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Feature

LeeAnn Melin, Twin Cities orientation office director, with student staff outside Coffman Union.  The name should include something like "orientation staff."

Student orientation leaders staff the check-in tables for parent and student orientation at the Twin Cities campus.

The big rush: Orientation makes summer a busy time for staff

Orientation makes summer a busy time for staff

By Gayla Marty

From Brief, June 30, 2004

For staff in campus orientation offices, summer is anything but slow. A total of more than 10,000 admitted students are expected to attend orientation this summer across the University of Minnesota's four campuses.

"Summer is such an exciting time," says LeeAnn Melin, director of Orientation and First-Year Programs (OFYP) at the Twin Cities campus. Melin's staff grows from six people to nearly 50 for the summer.

OFYP works closely with staff in college advising offices to offer a total of 18 two-day orientation sessions for more than 5,000 freshmen from June 9 through July 16, and about a dozen one-day sessions for more than 2,000 transfer students from August 9 through September 3.

"It's like planning 18 weddings, except the guests eat three meals instead of one and also stay the night," says Lisa Gruszka, coordinator of freshman orientation on the Twin Cities campus.

At the Duluth campus, most orientation happens in the spring. Twenty-one sessions were held this year from March to May, and eight more are offered over the summer to serve a total of about 2,800 freshmen and transfer students by summer's end. Meanwhile, staff members are communicating with new students through newsletters and e-mail and offering a summer course called Introduction to College Learning. They're also planning Bulldog Bash, which kicks off the school year.

Crookston's coordinator for first-year programs, Rae French, is on a ten-month appointment, but returns August 1 to support Summer Start, a program for new students who want an academic bridge to college. Summer Start includes orientation to the computers that make Crookston the original lap-top campus. Then, an estimated 250 new and transfer students will attend orientation August 27-29.

At Morris, from 500 to 600 new and transfer students visit the campus to register over the summer. Orientation is held August 26-29, just before classes begin. Almost all students attend.

"There's a little bit of culture shock in it," says Kate VanSickle, new-student orientation coordinator at Morris. "Even for people who grew up in Morris and move on to campus, it's a whole different environment here. Everybody is eager to go along, knowing that they want to connect with people and get a sense of the place."

"The first day of orientation, the students all have a kind of wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights kind of look," VanSickle says. "By the end of the four days, they're hanging out with other new students, walking down the halls and laughing--so it's pretty cool. It's fun to watch the transition and transformation."

All the campuses provide orientation for parents, too--more than 3,000 on the Twin Cities campus alone. Parents come to hear about topics from finances to safety and to get a feel for the place their students will call home in the fall.

In addition to undergraduate and parent orientation, programs are provided for graduate students on the Duluth and Twin Cities campuses, and for international students and various other groups on all the campuses, engaging a whole range of office and college staff.

Students on staff

During most of the year, the orientation offices operate with a relatively small core staff. But for one week to several months, they expand to provide a high-quality, energizing experience for incoming students. All the offices rely on returning students to staff orientation.

At Crookston, about 30 students arrive three days before orientation and receive training so they're able to respond to the needs of new students during the three-day orientation program. At Morris, 30-40 student volunteers are selected and trained by the orientation task force of six upper division students.

Duluth relies on 60 to 90 student employees to serve as tour guides and student advisers over several months. In addition, from each college, one to three student affairs staff members and five to 50 faculty members provide advising for orientation.

"It is absolutely a staff-intensive function," says Paula Knudson, director of Student Life and First-Year Experience at Duluth. "It also carries tremendous impact on the student experience, and it's very positive for those of us involved."

Knudson's office provides a comprehensive first-year experience program that has very little down time.

Orientation leaders on the Twin Cities campus are hired and begin training in the spring. It's a job they love, and their excitement shows. Gruszka says one of her favorite parts of orientation is watching the orientation leaders develop, personally and as a group, from the day they find out they are hired to the day of the last orientation session. "They are different people," she says.

Leadership development is built into the core values at OFYP.

"We give our students so much responsibility, and they just do an amazing job," says Melin. "People love how helpful everyone is at the University. They're surprised at how small the Twin Cities campus feels because everyone is so welcoming and they get personal attention."

"The evaluations say, over and over again, that the staff is what makes this happen," Melin says.

"Day in and day out all summer, we have new people coming to campus who have an extremely positive experience," says Gruszka. "That's a testament to the hard work of the student and college staff who make it happen."

Transition to fall

As summer ends and fall term begins, each campus holds a convocation for new freshmen. Crookston's, for example, is held in historic Kiehle auditorium, and parents are able to take part in the tradition.

"It's a beautiful convocation, real formal," says French. "This year, Joe Massey, our new vice chancellor for academic affairs, says he's going to sing 'Hail Minnesota!' It's a lot of fun, too."

After convocation, the work of supporting student activities and other events continues. French moves immediately into welcome week, then rush week, which promotes student activities and clubs, then a carnival and international festival the third week of class.

The work of supporting the student experience on campus begins.

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