Annual program fixes to orient first-year students

5,400 incoming first-year students will go through the mandatory program over the summer.

Jim Hammerand

>In June and July, Coffman Union is crowded with students, University cafeterias are busy and beds in Frontier Hall are full. The campus feels almost like fall semester has started. But school’s not in session yet: it’s the first-year orientation program, a mandatory two-day process for incoming first-year students.

On any given day, there are as many as 400 soon-to-be-Gophers on campus for orientation, and as many as 300 of their parents. This summer, more than 5,400 students will go through the orientation process, learning about the University and college life on the first day and registering for fall classes on the second.

There are two dozen orientation leaders, all of them University students, who have gone through nearly 300 hours of training since spring semester. Many of those hours were part of a three-credit orientation training class, said Aeriel Anderson, a first-year orientation coordinator and public relations senior. Anderson was an orientation leader last year, a job she said was, at worst, hectically scheduled. But she said the benefits outweighed being tied to a strict timeline.

For their time, the program pays orientation leaders $2,900, plus University housing and a University Dining Service meal plan. But the real reward, Anderson said, is a “huge sense of accomplishment.”

“(The orientation leaders) are going to see students in the fall and later on throughout the college experience and receive feedback such as “I’m confident to be here, I’m no longer scared to leave home, because I met you that first day”, Anderson said.

Each day, half of the leaders take charge of groups of 20 to 30 students sorted by college of admission. The other 12 leaders provide support for the program, such as directing groups to their next destinations.

On day one, students (and their parents, if they elected to attend the parent orientation program) are simultaneously welcomed to the University by a University official at Coffman Union Great Hall.

Linda Ellinger, University assistant vice provost for undergraduate education, welcomed incoming first-year students and their parents at the Coffman Union Theater with advice for student success on behalf of the University.

“Grab the opportunities; it’s our job to provide them,” she said, listing traits of successful students, such as tolerance, resilience and responsibility.

Students and parents then split for the day after exchanging words of encouragement. It can be a tough moment: some parents left the theater nervously chuckling, with “reality” the topic of hushed conversation.

Kelci Fraser, a first-year nursing hopeful from LaCrosse, Wis., said her mother didn’t have any particularly inspirational words for her.

“Mine’s like, âÄòSee ya later,’ ” she said. Cindy Reilly of Thiensville, Wis., attended parent orientation and said Thursday she would recommend other parents do the same. She said she’s now confident her daughter Jackie has found “the right place for her.”

“We’re not excited for her to go away, but we’re comfortable with the school,” Reilly said outside Coffman Union. Her only concern is her daughter, a first-year finance student, could get “sucked” into too many clubs and forget to take time for herself.

The orientation program stresses involvement in student groups as a way to make friends and develop new interests. An involvement fair exposes incoming students to a multitude of student groups, including greek life and campus sports. Jerie Smith, vice president of the Interfaith Campus Coalition, was trying Thursday to interest students in her group. The way she told it, attracting students to her booth with candy is a science. “They know when they come and see Jolly Ranchers that you can get a bunch of them in a big bag for cheap,” Smith said as waves of orientation groups came down the hall just before lunch. “After lunch is really a hard time,” Smith said, but chocolate is almost guaranteed to draw students at any time.

“A big Butterfinger shows we care.”

James Baker, the men’s rowing recruiting chairman, manned the team’s booth Thursday. He said the program’s involvement fair was a great opportunity to bring first-year students aboard. To get the most out of a rower, Baker said, it’s best to get him into a boat and practicing as an underclassman.

“People don’t row in high school, generally,” Baker said. Independence is another tenet of the program. When orientation leader and mechanical engineering junior Brandon Creager’s group asked about curfews, he reminded them if they weren’t awake the next day for registration, they’d have to do orientation over again, but said there’s no curfew.

“We’re not going to come knock on your door and make sure you’re sleeping “you’re adults now,” Creager said.

Chris McGuirk, a first-year English student from Neenah, Wis., said he would have attended the orientation even if it were optional.

“You can’t really come in unprepared,” he said. He also said it was a way to “meet a lot of good people.”

Nita Chakrabarty, first-year chemical engineering student, said she would have liked to see fewer presentations and more student interaction. Max Garbacz, who was in Chakrabarty’s orientation group, backed her up.

“It’s kind of corny when they read from scripts,” he said. Still, none of the 20 students in Thursday’s Institute of Technology orientation group, led by Creager, said they would have skipped the program if it were optional. Beth Lingren, director of Orientation and First-Year Programs, said the program often is replicated by other schools, something she knows from her recent orientation program experience with another university.

“From someone who just came here, the University of Minnesota usually leads the way on the cutting edge of programming for orientation in terms of content, process, technology, and publications,” said Lingren, who is also vice president of the National Orientation Directors Association.

LeeAnn Melin, director of the University’s orientation program from 1993 to 2004, has tried to trace the history of freshman orientation. She said she’s seen materials for the University “Freshman Welcome Week” dating back to 1923. Students reported to campus a day and a half early for physical examinations and a campus orientation, she said.

In the late 1970s, Melin said, the program became a two-day affair, and just last decade, staying overnight became mandatory for incoming first-year students.

At orientation, students get their first taste of campus dining with a free UDS-cooked meal. UDS employee Angelique Smith was working the register at lunch Thursday as the lunch rush picked up. She said UDS was able to handle the large groups because of information from the program each morning about how many students would attend the day’s orientation.

“It’s not that hard,” she said. After an incoming first-year student’s drink cup tipped off her tray and onto her shirt and pants, Smith added, “We get a lot more spills.”