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A New Look at Campus Orientation

By Sandra Guy

June 02, 2008

College orientation sessions are important because they help entering students learn about the culture and expectations of an institution and the many programs it offers. “Orientation is a time for a student and his or her family to take a personal journey into a new life—to try it on,” says Jeanine Ward-Roof, dean of students at Florida State University and an associate editor of the Journal of College Orientation and Transition, published by the National Orientation Directors Association (NODA). “Orientations are very intentionally developed. They bring all sorts of information to the students, and offer conversations to instill the information.”

Colleges throughout the country are constantly seeking new ways to engage incoming freshmen to encourage familiarity with the school as well as to get to know other classmates and make friends. Most schools also post orientation activities on their Web sites. If you already know what college you’ll attend this fall, take time to check out your school’s orientation.

What Are Other Schools Doing?

Incoming freshmen at Emory & Henry College in rural southwestern Virginia get to know each other through an online community prior to their first face-to-face orientation. The community, called the “Wasps’ Nest” to recognize the college’s wasp mascot, is accessed by students who’ve been admitted to the four-year, private liberal arts school, one of 40 heralded in the latest edition of the book, Colleges that Change Lives.

“Once students are admitted, they may put up their own Web page, or post links to their blog or MySpace or Facebook page,” says E & H College Web manager Jed Arnold. The college has had no complaints with the online community, which started in 2006. The Wasps’ Nest operates under the same rules of behavior as other organizations on campus.

Students on the Wasps’ Nest are encouraged to get to know each other by listing their intended major, assigned residence hall and favorite food, books, movies and TV shows. A student who lists “House MD” as his favorite TV show would get a hyperlink to all the other students who’ve listed it as their favorite. More than 100 prospective freshmen at the 1,000-student college had logged onto the Wasps’ Nest by April. “There is a great deal of fellowship and community there,” Arnold says. “The Web frees up some of the restrictions of face-to-face communication.”

Emory & Henry also started a blog last year called First-Year Life, in which students chronicle their experiences as first-year students. The blog consistently ranks as one of the top 50 most-requested pages on the school’s Web site. Prior to orientation, students may also take a virtual tour of the campus (on the school’s Web site, click “Video Tour”).

Orientation and Academics Entwined

At DePaul University in Chicago, incoming freshmen sign up for “Discover Chicago” sessions that give them first-hand insights into their future careers, as well as the university and its resources. Students arrive at the private university one week prior to orientation to delve into topics ranging from “Chicago in Fiction, 1890-1910” to “Poverty Amidst Plenty” to “Computer Game Development in Chicago.” The sessions start Aug. 27 and last seven weeks.

Jacek Brzezinski, assistant professor of computer science at DePaul, leads a course in which he takes students who want to become computer game designers on field trips to Midway Games, Electronic Arts and other game-development companies in the Chicago area.

The students discuss and write papers about topics such as artistic issues in computer-game design, technologies used in gaming, and how they would design a computer game. “The side effect of the trips is that students get to know the ‘L’ trains and the bus system. It’s a way to learn about the urban environment,” says Brzezinski. Students also get career advice from professionals in their intended fields.

At The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, a public liberal arts college, pre-orientation sessions are set aside for students of color, those with disabilities and first-generation college students. The students arrive four days prior to freshman orientation to get a sense of community and a greater familiarity with “the whole college-going experience,” says Phyllis Lane, dean of students and academic support services at the college.

Once orientation begins, freshmen may sign up for a two-credit, five-week program in which they work with faculty to learn basic skills of success, including time management and handling the emotional ups and downs of a new experience. “We work around taking care of yourself, others and the place,” Lane says. Students also may work on a service project on the 1,000-acre, forested campus.

At Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago, students enjoy some old-fashioned fun in getting to know each other during orientation. All of the freshmen gather under a tent in a “Play Fair” event, in which a leader instructs on ice-breaker games: Finding five people with the same birthday month, or choosing a partner, linking up back-to-back and walking in an appointed direction.

The students also go in groups on excursions to Chicago to shop, sightsee and sample restaurants. “The closeness and the bond was so good here,” says rising sophomore Steve Dembowski, 20, who is majoring in accounting at the college. “I felt it almost immediately. You couldn’t help but embrace it.”

Orientation in the Internet Age

College officials are increasingly grappling with how to incorporate technology in orientation, as well as dealing with hovering parents and making sure students feel they are a fit with a university, says Ward-Roof. “Technology has changed how we do orientation—how we communicate in everything from simple Web-based interfaces to podcasts.”

While most students hope their orientation will be a success, not all orientation sessions may be unique or exciting. Students who feel bored or uneasy with an orientation should ask themselves whether they just had a bad day or whether the school really isn’t a good fit. Says Ward-Roof, “If you feel that you aren’t getting the information you need, talk to a peer student or someone in academic life. Take the initiative and say, ‘I want to know more.’”

In the end, remember that orientation lasts a short period of time when compared to how long you’ll be at school. It probably won’t be a harbinger for your entire four years at college, whether the orientation is positive or not. The most important things are to get familiar with your surroundings, meet some new people and kick off a fabulous college career.


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