The College Bound Transition: Orientation Isn't Enough. Today's Pre-Orientation Programs Jumpstart Student Engagement

Article excerpt

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.

WILDERNESS OR NOT, TOGETHERNESS ABOUNDS

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 atone 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 University 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. …