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Student Orientation: Then and Now

By Deborah Waldman

Ashley Tozzolo didn't plan to attend orientation at the U of A last fall. She's from Edmonton, and her older sister, a university student, told her it wasn't necessary. But at the last minute, Ashley ignored her sister's advice. She went to orientation, and she's grateful she did.

"I would have been so lost on my first day if I hadn't gone," she says. More important, she made a great friend, a first-year student from Nanaimo. "We had just like a million things in common," she says. "I wouldn't have met her if I hadn't gone, and I know that we're going to be really good friends for a long time."

Easing students into university life, both academically and socially, is the goal of orientation, according to Suzie Cuts, orientation volunteer coordinator. A fifth-year student doing a combined science-education degree, Cuts began volunteering at orientation during her second year at university.

She wasn't the only one: more than 500 student volunteers work at orientation, quite an increase since the first student-run orientation back in 1966. And while the programming is always updated, some things have stayed the same: it is designed and run by students, to give new students as comprehensive an introduction as possible to all aspects of university life. And it gets rave reviews around campus, from students, professors, and the university administration.

"I think it's absolutely necessary," says Craig Montgomerie, '67 BSc(Eng), '73 MEd, '81 PhD, an orientation volunteer in 1966 who is now a professor in the Faculty of Education. "I look at students here. Some are extremely worldly and have no problems getting along. But there are still isolated places in Alberta or in the world and those students come here and are absolutely blown away by the size of this campus and they need someone to say, `hey, this is what you need to get around."'

Katherine Huising, '89 BA, manager of entertainment and programming for the Students' Union, agrees with Montgomerie. "Research has shown that students who have gone through an orientation program do better academically, are less likely to drop out, have an easier transition and become more involved sooner," she says. "They understand that they need to have a balanced life on campus."

Although some new students may he familiar with the campus, either because they grew up in Edmonton or have an older sibling at University, many more don't know their way around, what to bring to classes, and what services, programs, and activities are available outside of academic life.

Orientation "is there for people to meet new people and have fun and get that queasy feeling out of their stomach," Cuts says.

"University is a lot different from high school," she adds. That may seem obvious, but to a new student the differences can come as a shock. And one of the most confusing aspects of life for a new student is figuring out how to negotiate the campus itself.

"For high school, you're basically in one building," Cuts says. "With more than 50 buildings, new students are lost their first couple of days. So one of the main things we do is provide a tour of campus. We take them around and show them where their classes are, and that really eases the tension for a lot of people, especially for people from a small town."

Until 1997, orientation was an optional program that took place throughout July and August. Students could come for either a day or a weekend. Student Orientation Services, or SOrSe, as it was known, was an outgrowth of the first orientation program, Freshman Orientation Seminars, which was developed by student leaders 35 years ago. (See sidebar.) SOrSe was run by the Students' Union and attracted between 1,000 and 1,500 students each summer. Then, in 1996, the University approached the Students' Union about working together on an orientation program.

During the next year and a half, a number of change, were made, including scheduling orientation for two days immediately before the start of classes in September. Before the 1997-98 academic year, Vice-President (Academic) Doug Owram sent a letter to each incoming student strongly suggesting that they attend. The OneCard office told new students that if they wanted to get a card (the student identity/library card), they would have to attend orientation.

The changes have paid off. "Since 1997 our numbers have increased dramatically," Huising says. "We saw almost 5,000 students coming through the program last year.

"We're offering the same basics—an academic session, a student life session, a campus tour—but we have more time to give them that information. And we have their full attention because they're just about ready to start classes."

When students register for orientation, they're divided into groups of between 20 and 30, all from within their own faculty. Each group has two student leaders, also from the same faculty. The leaders conduct the tour, take the students through various activities, and answer questions that range from "How long do I have to pay my tuition?" to "Where is Room TBA?"

"It's a great program," says Cuts, who came to the U of A in 1997 from Kinuso, a tiny town three hours north of Edmonton. There were five students in her graduating class, including her. Her school went from kindergarten to grade 12. It had one hallway.

When she arrived at the U of A she was nervous. "I definitely had some anxiety," she says. "But my sister was involved in orientation a year before I came, and she said, `Don't worry about it -- they're going to show you where all your classes are. You're going to be fine.' So I knew it was going to help and it did."

Because she's volunteered to work at every orientation since 1998, cuts has had a chance to observe the sorts of students who come to the program. "People from Edmonton who have been to campus before and are pretty familiar with it have that cocky attitude and sometimes you can't do much for them, but sometimes they stay and they love it," she says. "They can always learn if they give it a chance.

"Then you get people who are totally scared and really need the program, and then the people in between, who aren't quite scared but don't know everything about university and are fine in admitting that."

Orientation volunteers present two main sessions about academics and student life. In the academic session, students learn about such topics as exams, the student code of behavior, what to bring to class, and the nine-point grading system.

There is also a session called "Healthy and Successful," where peer health educators and campus security officers discuss topics including safety, health, and nutrition.

At the student life session, students learn about activities, sports, volunteering, and "everything that makes the univeristy whole other thatn academics," Cuts says.

Last years the orientation staff introduced a game called TUBA, or To Univeristy and Beyond Activity. Students had to complete different tasks, some academic, some social, within a limited time-frame meant to simulate the academic year.

"It was meant to tell the students that you may not be able to have it all— that there is a balance that students need to find between achieving socially and academically," Cuts explains. "Sometimes, if you want good grades, you can't ahve a really active social life."

One of the most popular events at orientation is the President's Address, the final activity of the two-day program. All the orientation participants gather at Hawrelak Park at around 7 p.m. to hear University President Rod Fraser, '61 BA, '63 MA, and the president of the Students' Union speak. They're still divided by faculty, and according to Cuts, each faculty treis to outdo the other by yelling out faculty cheers.

"It's basically a huge pep rally. The enthusiasm is really high, says Cuts, who likens the energy level to that of a playoff hockey game. It's not exactly what you might expect from yound adults about to begin studies in higher education. But it cetainly fits with the basic theme of orientation. "One of our main goals is for people to interact, to meet eachother, and have fun," Cuts says. "It's not just about learning."

Published Summer 2001.

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