Three Ways to Reorient New Student Orientation
By Andrew Lehr
Author Note: I wrote this article well before the outbreak of COVID-19 in the US, and as I edit it now, I realize that many of the suggestions I make are ones that can easily be done while working remotely. Some of these suggestions might actually benefit from taking a physical step away from your campuses to analyze what your programs currently offer. That said, as a preface to this article, our shared work in welcoming students is even more critical right now. While our world faces uncertainty and our students wrestle with new personal realities, making sure we welcome students into a deep sense of community and belonging is critical to our institutional missions and to the Kingdom of God.
Despite the reckless pace of the first few weeks of the fall semester, the beginning of the year brings a certain energy and enthusiasm to our campuses. This enthusiasm is closely tied to the fresh opportunity to shape the year together in a meaningful way, particularly with student leaders. Even if the orientation experience seems to function like a well-oiled machine, it is critical for institutions to take a step back and assess how the orientation experience impacts not only first-year students but student leaders and the campus community as well. Here are a few reflections to consider as you assess the first-year experience on your campus.
1) Mapping the First Year
In previous years, we received feedback that many of the sessions and material covered during NSO was replicated elsewhere, leading us to examine when information was presented and at what time. After realizing this, we reached out to campus partners to identify key elements of the first-year experience and to ask when and where those elements were being discussed to begin documenting student learning through educational mapping. By mapping these educational experiences, we were not only able to identify areas of overlap but also to strategically direct the student learning experience to emphasize a collective learning process in the first-year experience. Maki (2004) says, “Maps and inventories can help to locate unevenness in the curricular-co-curricular fabric—places where intentions to foster or improve student learning are not sustained—thus identifying where increase opportunities need to be woven into the fabric” (p. 4). Our first-year map revealed a surprising overemphasis on policy and procedure, which left little room for community formation or developing multicultural competency. As a result of our mapping project, we were able to realign efforts to include new elements focused on what we were missing. Following our adjustments, students indicated a higher level of satisfaction with both the events themselves and orientation as a whole.
2) Embracing Students as Educators
Student leaders involved in the orientation experience can seem to fit a certain stereotypical model. They are students who are high-energy, extremely dedicated to the institution, and who function similar to camp counselors. They help students get from point A to point B, lead icebreakers, and carry bright signs to direct students to different locations. Obviously, orientation leaders do far more, but all too often we underestimate students in this capacity. At my institution, our First-Year Experience program ties the Orientation experience and First-Year Seminar course together through a continuity of student leaders. Student leaders begin serving during orientation and continue on through the first academic year with the same cohort of first-year students. These student leaders, who we call Peer Mentors, provide a critical relationship for our new students, and thereby foster a stronger sense of belonging. That said, the relationship between mentor and student isn’t the only element that makes this position important to the first-year experience. After making adjustments to the Peer Mentor training schedule, we emphasized two key elements: defining “mentoring” and embracing failure.
While student affairs educators may immediately think of Sharon Daloz Parks and her work with mentoring, many of our students are either unfamiliar with the concept or bring a wide variety of definitions to the table. During training, our Peer Mentors participated in a group activity to develop a common definition of “mentor” that would go on to define their experience throughout the year. After creating the definition, Peer Mentors then discussed together what it would look like to commit to that definition as a unit, to embrace the same values and ideas together, and to ensure that all students felt a deeper sense of belonging and a more unified community. Encouraging student leaders to create a common definition invites them to participate in a learning partnership (Baxter-Magolda & King, 2004) that centers on the experience of both first-year students and student leaders.
Similarly, student leaders are often idolized on Christian college campuses. First-year students, in particular, idealize their RAs, orientation leaders, and more because of the status they hold, not recognizing the transitions student leaders experienced within their own journeys. Another example of this learning partnership involves an educational activity called “Failure, Ta-Da!”. Students were invited to stand in the center of the room and share a personal failure, take a bow, and say “Ta-da!” as the rest of the group applauds. The point of this activity was two-fold. The more explicit purpose of the activity was to promote a powerful time of sharing and vulnerability. The second, more implicit value of the activity was to remind student leaders of the difficulties of transition (which often include failures). This latter purpose reminded us to approach incoming students with humility, having remembered where our student leaders had once themselves been. Through these training experiences, our student leaders were elevated beyond mere “camp” leaders and instead as peer educators.
3) Increasing campus support and collaboration
Building time for training, reflection, and debriefing with key stakeholders can offer important insights into simple, low-cost ways for institutions to make changes that positively impact the student experience. Each year, we gather stakeholders in the orientation experience together for an “Opening Days” meeting to discuss dates, clarify changes, and align efforts prior to the fall semester. Additionally, we began offering faculty and staff an “Orientation for Orientation,” an opportunity to learn about the orientation experience, especially if they do not have a major role in the program itself. We were able to garner more support for the orientation experience among the faculty, highlight the importance of the transition to those who may be further removed from first-year students, and offer one or two simple ways faculty and staff can make an impact on first-year students and their families. These times help set the tone for the campus and invite others to participate in one of the most powerful ways to highlight your campus’ distinct culture and community.
In a time when higher education faces some of arguably the most significant challenges yet—budget crises, retention and graduation rates, and dips in enrollment—it is critical for institutions to identify ways to foster a transformative student experience. For Christian institutions, orientation is not just a transition into university life but is a liturgy of hospitality. It is our open door, our table, our hearth. We welcome students not just into their academic careers, but into a deep sense of community and fellowship that drive our work beyond the pursuit of a degree and into the work of God’s Kingdom.
Andrew Lehr is the Director of Student Success at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana
Baxter-Magolda, M. B., & King, P.M. (2004). Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship. Stylus.
Maki, P. L. (2004). Maps and inventories: Anchoring efforts to track student learning. About Campus, 9(4), 2–9.