Ahh, orientation. I was one of those first-year students who couldn’t wait to walk through the campus gates to our New Student Convocation. As an undergraduate orientation leader, I used to live for the months of late spring and summer.
As a professional, I’ve made it through six years of orientation with (most of) the same enthusiasm that bubbles up every time a new crop of first-year and transfer students start their college careers. However, as a student activities professional, I recognize that there is life beyond orientation. Those first six weeks, as we all know, are crucial to the success of our new students (more details about retention during this time can be found here).
What can be challenging about the first six weeks of college is finding programs and services that can engage a large number of students. Large-scale involvement fairs, convocation ceremonies, sporting events, and concerts may bring large groups of students together, but I always found that those events made me feel very small at a large institution, and it was hard for me to come out of my shell and find my niche. As a professional, I was excited to embark on a program that focused on creating a unifying experience for all students: community service.
Prior to my arrival on campus five years ago, Residence Life brought together a number of student affairs departments to create a large-scale community service event where students would get together and serve the cities around us. This event was initially designed to build community among residence hall floors who would serve with their resident assistants and hall directors. Over time, it has grown to include groups of all types: formally recognized student organizations, fraternities and sororities, international student groups, and students from the general population.
We called this event Scarlet Day of Service. Similar to The Big Event which is popular at many universities, our day of service believes in building a connection between campus and community – something that most students, let alone first-year students, have a difficult time grasping. To host this event within the first six weeks of college, we can instill the idea that students do not live in a campus bubble, and they need to explore outside of their comfort zones through community service. Our motto of “give where you live” comes to mind: it brings meaning to the college experience, and it’s a mantra that students can take with them to their careers and communities long after they graduate.
I love service work because it unifies everyone. You don’t have to have any specific skills or interests to participate in one of our projects. You don’t even have to know where you’re going (and our students don’t – they choose their service site when they arrive that day) to participate in this event. An individual student can sign up to paint the front porch at our local Ronald McDonald House and end up working with a group from the Chinese Christian Fellowship or the Reach Out and Read chapter. Participating in service can make even the most introverted student feel comfortable by signing up with a small project of five volunteers, or engage the most excited extrovert as a site leader leading 50 students in a cleanup of the city streets.
At the end of the day, all students participate in a reflection that focuses on a poem or short story that addresses many of the things they learned from doing service that day. My personal favorite is asking these small groups to read “The Drum Major Instinct” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and talking about whether a one-day service project can really make an impact on our community.
These types of community service programs, when done right, can be engaging, educational, and impactful to the university and the community as a whole. While not mandatory for our student body, Scarlet Day of Service brings together hundreds of students to take action on a particular social issue and move forward with deeper discussions. Community service really extends the “After Orientation” mindset to engage students in a meaningful way that lasts all year long.
This post is part of our #AfterOrientation series, which focuses on what various institutions do when the buzz and bustle of orientation dies down. We will learn about programs, events, and initiatives that continue the support and excitement for the new students as they start their higher education adventure. For more information, check out the intro post by Juhi Bhatt. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!