occurrences during a college student's first go around, but, he said, "It gets better."
To help, he said, "Use your resources. It's a simple act but can sometimes feel like a big task."
Williams, Birge, and Monique Symes, the keynote speaker and Class of 2011 alumna, all encouraged students to "get involved" with all the class offerings and extracurricular opportunities on campus, particularly those that involve growing skills or an interest, or that provide a service to others in the campus or North Adams community.
"I did a lot for myself in high school and didn't do a lot for others," Symes said.
At MCLA, she co-founded NeXXus, served as a residential adviser and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in English and communications. She now teaches middle school youth in Boston Public Schools, runs an after-school step dance program, and also serves on the MCLA alumni board of directors.
Symes asked this year's freshmen, and faculty and staff, to think about a time they were served and supported by another person and advised them to, "Hold on to experiences like this to remind you why you're here."
President Birge told students, "You must also commit to doing your best and achieving your goals."
At the post-convocation barbecue, new friends and first-year students Igor DaSilva, of Lawrence, Bruno Zotarelli, of Lynn, Stacey Gonzalez, of El Paso, Texas, and Cassidy Belmore, of Newton talked about what that might look like for each of them.
DaSilva said he was inspired by the NeXXus performance and hopes to join the team, and try theater and other forms of dance.
Zotarelli said he's deciding whether to pursue chemistry, and the rugby team.
Gonzalez plans on studying political science and is considering getting involved in student government.
Said Belmore, "I have no idea what I want to do yet; I just know I want to do something good here."
By the numbers ...
Here is a snapshot of the MCLA Class of 2020:
Total population: 440
Percent increase in enrollment from 2015-16: 20 percent
States they represent: 16
Self-identify with a diverse racial/ethnic background: 27 percent
Entering with college credits: Nearly 100 students
Percentage interested in community service: Over 50 percent
Plan to major in a STEM subject: 30 percent