Finding Their Place as Tars

A new peer-orientation program is helping first-year students acclimate to Rollins and EMBARK on their college journey.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

As a past president of the Black Student Union and a three-time Immersion leader, Ashley Williams ’18 is certainly thriving at Rollins. But the early days of her college experience were filled with doubts and uncertainty.

“I just wanted to fit in and find a group I could call family,” says Williams, a social entrepreneurship and business major who attended Jones High School near downtown Orlando. “Getting involved with the Center for Inclusion and Campus Involvement (CICI) definitely helped me feel like I was part of campus.”

Today, Williams is making sure that others who follow in her footsteps enjoy a smooth transition. In mid-August, she and four classmates joined forces with CICI to launch EMBARK, a peer-orientation initiative aimed at helping first-year students from historically disenfranchised and underrepresented populations acclimate to the Rollins environment.

EMBARK, an acronym for Exploring, Mentoring, Building, Access, Resources, and Knowledge, is designed for, but not limited to, students of racial and ethnic-minority backgrounds, students with a disability, and students identifying as LGBTQ+.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

The three-day, voluntary program was available to all incoming students and took place before the campuswide orientation August 17. It featured a parent Q&A, staff introductions, campus tour, team-building exercises, cultural programming, and dinner with President Cornwell at Barker House. Ten first-year students signed up, and CICI Director Abby Hollern expects the program will grow in the coming years. 

“We’ve received excellent feedback,” Hollern says. “Those who participated have really found their place as Tars. They’ve built connections with each other and across campus as well. The traffic it’s created in our office alone has been a really positive, unexpected outcome.”

Rollins360 caught up with three EMBARK participants to learn more about the first semester of their Rollins experience.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Greg Delva ’20
Religion, adventure, fun, and learning new things.

Out of 50 topical flash cards in the values-finder exercise, it was difficult for Greg Delva ’20 to whittle down the areas of his life that were most important. But, like everyone else in the group, he eventually settled on a unique mix of attributes.

“That was an eye-opener,” says Delva, a computer science major and Presidential Scholar. “It helped us learn not only about ourselves but also to relate to others.”

At New Dimensions High School in Poinciana, Florida, Delva was a soccer player who created his school’s first history bowl team. At Rollins, he’s studying pre-engineering with a goal to continue his education at Columbia University.

A second-generation Haitian, Delva is the first male in his family to attend college. The highlight of his EMBARK experience came when President Cornwell introduced him to a Rollins alum who worked on artificial intelligence projects at IBM.

“Attending EMBARK, that’s when I knew I made the right decision to go to Rollins,” Delva says. “It pointed me in the right direction and gave me the confidence to go out and make new friends.” 

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Gabbie Buendia ’19
A transfer student from Hamilton College in New York, Gabbie Buendia ’19 considered EMBARK a perfect opportunity to connect with faculty and student leaders. The sophomore wanted to get involved right away, particularly in areas like social activism.

Now, she’s an intern at the Lucy Cross Center for Women and Their Allies, where she helps coordinate TEDx talks and participates in sex-education initiatives.

“EMBARK introduced me to people I know I can rely on, and it also gave me a good idea of what to expect,” says Buendia, an environmental studies major. “I’m learning to build community and make an impact.”

Buendia, who moved to the United States from the Philippines at age 2, was an honor’s student, cheerleader, and Pilates club founder at Lyman High School in Seminole County. After college, she would like to become a high school teacher or college professor.

“EMBARK is still impacting me through the relationships I’ve built,” she says. “It’s given me and other people in the program a leg up. Having an extra three days to get used to the campus doesn’t seem like much, but it does make a difference.”

Denise Daniels ’20
When she’s playing home basketball games, Denise Daniels ’20 will look into the stands and sometimes notice a special group cheering her on.

“My friends from EMBARK were the first people I met at Rollins, and it means a lot knowing they come out to support me,” says Daniels, who plays guard and forward on Rollins’ women’s basketball team. “They’ve been a big part of my transition from high school to here.”

Daniels, who attended Colonial High School in east Orlando, was encouraged to participate in EMBARK by teammates Tianna Rosser ’19 and Vernisha Andrews ’19. Rosser coordinated the program, and Andrews was a student leader. Like Williams, they are members of the Black Student Union.

After graduation, Daniels hopes to become a physical therapist and work in professional sports. She recommends EMBARK to all incoming students who want to learn more about Rollins’ commitment to diversity.

“By attending this program, you’re helping yourself and those around you,” Daniels says. “It feels good to play a part in helping others grow.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook