A ∙ C ∙ H ∙ I ∙ M: Maryland Hillel’s “big brother” program helps transition freshmen into campus life

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Achim “big brothers and sisters” smile in front of a buffet table filled with treats for Achim’s semester-opening ice cream social. Tori Bergel/Mitzpeh.

By Tori Bergel
For Mitzpeh
@BergelTori

Adjusting to a new environment is difficult for anyone. But for a freshman living independently for the first time, it can be completely overwhelming.

In comes Achim, a Hillel program that pairs new Jewish students with returning student “big brothers” and “big sisters” to help them navigate and feel more comfortable within their new community. The Hebrew word achim means siblings, achot means sister and ach means brother. 

Started by University of Maryland alumnus Amanda Povman ‘18 when she was a student, the program pairs up individuals and exchanges their contact information to give them the opportunity to hang out on their own time as well as during events planned for Achim.

The current organizer, junior dietetics major Rachel Sentchuk, joined Achim as a freshman.

“My freshman year [achot] was Jenna Goldschmidt,” Sentchuk said. “One time we went to her apartment and we got Starbucks, and it was really nice just to have somebody, somebody that I really had no idea who it was and to go out of my comfort zone, but also to feel that I had someone who’s looking out for me, which was nice.”

Experiences like Sentchuk’s are what the program aims to achieve.

“The goal is for freshmen to be able to come into the year knowing that, ‘Oh, I have someone to turn to if I need anything, whether it be about my major, about my classes, about making friends, about where to live for the following year,’ so anything that they need,” Sentchuk said.

Sentchuk creates the pairs through Google forms that ask a range of different background questions: Where are you from? Did you go to Seminary or Yeshiva? If so, where did you go? What’s your major? Participants are then matched based on commonalities and who might get along well.

“My achot was Avia Sinai,” said sophomore Hannah Weisbrot, a communications and psychology major. “She was so great and we were so similar, we hung out, out of context of the Achim program a lot. So, I felt like I really gained a lot from her being my ach[ot], so I wanted to do the same for an incoming freshman.”

Many of the participants who started out as “little siblings” themselves choose to come back in the following years as mentors. The program now has about 40 pairs, Sentchuk said.

“I wanted to be a part of the Jewish community,” said sophomore environmental science and technology major Daniel Shapiro, “and I wanted to be involved in the organization that reaches out to freshmen and helps them accommodate to their new college environment.”

Part of that transition is achieved through events that Achim creates to facilitate bonding within pairs, and freshmen engagement with the larger community.

This year, Achim kicked off the program with an ice cream social.

“The first event was just like getting to know your achot, so we just sat, ate, chilled, like got to know each other, we didn’t know who each other was,” said freshman Letters and Sciences student Ricki Schlussel.

“It was nice to have a way to meet each other in person, like officially, at an event like that, and I think more events would be beneficial also,” said Dalia Planer, a junior kinesiology major and Ricki’s achot.

In addition to semesterly events, Achim provides an extra resource for freshmen looking for a friendly face in the community.

“The best part of [Achim] is just like having a familiar face at Hillel,” Schlussel said. “Now every time I come and, like, she always talks to me about my work and everything, she’s always inviting me for meals and it’s just super nice.”

Despite Achim’s overall success, the program has faced some organizational problems in years past.

“It’s not so efficiently managed,” said Shapiro, adding that he hadn’t heard from the program at all after attending a single event at the beginning of the semester.

This year, however, Sentchuk strives to create a positive experience for everyone.

“Last year it kind of fell through just for a lot of different reasons,” Sentchuk said, “and then this year we tried to plan over the summer more, so that we would be more prepared coming into this semester. And so far, we’ve had an ice cream party and now we’re planning hopefully to do a Shabbat dinner at Hillel in, like, sometime in October.” In helping to transition freshmen into college life, Achim creates positive experiences for both mentee and mentor, founding lasting friendships for years to come.

“Becca, my sister, and Nicole Wohlberg actually ended up being roommates last year,” said Sentchuk, “and, like, they’re still really good friends. And they were achot, so there’s a success story.”

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