A few weeks ago I was sitting at my computer working through some details for a Welcome Week program when I started toggling back and forth between my excel spreadsheet and my Twitter feed. I found the usual – some website links skilled in the art of enabling procrastination, breaking news from five different sources (all with slightly different details, of course), and one-sided shout outs to people I will never follow.
With our Welcome Week right around the corner I figured I would give it a shot and a “Find People” search for “Welcome Week” resulted in over two-dozen profiles. I perused the list to find a handful of very active profiles, some schools where I had friends working and a good number of schools you could tell were just testing the waters on this “Twitter thing.” By the time I decided I needed some dinner, I had added about a dozen schools to the list of people that I follow. These schools; from all over the United States and Canada, representing public and private institutions, large and small student bodies, and variations in orientation program designs have been an absolute joy to follow.
It wasn’t until the middle of this most recent Welcome Week on my campus that I noticed a trend. Each of those 12 schools, plus the three that I have worked at, had the same essential elements that make up the core of their programming schedule. I realized that it’s a lot like a potluck dinner with friends. You were assigned to bring dessert and spend all afternoon whipping up an apple pie from your secret family recipe. You arrive at the potluck ready to show off your culinary aptitude when you realize there are two other apple pies already on the table. Even though they all contain the same essential ingredients, you find through tasting a sample of each that the three pies offer a distinct and unique experience for your palette.
Likewise, the Welcome Week experience is unique to each campus community. Inspired by my new friends that I have been following on Twitter for the past two weeks and the dutiful encouragement by my mother to learn to cook for myself, I would like to share with you my recipe for Welcome Week Casserole:
Start with your main ingredients; Move-In Day, some academic programming, and a healthy helping of student volunteers.
These ingredients create the base of your program. A semi-captive audience now resides on-campus that has survived (arguably) the first rite of passage on campus – carrying boxes to the (insert number that is actually one higher than the number of floors in your tallest residence hall) floor, maneuvering around the predictably broken elevator, and managing to avoid a parking ticket.
The academic programs are usually easy to identify… they contain the word “Academic” in the title and are usually frontloaded into the first full day of Welcome Week.
The student volunteers are often just as easy to identify — they are dressed alike and may be carrying large brightly colored objects (to be used in icebreakers). These students are often ridiculed by their peers on campus for being “too energetic,” “too happy,” or just downright “annoying.” Even though their motivation is sometimes in question (early move-in, the influence, recruiting for student organizations, building a social network, etc), I respect them more than almost anyone that works in Student Affairs. They are the front line of our programs, often being asked to fulfill expectations far beyond what would be imaginable for 18-21 year olds in a volunteer position.
Next, add one serving of a formal welcome program.
This program is usually designed as a way for administration and faculty to welcome new students to their community. Placed near the beginning of the week and with the pomp and circumstance associated with a commencement ceremony, these students officially become members of the academy. More than anything, this is a wonderful opportunity to involve campus partners in the orientation experience. (I think that campus spam blockers have been upgraded to weed out any emails with the words “invite,” “welcome week,” and “late night” in them.)
Now, gently fold in some diversity programming.
Probably the most unique of all Welcome Week components, I can think of nothing else more responsive to the make-up of the student body, campus and local social values, political influences and comfort level of orientation staff/committee members. It is worthy of graduate school case studies discussing the balance between challenge and support.
For some spice, a pinch of University Athletics will do.
If you have a marching/pep band, it is a must. Be careful though, there is a high probability that it will not go as you planned with the Athletic Director or Athletics Event Coordinator. Coaches are paid the big bucks to make game time decisions. In front of the new students, filled with a lot of energy, and in an effort to increase attendance and support for all of the athletic teams on the roster – there are plenty of opportunities for “game time decisions.”
Finally, the secret ingredient…
I can’t tell you what that is because it’s a secret! But, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the pink elephant on the campus. Every campus has one… it can take the form of large unsanctioned parties off campus, student groups hosting events in hopes of recruiting new students, or alternative “orientation programs” presented by jaded upperclass students. You won’t find it on the Welcome Week schedule, but if you ask any current student they can tell you when it happens. You may find something on the schedule for that day and time… it was probably put there because of the secret ingredient.
Mix it all together and place in an oven at 90 to 100 degrees for three to five days, or until ready.
My favorite part is putting it all in the oven. Mostly because I don’t have to do anything, but also because now it just leaves me with anticipation of the deliciousness that will result. I don’t know what’s happening inside the oven, all I know is that if I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to my casserole will come out exactly as planned. We go through great lengths to plan a week of events for new students on our campuses. Within all of this, is an inherent trust that our campus community will do their part to achieve the desired result. We arm new students with the ingredients to be successful; we engaged them with information and entertainment (edutainment… if you will); we give them access to successful upperclass students, faculty and alumni; and, then we hope for the best.
I can’t think of anything more rewarding and anxiety producing all at the same time. Hopefully we’ve set the table for an incredibly meaningful college experience. Now that I’ve stepped away from the table, full and ready for a nap, it’s time to make some notes and adjust the recipe as needed. The best part of it all is that we can rest assured that none of us will be bringing the exact same dish to the next divisional potluck.