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The evolution of the welcome mat


"Success or failure in college frequently hinges upon the kind of adjustments made early in the freshman year"

By Adam Overland

Cover of 1938 Freshman Week
Cover of the 1938 Freshman Week schedule of events.

July 30, 2008

The quote above is from a handbook for Freshman Week, a program for first-year students at the University of Minnesota in 1938. Seventy years later, the U has returned its gaze to the first days of a student's college life in an experience called Welcome Week. The first days are seen as being so valuable and full of potential that this year the U will move from a weekend program in effect for the past 25 years, to a week-long platform it hopes will provide students with the tools and information they'll need to navigate their way through the U. Think of it as a kind of welcome mat--a place to get your footing, and recognize that you are leaving one space and entering another by accepting an invitation to connect with a larger community.

The University of Minnesota has offered programming to welcome first-year students to campus since the 1920s. Most recently, the orientation has been conducted through a two-day New Student Orientation program in the summer followed by New Student Weekend, a three-day optional event prior to the start of classes. Welcome Week was developed in response to research that suggested students who attended New Student Weekend had higher retention and graduation rates than those who did not. At the same time, concerns from participants in New Student Orientation about "information overload" prompted an extension of the program to allow for easier acclimation.

In the first days of college, students must balance the stress of relocating (sometimes from out of state), moving into a new home (generally a smaller, often shared home), starting what is essentially a new career (the four-year, or more, career of higher-education), and meeting hundreds of people with varying cultural, ethnic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations. It's a time of many major life maneuvers, in a rapid-fire environment.

The plan to turn what could be personal turmoil into collective opportunity is ambitious. The six-day Welcome Week takes place from August 27-September 1, and is required of this year's incoming class of more than 5,000 students. It's a monumental effort to coordinate so many activities, but faculty, staff, and students are working to make the week memorable through a number of unique experiences.

 

August 28, for example, will be "College Day," a day where students can connect with classmates, advisers and faculty members. Additionally, students will be introduced to academic expectations and the exclusive programming that takes place in their college. August 31 will be a day of service and engagement, with activities designed to enrich the student experience by creating opportunities for students to connect with the U and the Twin Cities community. Students will have a chance to leave campus and help out a local community organization, learning both the value of the organization and the impact of their own contributions.

"Student success is a combination of individual determination and opportunity provided by the university," said Laura Coffin Koch, associate vice provost for undergraduate education. "Welcome Week will ensure that all first-year students are offered the resources essential for personal and academic success."

And so, after many years, Welcome Week has changed, and it hasn't--the mission of the U has always been one of outreach and engagement, both to the community at large and the community at home. While the activities of today may look different than those in 1938 (see the photograph of the 1938 schedule), the goal of providing the resources necessary for the success of first-year students is the same. In the end, it's a welcome mat that's had a lot of traffic, and evolved due to those who've treaded before.


"Men and women of the freshman class, we all, faculty and students, join in welcoming you to the campus of our University--yours also, from now on, if you have the desire and the will to make it so."


For more about the U of M's Welcome Week and the schedule of events, and to volunteer, see the news release or visit Welcome Week.