I remember being a grad student and thinking about areas I wanted to pursue in student affairs. I thought “wow, being an OL was a great in college. Being in charge of the program would be really amazing.” That was back when my view of Orientation was like a pause in the great time/space continuum. Everything just switched on in June when my fellow OL’s and I moved on campus and everything switched off when we left. It was all matching shirts and name games in my head and all the life-changing opportunities came with it just arrived on campus like turning on a faucet. I also remember thinking I “knew Orientation” when I was just a supporting staff member who was on the committee.
Over the years, my roles with orientation have progressed from OL to graduate assistant to the “person who presents the getting involved session and helps with training” to the person in charge of it to today. Now I am the person who supervises the person in charge of it, so I have a little more of an objective eye on this phenomenon we see every summer than I used to. I’m writing today to tell you that even after 15 years in the field there is still no experience quite like directing Orientation. What’s so unique about it? Here’s my two cents:
• If you really want someone with broad campus knowledge and perspective, ask someone who coordinates Orientation.
There’s a reason why my Assistant Director for New Student Programs can quote what placement scores will get a student into Writing II and what types of health forms are required for immunizations. It’s because she is responsible for an important conduit of communication for the new students to get this information. Every orientation professional I’ve ever worked with has a great knack for taking a wide view of the incoming student experience. How can we get the rest of campus to see even parts of that wide view to understand the college transition from outside their own areas? It’s such a great skill.
• “Other duties as assigned” is the rule, not the exception!
My staff members have filled roles in place of colleagues from areas like Counseling Services, Information Technology, Transit… you name it. We’ve set up rooms, consulted on dining support for those with severe food allergies and had to deliver news of family tragedy to a student who was with us at orientation. Most duties that we would never be expected to handle during the year. When the campus is on “skeleton staff” in the summer you find yourself in an array of situations needing your quick attention when your colleagues might be on other projects or on vacation. You have a choice. You can lament this situation, or you can use it to let the campus see you and your team shine.
• If you want some experience in navigating campus politics, direct Orientation.
Part of coordinating orientation means taking a lot of moving parts and trying to get them to move without hurting each other in the process. We struggle to get these parts to collaborate all year long, but somehow they have to make it work during Orientation. If you’re running Orientation you likely don’t supervise all of these parts all year long, but suddenly you’re in a position to dictate where and how these areas will contribute to the new student experience. So, when one of these parts messes up royally…how do you address it? The political savvy needed in these situations is not for the faint of heart.
• Most of your campus believes “if I had five minutes at Orientation” that they would get automatic success in their major, program or organization. They may not say it out loud, but the number of people who agree that just five minutes of talking head stardom with the incoming students would change everything is staggering. It’s a compliment to what they believe is the impact of Orientation, but also can be difficult. What we can do is to help them understand that there’s some important time to be engaging students between the time they get their acceptance letter and their first day of classes. As we who preach social media opportunity know, there’s ways to engage people that don’t require sitting in a room together!
• Orientation is a process, not an event.
This is my mantra to every colleague who campaigns for “just five minutes.” Students begin their transition to college from the first moment they consider what college might be like through their entire early time period on campus. As institutions, we miss out on so many opportunities with new students by not being intentional about how our messages are communicated. As an example, even my own department promotes a “Get Involved” message at Orientation without recruiting students for the SGA or program board. We show them how to find this information, but if we get them thinking about specific organizations too early they will miss the point of emphasis on the impact of involvement on campus.
• Group development – on fast forward!
I’ve been advising student leaders for my whole career, but group development in an Orientation setting is just not the same. It’s a great study in group development because they are with each other 24/7 and their sole focus on campus is this program. During the year, they have a billion other things going on, but we ask them to work together on one giant project all month long.
I always enjoy watching groups progress through stages of group development, but as my Orientation colleagues know, the intensity of this group experience makes each stage come and go quickly! When you don’t have a whole year together to patiently await self-actualization, the urgency factor makes things much more dramatic. Small problems can’t just be brushed aside in hope of them “working out eventually.” There’s just no time. On the bright side, the great moments are magnified too. That’s just incredible to watch.
Oh, but what do I know. We’re just the people who play name games, right?
I’m going to go write my staff member a card now that it’s finally over. I know what she’s been through!
What do you think? I know that every campus has its own unique dynamics around their program format, timing, structure and responsibilities, but is your experience anything like mine?