6 ways to revamp orientation

A student's initial experience on campus can determine future success, welfare, and persistence, writes Kathryn Masterson for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

While orientation is a crucial opportunity to teach students about campus culture, diversity, and mental health, students struggle to remember it all, says Keith Frazee, assistant director of orientation at the University of Oregon (UO).

To help these messages sink in, colleges are rethinking how they welcome students to campus. Masterson rounds up six strategies colleges have adopted to revamp student orientation.

Strategy 1: Prioritize

Many colleges are stretching out their orientation period across several weeks, a semester, or even an entire year, reports Masterson.  

But according to Kerry Frazee, director of prevention services at UO, the first six weeks of freshmen year on campus can be a "red zone" for sexual violence. To expedite crucial consent information, Kerry moves the sexual-assault prevention program to the first weekend before classes start, she says.

By devoting early and substantial time to sexual consent behaviors, the college can signal to students the issue's importance, she says.

How affirmative consent is changing orientation

Strategy 2: Engage students

New students are more likely to listen to their peers, says Kerry. But to establish successful peer learning, colleges must train student leaders to handle sensitive discussions and focus small groups around interactive material, advises Nance Roy, chief clinical officer of the Jed Foundation.

For example, students at San Jose State University practice cognitive empathy during student-led small-group discussions about social identities and diversity, says Kathleen Wong, chief diversity officer at the institution.

Strategy 3: Cultivate connections

Students who feel emotionally attached to peers and the institution are more likely to persist and avoid high-risk behaviors, notes Masterson. The goal of orientation is to help form that bond, she writes.

At Colby College, the most powerful student connections happen off campus. Incoming students participate in an upperclassmen-led outdoor bonding program. The off-campus adventure's purpose is two-fold, says Dean Karleen Burrell-McRae. The program encourages students to form friendships and introduce upperclassmen who can act as informal mentors, she says.

Look beyond demographics to serve students better

Strategy 4: Get online

As student demographics shift toward older adults who work and parent, more colleges are establishing online orientation programs, say Joyce Hall, executive director of Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education (NODA).

At California State University, East Bay, many transfer students choose the online orientation over the three-day on-campus session, says My-Lan Huyn, assistant director of student life. The online program offers these students more flexibility and the option to customize the orientation experience to their personal interests.

Strategy 5: Involve parents

Eighty-three percent of colleges offer an orientation program for parents of students, reports a 2017 survey by NODA. Many colleges approach these sessions as an opportunity to prepare parents to become a student resource for navigating health, relationships, and consent, says Kerry. Many students have parents who are actively involved both their academic and personal life, she adds.

Strategy 6: Change it up

Ultimately, orientation programs are a process, not a program, says Keith. The first-year experience must be continually updated to best fit the next crop of students, writes Masterson.

For example, Virginia Tech's Hokie Camp recently revamped their orientation program to include content around diversity, self-discovery, and identity, says Dakota Farquhar-Caddell, assistant director of new-student programs.

Farquhar-Caddell predicts that adjusting orientation to include these topics will make a "big difference in the way students will persist through college" (Masterson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/22 [1]; Masterson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/22 [2], Masterson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/22 [3]).

What comes after the first-year experience?


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