As you read this end-of-summer column, it is more than likely that young adults have begun to show up on your campus to begin life as first-year college students. Does your institution have an orientation session for new freshmen and transfer entrants? Almost certainly it does. Students wander around all the new buildings, learn about diversity and course planning, take placement tests, find their dorm rooms, meet roommates, figure out meal plans, and, minus the beanies, probably seem as clueless as their counterparts from five decades before. These days, a campus orientation program has become an assumed part of the college matriculation process. The new trend is toward pre-orientation programs.
What is a pre-orientation program? The goal is to involve incoming students in experiences that help them connect to each other and to their new college. The activities run the gamut, from rock climbing to working in soup kitchens, orienteering to researching undersea vehicles. The traditional "freshman trip" usually involves students arriving on campus early, then heading out with backpacks and or canoes to brave the wilderness together in an early form of the team-building exercises now common in corporate America.
The model for these programs has existed at Dartmouth (N.H.) and Middlebury (Vt.) colleges for decades. Nervous freshmen, formerly all men and now thoroughly co-ed, arrive nervous and alone from disparate hometowns and cities. Welcomed by a more or less wacky group of outing club devotees, they proceed to sing songs, sleep in lean-tos, and bond amid the blackflies and mud of the mountains. Returning to campus, they are toughened and have made a new group of close friends to whom they can turn in the early days of their college careers. Often, such friendships last well beyond college graduation.
Wilderness programs like these, as well as other types of pre-orientation programs, now exist not only at smaller, rural campuses, but also as an option at urban universities like Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) and the University of Pennsylvania. Added to the menu of optional pre-orientation programs is now a variety of community service, leadership, academic, artistic, and faith-based opportunities. The programs are usually attended by a minority of incoming students, who must often apply for limited spaces in popular sessions and pay an additional fee. The University of Georgia's Freshman Summer College Experience allows students to take two courses while living with other first-year students in residence halls, providing an "enhanced transition to their college experience." The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a wilderness experience, a freshman camp, a special pre-orientation for minority students, a service learning opportunity, and a summer reading program. The latter has been the subject of some debate and controversy related to the book chosen each year for inclusion on the reading list, but participating in the experience offers a common intellectual starting point for freshmen during the university's Week of Welcome.
Trinity College in Hartford (Conn.) gives students the chance to explore the city surrounding campus, to experience the arts through theater and dance productions, to engage in a focused service activity in the community, to float down the Connecticut River, to engage in discussions about diversity, and to begin scientific research. Skidmore College (N.Y.) lets students climb rocks, volunteer, shoot videos, explore the environment, focus on religious life, and connect with the college's extensive theater offerings. Like many institutions today, Skidmore offers a special program for international students.
The array of pre-orientation activities is limitless. The variations your institution can create seem limited only by your budget and your imagination, and a good bit of the latter might help to raise money to cover the former. A grant-making organization, your state government, or a generous alumnus/a or trustee might be willing to fund a well-aimed pre-orientation program.
What is the rationale? Why bother? There are some obvious and some surprising answers, including attraction of new applicants, matriculation of good admits, facilitation of the college transition, and improved retention of first-year students (and thus long-term graduation rates). One need only read about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Freshman Pre-Orientation Programs (FPOP) to see how a university can capitalize on its resources and location to attract students who fit its profile. MIT offers not only arts, leadership, and outdoors programs, but also interactive "Discover" programs on: mechanical engineering; nuclear science and engineering; civil and environmental engineering; ocean engineering; earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences; biology; and the history of Boston. Students may well be attracted and then apply to MIT as they learn about these FPOP opportunities. And when making a final decision about college, seniors might choose MIT again because of the chance these programs provide to interact with other MIT students prior to enrollment. Programs that fit with the core identity of a college can often reinforce student impressions of and attraction to a campus.
The logic of any orientation program--helping students to transition successfully to college--is drawn out in the pre-orientation program. This is another chance to help students get comfortable, meet friends, learn what is necessary to succeed in college life, and connect to special traditions. Facilitating the college transition is an essential component of helping freshmen succeed in their first semester. Completing that term in good standing makes a huge difference in the likelihood of a student's long-term college completion. MIT's program notes the following about participants in the Ocean Engineering Pre-Orientation Program: "Throughout the year, DOE participants will be invited to continue building relationships with faculty, students, and staff through many activities, including Ocean Engineering BBQs, special lectures, and other activities such as the MIT ROV Team. It is our hope that the friendships begun during DOE will help you find a comfortable place within the MIT community and aid you in your college career" (http://web.mit.edu/orientation/fpop/doe.html). The pre-orientation, in other words, can be just a first step toward fostering student engagement, clearly a current buzzword in student affairs and college admissions (see www.indiana.edu/~nsse for more on this topic).
So, as August wanes, consider what your institution is doing to welcome and orient new students. From the Wilderness Reflections program at Cornell University (N.Y.) to the New in New York arts-oriented program sponsored by Muhlenberg College (N.Y.), there are many models available for IHEs to consider. A university-wide effort, involving not only admissions officers, but also faculty, residential life and student affairs personnel, current students, and other representatives of the college and its surrounding community, can play an essential role in attracting, enrolling, and retaining new students--involving them even before day one, in hopes of fostering the kind of engagement that will enrich their college experiences and the college as a whole.
Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Greene's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.