Even though it sits in the academic shadow of nearby Yale
University, plucky Southern Connecticut State University unveiled a
second-to-none secret weapon at its new-student orientation this year
- a lobster dinner and fireworks.
Both were part of a four-day orientation extravaganza unlike
anything this urban school has ever seen. Serious seminars on
academic survival, alcohol abuse, and date rape were followed by
games, free frisbees, and truckloads of food.
As a sea of 1,200 freshmen and transfer students poured past him
into a large tent for a meal, Rich Farricielli played traffic cop,
walkie-talkie at the ready. "We want the kids to go home and say,
'You wouldn't believe it - not only did I learn something - we had
lobster for dinner and fireworks,' " says the dean of student
Across the United States, colleges and universities are beefing up
freshman orientations as never before to involve students in
volunteer work, Outward Bound-style experiences, and even gourmet
meals. The goal is to make a good first impression and create a bond
between students and school from Day 1.
As recently as the early 1980s, orientation was still little more
than academic counseling, registration, and showing students to
dorms. But a decline in the number of traditional-age students - as
well as the fact that more than one-quarter of freshmen at four-year
schools do not return to the same institution - has wrought radical
Students who become friends with each other during orientation or
bond with a faculty member get better grades, get into less
trouble, and tend to form an attachment to the school, studies show.
And with colleges competing hotly for students and recruiting costs
rising, getting a freshman to return for sophomore year is crucial to
a school's financial stability.
Schools did not always go to such lengths to greet their incoming
class. Certainly few would have guessed that faculty members at the
University of Connecticut in Storrs would volunteer to be "husky
haulers" this week - lugging student belongings up to their dorm
rooms. The school's hope is that maybe a freshman will form a
fledgling friendship with a history professor struggling up a flight
of stairs with his steamer trunk.
"Orientation used to be kind of this one-day advising,
registering, and sending them home," says Daniel Robb, president of
the National Orientation Directors Association in Bloomington, Ind.
"But I can't name one place that is still with a 'sink or swim'
approach that says: "You're a grown adult - you should be able to
deal with this."
More than 80 percent of colleges and universities reported that
they were trying to improve freshman year, according to a 1995
national survey, the most recent available. About 70 percent report
offering semester or year-long "freshman-seminar" courses on time
management and other nonacademic issues.
Such numbers imply a growing focus on upgrading student
orientation preceding school as well, Mr. Robb says. But the
direction an orientation upgrade takes depends on the school's needs.
At the University of Connecticut, for example, the school is
trying to scrub off a party-school reputation by emphasizing
academics. It sent the novel "Amistad" to freshmen over the summer,
and will have faculty-led discussions with students about the book
during orientation this week. Freshmen will also arrive before upper
classmen for the first time this year - partly so they will not have
"their minds poisoned" toward studying, a spokesman says.
"What is important to us is making sure that they feel part of
campus and as quickly as possible," says Mark Emmert, the
university's chancellor. "They have to make the transition from
passive high-school learning to active collegiate learning - and
that's very difficult today."
Yet at many colleges, more-academic, "Great Books" programs are
being dumped in favor of Outward Bound-style experiences for small
groups of new students. …