Just about every college and university in the United States, including online colleges, offers some kind of new student orientation, sometimes called freshman orientation. Some offer overnight or multiple-day orientation programs, some orientation sessions are a few short hours on campus, and some are now offered online. But no matter what the format or content, there is debate over the value of these programs. A few weeks ago, USA Today published Brianna Coviello’s article How to Survive Freshman Orientation, the very title of which seems to indicate that orientation programs at colleges and universities are akin to the brutal boot camp depicted in Full Metal Jacket, with student leaders taking on the role of the vicious drill sergeant herding unsuspecting students from one activity to another.
Coviello, a student at the College of William and Mary and Style Advisor on Dormify, wrote, “No matter if you go to a large state school or a small college in the middle of nowhere, orientation is a huge ordeal that will consume your life for a few days and will throw you into every lecture on alcohol abuse, diversity, academics and safety that your college could possibly think of.” She argued that orientation is only good for three things: “becoming familiar with campus, building friendships early on with your hallmates and getting enough free cups and T-shirts to last a lifetime.”
I understand and sympathize with her point of view: new college students have a lot going on, including wrapping up their high school careers, working, and taking care of all the last minute details they need to manage before the semester starts. Non-traditional students who are juggling work and family obligations often don’t have the time for yet another activity before the semester starts. It’s not surprising, then, that a recent CollegeNet discussion board on the value of orientation reveals that many students think orientation is a waste of time and that they ended up ditching parts of it. Many wrote that it was only valuable for students who live on campus but not for commuters. For some, the only value they saw in orientation was the campus tour and explanation of campus resources. Resistance to orientation is such a frequent problem that some schools, such as Lewis and Clark College, even bribes students with various incentives to get them to attend an orientation session.
But I’ve been participating as a faculty advisor in my school’s new student orientation program all summer, and I have identified at least four good reasons that you should attend orientation:
- Complete Administrative Responsibilities: Orientation programs offer students a sort of “one-stop shopping” experience for taking care of all the little details that need to be resolved before the start of the semester. For example, orientation programs often included scheduled sessions with advisors to help you pick and register for classes, opportunities to take placement tests, and explanations of the school’s academic expectations. Maybe the most crucial tasks at this point involve financial aid. Some financial aid paperwork requires the completion of promissory notes in which you promise to pay back your student loans; unless you sign them, you will not be able to enroll in your courses. You can take care of all these issues during orientation.
- Master Technology: New students at any college must have ID photos taken and learn how and where they must use their school IDs, get their school e-mail addresses, and may also be expected to register for classes online. An effective way to deal with these tasks is not at home by yourself, but at orientation with the on-call assistance provided by college or university staff, because you may run into technical problems or have trouble navigating what can often be a confusing new system. You can also get training on the course or learning management system that your courses will use, and become familiar with the different features of the online aspects of your coursework. If you are an online student, all of these tasks will be accomplished via the college’s online services, which will walk you through the process and provide all the information you need to become comfortable with the school technology before the semester starts.
- Wean Your Parents: We all know that some parents have a hard time letting their children grow up and leave the nest. As soon as you leave for college, they are going to worry, call and text, and-horror of horrors!-maybe even stop by campus to see how you’re doing. For some students, this attention can help ease the transition to new surroundings and the stress that can come with the college transition. But some parents don’t know when to let go and where to establish new boundaries. The increasing prominence of these “helicopter parents” has led many schools to intervene with parent-specific programming. As reported by Sanette Tanaka in The Wall Street Journal, “more than 90% of colleges now offer some sort of programming for parents of incoming freshmen, and 31% of colleges have a parent office on campus, according to data collected by the National Orientation Directors Association in 2011.” Tanaka also reports that some parents have even “stalked” their child’s roommate on Facebook, to track all their activities. Orientation can help you prepare your parents for the inevitable separation and draw boundaries that you are comfortable with.
- Build Confidence: At student orientation last week, I witnessed a very generous act of kindness between two students. One very nervous student, who seemed overcome with some social difficulties, was struggling to interact with the other students and complete her registration process. A confident student took it upon herself to encourage the nervous student by sitting with her, compliment her, and start a fun conversation. The nervous student was able to proceed productively throughout the rest of the orientation day. This underscores an important truth about the orientation experience: administrators and faculty can do a lot to help students transition to college, but the most valuable benefit of orientation is probably the opportunity to interact with other new students and learn what they are like. They are the ones with whom you will attend classes, live in a dorm or apartment, and participate in social activities. The first semester can involve a lot of social activities that may be intimidating, and new student orientation can help reduce the amount of stress such new experiences can create.
All of these reasons to attend orientation share one thing in common: they are designed to make the first weeks of college a less stressful period when students can focus on their academic coursework to get off to a good start. For other ways to start the semester well, review this checklist of 9 Ways to Start the Semester Right.