I remember my new student orientation program as though it were yesterday (it wasn’t). All of the incoming freshmen – yes, once upon a time, new students were called freshmen (not First Years, New Students, Post-Secondary Initiates, etc) – gathered in Albee Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. We were given some basic rules and ‘do nots’ of the university and then were organized into groups of ten with an experienced student – I don’t think he was even called Orientation Leader – who had us sit in a circle outside on the grass. He had us introduce ourselves to each other, with our name, hometown, major, and, I think, the number of pets we grew up with. We then adjourned to the Student Activities Fair with dunk tanks, ball toss, and other carnival games. I started classes the next day.
Fast-forward to today…
Now New Student Orientation/First Year Experience/Welcome Week programs are the subject of much debate, theoretical evaluation, surveys, observation, testing, and case studies. Yet, statistics from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s report “Measuring Up: The National Report Card on Education” indicate that more than half of the students who begin a post-secondary education program will not, within six years, graduate with a degree or receive the certification they are seeking. Business is certainly booming on the admissions side of the equation but, somewhere between acceptance and commencement, there is a huge disconnect. Today, this space is dedicated to helping new students get off on the right foot and successfully get from orientation to graduation.
New students have all kinds of backgrounds. Some are from the traditional route—straight out of high school. Many are first generation college students. Others are returning from military service, taking an educational break to raise families, recovering after life-changing situations like divorce or the death of a spouse, or any number of other situations. Regardless of the background or circumstances, success is possible and can even be programmed through the orientation process.
I speak from my own experience… I am a first generation college graduate, cum laude, who grew up in a mobile home in a trailer park on the side of a state highway, who only was able to afford to go to school because my parents were divorced and my mother made so little money that I qualified for government grants and loans.
I have worked with thousands of college students over the years and my experiences pinpoint four keys to student success. Incorporate these ideas into your New Student Orientation/First Year Experience/Welcome Week/etc. programs and you will find more of your students will be able to take pride in crossing the stage to accept their diploma and going on to be successful citizens.
1) Use visualization
Students have to be able to SEE themselves succeeding. Many of the students that I talk with when I speak at new student orientation programs are focused on everything BUT graduation. They are worried about their finances, classes, when can they go home, boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wives, or a combination of these things and more. Yet, when I ask them what their graduation day will LOOK like, they have not even considered it! Teach your students to keep their “eye on the prize” and they can weather a lot of storms. I used mental images of myself walking across the stage and receiving my diploma and it kept me going in the tough times.
2) Set a blueprint for success
I teach students how to chart their path from the day of orientation to the day of graduation. I teach them to establish a dream, determine their goals (stepping stones), and the plans they are going to have to enact (everyday activities) in order to achieve student success. Show your students that there is a connection between how they conduct themselves daily and their ultimate success: their diploma. Their daily actions do make a difference as to whether they will ever graduate. I had friends in college who were more focused on partying than going to class or studying. I will admit that I enjoyed spending time with them in their pursuits, but I would always disappear around mid-terms and finals. I graduated, they did not. I had short and long-term goals that kept me going toward my ultimate dream.
3) Maintain a positive attitude
When things get really tough, a belief in one’s self can keep a person going. I use affirmations to keep my attitude positive. Affirmations are those things that you claim victory over what you have now or expect to have in the future. Some of mine are, “I am a successful professional speaker,” “I am a great father,” “I am a super husband,” and “I am in excellent physical condition.” OK, the last one is not exactly true, YET, but it will be! I was telling myself that “I am a successful professional speaker” long before I ever was one! I say them to myself on a daily basis, as often as possible. These really keep me motivated and keep me focused on all that is positive in my life so that I can make my dreams come true. Teach positive attitude techniques to your students and they will have an attitude of success that will get them to graduation.
4. Get involved in service
Connect your students to the community and the campus by having a New Student Day of Service at orientation or shortly after. Have them all come together, and interact with each other as the class of 20xx. By getting them engaged right away with the campus and community they are more likely to be retained and graduate. It makes it harder for them to drop out and keeps them motivated to stay a part of the campus community and the students, faculty, staff and community members they’ve made a connection with. This is really important for International Students and gets them involved in an easy way. Many International students find it hard to adjust and connect to the campus community. Many of them never make American friends and stay isolated from American culture for 4-5 years. This will prevent them from returning home without ever having had a true America experience.
Add your ideas below and share them with your fellow orientation professionals.