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Orientation Rites: Seal the Deal

Creative approaches to the classic summer rite of passage help acclimate students and ensure they arrive in the fall.
University Business, Feb 2008

THEY'VE SEEN THE WEBSITE, THEY'VE taken the tour, and they've made the grade. But what do you do with accepted students to help them get settled on campus? According to the <em>2007 Cost of Recruiting Report </em>from Noel-Levitz, an enrollment management consulting firm, it can cost anywhere between $121 and $1,941 to recruit a student, depending on the type of institution.

Summer orientation programs are the time to set the hook and ensure accepted students matriculate. "Often in the summer students are still shopping," says Craig Mack, president of the National Orientation Directors Association (NODA). Higher ed institutions can strengthen the connection by sending students home from orientation already registered for classes. Pre-enrollment orientation programs were one of the top 10 practices seen as having the greatest impact on retention, according to "What Works in Student Retention?," a 2004 survey conducted by ACT.

"Orientation pulls together all of the resources provided by a college and delivers them over a few days," Mack explains. "Then that information plays out over the first year."

Spring and summer orientation programs are often an incoming student's first chance to learn the campus and make new friends. The programs are run out of departments ranging from student affairs to dedicated first-year experience offices. The challenge is to convey the maximum amount of information with a minimum of burnout. "Typically at orientation, students get academic information, register for classes, and learn about making good choices for social issues," says Charlie Andrews, director of the Department of Campus Life at <b>Florida International University </b>and past president of NODA. "You can only do so much in a two-day period."

According to Mack, the first orientation program was held at <b>Boston University</b> in 1888. The school's original administrators wouldn't recognize the multimedia event that takes place today on that campus. Videos are shown on a 9-by-13-foot video screen and ribbons in the Agganis Arena. "It really wows people," says Shiney James, director of Orientation and Off Campus Services. In addition to informational clips, attendees see "commercial breaks," such as the one this year for a new student planner starring a dean in his commencement robes. "It got parents really excited and gave students a different perspective about administrators being approachable," explains James.

Throughout the two-day program, orientation staff members also record digital video and pictures, which are shown during the closing session. James says the presentation has evolved from slides through digital pictures to its present state, since the earlier versions "didn't have the impact anymore."

Although parents often attend panel discussions during orientation, students frequently see more video presentations, including a 40-minute piece covering community service and student activities. Despite the startlingly long playtime in this age of short attention spans, she says students are enthralled because of the production.

Finally, students can participate in Common Ground, a team building exercise that requires them to navigate to historic areas in Boston using a GPS unit, solving riddles and sometimes using public transportation along the way.

This was the second year the exercise ran, and James noticed a jump in participation because of the praise it received online.

Common Ground, an exercise for future Boston University students, has student teams use GPS to solve riddles and explore historic areas of the city.

While BU uses technology to have students explore outside the classroom, students attending orientation at <b>The Ohio State University </b> get a sneak peak at technology they might encounter in the classroom. For the past two years, the TurningPoint audience response technology from Turning Technologies has been used in a session on student life.

Questions are aimed at just students, just parents, or both groups, and responses can be instantly displayed and compared. "We don't ask deep questions," Couch says, but feedback reveals that the session leads to interesting conversations on the ride home.

One question addresses how to stay safe at a party involving alcohol, with answers ranging from going with friends to not drinking. "It's been a useful tool in terms of giving people an opportunity for self-disclosure in an anonymous way," Couch says, adding that the clickers are used in many campus classrooms as well. Although the technology allows responses to be captured for a variety of reports, other surveys are relied on for general orientation feedback.

A behind-the-scenes technology that makes Ohio State orientation staff members' lives easier is the use of an Edirol Digital Palette to control the video and PowerPoint presentations throughout orientation. "It looks very professional, but it is very easy to use," Couch says. "It does require an investment-we rent it-but it's worth it." The unit gives the support staff the ability to segue seamlessly from one presentation to the next, as well as change or cut short a presentation on the fly in response to the live presenter's behavior.

"Our goal for orientation, in addition to giving people the information they need, is to make sure they are confident about their ability to succeed and confident in their choice of Ohio State," Couch concludes.

At the other end of the spectrum is adventure orientation, which takes students away from modern-day trappings into the great outdoors. "The idea is to get them away from the known and introduce a bit of the novel," says Sarah Root, director of Challenge Education at <b>Hartwick College</b> (N.Y.). The college follows a base camp model, which takes place at a set location that usually has permanent structures. Another style is a wilderness trip, where the group will hike or canoe into the woods for a few days. Adventure orientations are usually optional and often have an extra fee, as opposed to standard orientation programs, which are usually required.

Hartwick's program, "Awakening," is an optional six-day experience that takes place on the 920-acre Pine Lake Environmental Campus. "People focus a lot better when they are taken away from the usual trappings," Root explains. Students participate in group problem-solving activities, silent nature walks, a campout, and free time that can include hikes and swimming.

While the program doesn't actually introduce students to campus, it aims to help students build community, face challenges, develop interpersonal skills, and demonstrate confidence and leadership-so participants do come out with more self-awareness. Root says they also have a strong support community for at least the first semester. In the 23 years the program has been running, Root says it usually has a positive effect on retention.

For other schools looking to adopt similar programs, she advises having administrative support, since the programs are not financial powerhouses (although participants pay $500, Hartwick's program breaks even). Faculty involvement is also helpful for integrating the program into the institution. Having a staff member certified in adventure education helps too.

