Ordinarily, being tasked to plan an in-person orientation program for an incoming class would be considered a typical expectation in our office. However, 2020 was not an ordinary year by any means. The global pandemic forced every student affairs professional to rethink how we engage current students. For those who oversee New Student and Family programs, this task seemed overwhelming. With different state restrictions on gatherings, testing, quarantines, and social distancing, we had to rethink our approach to transitioning and orienting new students into the university. As a result of the pandemic, the years to follow have been significantly impacted, including the upcoming summer of 2021. Entering a “new normal” means approaching orientation with new strategies and perspectives. In this post, we will share our experience at a small private institution planning New Student Orientation and our suggestions for developing an Orientation this year.
A new orientation model
In a matter of weeks last year, our office quickly adapted our traditional 2-day summer orientation program into a week long model: Week of Welcome (WOW). It was a challenging task during a time of great uncertainty, changing policies, and unanswered questions. We managed to coordinate a safe program that encompassed over 60 student leaders, safe social distancing, a robust testing schedule, and intentional programming. As a result, 80% of attendees reported feeling connected to the campus and 83% reported feeling that the college prioritized their health and safety in the process.
With the pandemic still running its course in the nation and an ever changing timeline of vaccination distribution, we proposed a plan to repeat this week long program again for the upcoming academic year. Knowing in early 2021 what model we would need to plan, we are able to adequately prepare the schedule, technology, the student leaders and start early collaborations with other offices. Using the week before classes to start and a 2-day move in process, as opposed to our traditional 1 day move in, families will bid their students adieu and students will embrace their Orientation Leaders and small groups for their Week of Welcome sessions and activities.
Embracing technology for accessibility in a digital world
We first launched our online orientation program in January 2020 as an innovative way to hold certain parts of the program, but we did not realize just how essential the tool would be to the university in the coming months. Our online orientation was mandatory for every newly deposited student; our first launch had an 80% start rate and 65% completion rate. Not only did the modules accommodate resources we were unable to fit into our in-person program during the pandemic, it provided a valuable touchpoint between our incoming students and the university at a time when students would go months between ending high school and setting foot on campus. The online modules helped our university combat the months of disengagement that would have contributed to a potentially disastrous summer melt.
Additionally, we utilized live streaming technology to socially distance 600 students across 50 classrooms for our in-person program. Live streaming also meant we could include a population of remote students, as well as adult learners who were unable to attend a full week of events.
Providing campus resources and information is an integral part of orientation, but in a world of virtual burnout and a class made up of high school seniors that had lost their most important milestones, we knew it was not enough. We used technology tools like the GooseChase app to create a fun and engaging way to build relationships with each other through a team-based scavenger hunt competition that was entirely socially distanced and spread out across campus.
Physical space is more important than ever
Our greatest adversary in planning was the lack of physical campus space and resources. As a small private institution, it has always been a challenge to accommodate large events. In order to make the program possible, we required over 50 different classrooms with live streaming abilities for our divided student groups. Our relationships with campus facilities and information technology were the glue to ensuring student safety and education.
Due to the lack of accommodating physical space, we took the creative approach of building rotations and options for students. Groups were assigned blocks of time they could access the dining hall each day. Our evening programs, such as bingo, outdoor movies, and trivia, included limited sign ups to ensure physical capacity was respected but that every student had an option to engage.
Preparing student leaders is the key to a successful program
Since the program has drastically changed, so does the required training for our student leaders. Taking a step back and starting from scratch, our training pivoted to include preparation in communication and body language with masks, the rise of mental health and anxiety in our student body, and constant reminders for hand washing and sanitizing. Students worked together to discuss what icebreakers can be done with restrictions in place, health policy enforcement, student mental health check ins, and most importantly, checking in on yourself.
We were facilitating students to be leaders during a time when we had more questions than answers ourselves. It was a lot to ask and in return, we offered grace and gratitude. To be better prepared, we have doubled our student staff for this coming year.
Don’t forget about families and parents
One of our greatest lessons in our adaptation and crisis response was failing to support our family population. Typically, we host a parent and family orientation in-person in conjunction with our student orientation during the summer. Being unable to host them on campus, while also asking them to leave quickly after moving in their students to residential living was something we sought to change. Hence, we have begun planning for a virtual orientation targeted at parents and families, in order to provide necessary resources and support.
We are entering summer 2021 with more wisdom and confidence than last year. Many of the changes were stressful, but proved to be worthwhile. Our pilot year of a new orientation model demonstrated a budget-friendly and accessible way to engage new students and families. Now, with more time for planning on our side and a year of reflection, we are looking forward to our New Student Orientation program and have hopes for an even more successful Week of Welcome.