Getting to Know You

Colleges beef up orientation to help freshmen settle in, build campus ties

Even though it sits in the academic shadow of nearby Yale University, plucky Southern Connecticut State University unveiled a second-to-none secret weapon at its new-student orientation this year - a lobster dinner and fireworks.

Both were part of a four-day orientation extravaganza unlike anything this urban school has ever seen. Serious seminars on academic survival, alcohol abuse, and date rape were followed by games, free frisbees, and truckloads of food.

As a sea of 1,200 freshmen and transfer students poured past him into a large tent for a meal, Rich Farricielli played traffic cop, walkie-talkie at the ready. "We want the kids to go home and say, 'You wouldn't believe it - not only did I learn something - we had lobster for dinner and fireworks,' " says the dean of student affairs.

Across the United States, colleges and universities are beefing up freshman orientations as never before to involve students in volunteer work, Outward Bound-style experiences, and even gourmet meals. The goal is to make a good first impression and create a bond between students and school from Day 1.

As recently as the early 1980s, orientation was still little more than academic counseling, registration, and showing students to dorms. But a decline in the number of traditional-age students - as well as the fact that more than one-quarter of freshmen at four-year schools do not return to the same institution - has wrought radical changes.

Students who become friends with each other during orientation or bond with a faculty member get better grades, get into less trouble, and tend to form an attachment to the school, studies show. And with colleges competing hotly for students and recruiting costs rising, getting a freshman to return for sophomore year is crucial to a school's financial stability.

Schools did not always go to such lengths to greet their incoming class. Certainly few would have guessed that faculty members at the University of Connecticut in Storrs would volunteer to be "husky haulers" this week - lugging student belongings up to their dorm rooms. The school's hope is that maybe a freshman will form a fledgling friendship with a history professor struggling up a flight of stairs with his steamer trunk.

"Orientation used to be kind of this one-day advising, registering, and sending them home," says Daniel Robb, president of the National Orientation Directors Association in Bloomington, Ind. "But I can't name one place that is still with a 'sink or swim' approach that says: "You're a grown adult - you should be able to deal with this."

More than 80 percent of colleges and universities reported that they were trying to improve freshman year, according to a 1995 national survey, the most recent available. About 70 percent report offering semester or year-long "freshman-seminar" courses on time management and other nonacademic issues.

Such numbers imply a growing focus on upgrading student orientation preceding school as well, Mr. Robb says. But the direction an orientation upgrade takes depends on the school's needs.

At the University of Connecticut, for example, the school is trying to scrub off a party-school reputation by emphasizing academics. It sent the novel "Amistad" to freshmen over the summer, and will have faculty-led discussions with students about the book during orientation this week. Freshmen will also arrive before upper classmen for the first time this year - partly so they will not have "their minds poisoned" toward studying, a spokesman says.

"What is important to us is making sure that they feel part of campus and as quickly as possible," says Mark Emmert, the university's chancellor. "They have to make the transition from passive high-school learning to active collegiate learning - and that's very difficult today."

Yet at many colleges, more-academic, "Great Books" programs are being dumped in favor of Outward Bound-style experiences for small groups of new students. The idea is for students with similar interests to meet before college, creating friendships and a support network to help them weather pressures.

At tiny Marlboro (Vt.) College, for example, a handful of students will embark on an eight-day camping expedition in the Green Mountains. With "clarity on transitions" as the focus, it culminates with a 48-hour traditional native American "sweat-lodge experience" designed to create a "unique and silent bond," according to promotional literature. But that's just for starters. The college also offers sailing, diving, sea kayaking, and other options.

At Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a tradition in the just-plain-fun category of "dragon boat" races began a few years ago. Up to 20 people row long canoe-like boats 250 meters down the Cedar River, building camaraderie among students and getting everyone very wet.

Still another increasingly popular approach has students work for a few days in local food shelters or help build affordable housing.

At Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., students conduct a special day camp involving tutoring, reading, and talking with children from Easton's public-housing neighborhoods. Others might opt to help build a home with the Habitat for Humanity organization.

"Students have come to expect that universities will be attentive to their social as well as academic needs," Robb explains.

A number of colleges take things a bit further by involving parents, as the University of Vermont, the University of California at Riverside, and others do.

"We have always been conscious of the influence families have on their college-bound students' success," says Dani Comi, director of orientation and parent relations at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Together, parents and students go through 32 hours of lunches, movies, dancing, and barbecues as well as information sessions on academic survival and placement tests.

Despite such prodigious efforts, however, 26.7 percent of all freshmen at four-year colleges and universities still do not return for sophomore year at the college where they were freshmen, according to American College Testing Inc., in Iowa City, Iowa. An unknown percentage of those may transfer, not dropping out entirely. Either way, it is a serious economic loss for colleges.

The exceptions are at highly selective schools, many of which graduate 90 percent of students who enroll.

A bigger challenge exists at large, open-enrollment universities like Southern Connecticut State University, an 11,000-student commuter college where many students live off campus and as a result often feel little emotional connection to the school or other students.

Some 72 percent of Southern freshmen returned for their sophomore year last year - a tad better that the 71 percent rate average for public four-year universities. Still, that rate falls to about 60 percent after sophomore year and on down, a spokesman says. To reverse that, the university is mobilizing to erase the "perception of a cold and impersonal place" that has sunk in among students and faculty over the years.

Ten staffers got up at 5 a.m. to blow up 1,000 blue and white balloons and tie them to a footbridge overpass at the college entrance along with a sign saying "Welcome New Students." It had never been done before. One faculty member said it brought tears to her eyes.

Vara Neverow, an English professor who helped organize Southern's orientation workshops, says a "culture change" is under way. She cites at least 32 faculty members (out of more than 300) directly involved with more than 40 small groups of students over the past three days. And that effort does seem to be having an impact on students.

Amid a herd of freshmen crowding a barn-like building filled with "Chemistry" and "English" and other academic department tables. Kelly Pyers pauses to glance around. It is one of only a few moments in this four-day marathon when she is alone - choosing her future, by herself.

Ms. Pyers is wearing a T-shirt that says, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too." She says she was one of just 110 in her graduating class in Wallingford, Conn. Making friends and maintaining her identity are top priorities.

"I know I've made some friends already," she says. "It's important to me to have a support system.... At first, [a few days ago] I was not willing to be part of the community. I thought I might lose my identity a little with so many people. Now I feel more confident."

So does Ken Gatzke, chairman of the philosophy department, who has seen orientations come and go during his 30 years at Southern. But he's never seen one quite like this. He's already had four freshmen indicate an interest in majoring in philosophy - "a huge number" given that there are some years when there are none.

"We've never done anything like this before," he says. "I'm sort of amazed. Four is just an astronomical number. Maybe there's something going on here."

But the really notable event, for many, occurred during a powerful talk on date rape by Katherine Koestner, who travels the country lecturing since she was victimized several years ago.

At the end of the talk she challenged the male members of the audience to "take a stand" against date rape. And a single, lone male stood and applauded. Soon he was joined by several more standing, and eventually the entire audience. She then told the audience that it was the first time in more than 800 speeches she had given that such a thing had happened.

According to many students, including several young male freshmen, it was easily the most powerful moment of the orientation - one they will remember long after memories of lobster dinners and fireworks have faded.

"It made us feel like a big group of classmates," says Kevan Parri, a lanky freshman from Cheshire, Conn. "I guess for me that standing ovation made us feel all the same way. It was a good feeling. I don't think I'll forget that."

* Send e-mail comments to: claytonm@csps.com

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