According to Brent Bell, an assistant professor of outdoor education at the <b>University of New Hampshire,</b> there are at least 166 wilderness orientation programs currently operating across the country at accredited, residential baccalaureate IHEs.

Florida International University's Andrews explains that officials at the school started Panther Camp two years ago. During the optional two-day retreat, students participate in challenge courses and team building exercises. Students pay a $50 fee, which covers meals, housing, and an alumni association membership.

The retreat might be a key to helping the university overcome its perception of being a second-choice school. At the end of the program 100 percent of students said they were likely to graduate from FIU, compared to 40 percent on the first day. "If that happens remains to be seen," says Andrews. "But their outlook has changed." The program has proved so popular officials are considering adding a second session.

Aside from the bells and cricket chirps, orientation attendees are after certain information. "We've found in discussions with parents and students that they are focused on three things-academic advising, financial, and residential life," says Kevin Kucera, associate VP for Enrollment Services at the <b>University of Toledo </b> (Ohio). Last year university leaders redesigned the summer orientation programs, cutting three hours from each traditionally one-day event. "Our goal is to keep it to one day and now add more personalization, especially to the financial piece," he explains. Eventually participants will be able to leave with a copy of their bill and a payment plan, as well as class and housing assignments.

There is also an effort to move important but nonessential information to a website. "How many people really read all the stuff in the folder?" Kucera points out. The website will also serve as a bridge between the summer sessions and move-in day. May 2007 was the first time the stripped-down program was used. Although the results from surveys and focus groups are still under review, Kucera says the feedback was mostly positive.

Incoming students are the real audience for orientation, but parents and sometimes younger siblings are a normal fixture as well. <b>Oregon State University</b> has stepped up its commitment to diversity by developing a Spanish-language track for parents attending orientation.

"The goals were to increase parent involvement, increase Latino enrollment, and increase Latino attendance at orientation," explains Kris Winter, director of New Student Programs and Family Outreach. The first START Biling?e was held in 2005 to coincide with the renewal of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a federally funded program that assists students from migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds. Participation has grown from 20 family members that first year to 75 family members in 2007.

In developing the program, Winter says her team worked closely with OSU's assistant director of multicultural enrollment, the minority education officer, the CAMP director, and the Equal Opportunities Office. A variety of other campus constituents, including Spanish-speaking faculty members and university housing officials, have also gotten involved since the program started.

START Biling?e is part of the existing summer orientation program with Spanish and bilingual sessions as well as translations of the keynote speeches. All orientation attendees receive a bilingual agenda and an explanation of the program. Winter says the combined format helps keep the program fiscally responsible because it uses the same resources and "expresses our community values. We didn't want to shelter this program and make it different."

She adds that the program has been very well received and that nonnative Spanish speakers have even joined it in order to practice their language skills.

As eager to learn as parents are, dealing with younger siblings is another matter entirely. James explains that BU launched a program to occupy the young ones in 2004 after spending a few years scrambling to accommodate them. In 2005 activities were differentiated by age. "Parents couldn't attend sessions because the little kids were bored," she says.

Now for a $25 fee, which covers lunch and a trip to Fenway Park (home of the Boston Red Sox), parents can concentrate on the program while their children play. In addition to providing a service to parents, the program is a marketing opportunity, giving the siblings a very early introduction to higher education.

But babysitting isn't for everyone. Ohio State doesn't intend to start a sibling program anytime soon, says Jennifer Osborn, assistant director for First Year Experience programs.

However, her team is considering developing a session for parents about helping younger siblings with the transition at home. "For blended families, it's almost like a parent is leaving." There is already a session dealing with what the parents will experience, but not other family members. The new session would provide information the parents can take home.

A concept that NODA's Mack says has been around for a while but is growing in popularity is first-year interest groups (FIGs), or learning communities. Addressing both the social and academic aspects of orientation, FIGs are often in place through the first semester. Students are grouped in self-selected cohorts and placed in a package of classes that includes both general and major-specific courses.

At <b>Rensselear Polytechnic Institute </b>(N.Y.) students can choose from adventure/wilderness, cultural/historical, and community service interest groups when they arrive for "Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond" in August. "We hit every interest under those umbrellas," says Janelle Fayette, assistant dean for the office of First Year Experience, of the 136 programs offered during the week.

Oregon State University's bilingual Spanish-language track for parents of incoming students includes Spanish and bilingual sessions as well as translations of the keynote speeches.

Students participate in events on campus and in the Troy community. Students register for classes during summer orientation sessions, but "'Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond' is where we want them to become familiar with faculty, staff, and their classmates," Fayette explains.

Students attending Florida International University can register for their first-semester classes by selecting an 11-credit-hour group based on field of study. "There are general education courses everyone needs, but someone interested in business might take an economics class," explains Andrews.

Faculty who teach the courses usually meet to coordinate lessons before the semester starts and sometimes meet during the semester to compare students' progress. "The main benefit students get is they are making connections with a small group," Andrews says, so when they attend a 200-seat lecture they have people they know. FIGs for specialized fields such as engineering and science fill up first. Andrews theorizes that those students realize they need an extra edge.

Whether the orientation edge is given to new students through nature walks or videos, these events are an important part of the transition to college. "College orientation programs encapsulate the essence of their institutions," says Mack. "The goal is to provide individuals, both students and family members, with a holistic view of the 'new' college experience."

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