Building community, one student at a time

The First Year Programs team, their extraordinary group of undergraduate orientation leaders, academic advisers and dozens of dedicated campus partners turned on a dime to plan a welcoming, effective and virtual Advising & Orientation experience that sets up thousands of first-year Huskies for success in an extraordinary year.

Screenshot of zoom screen from an A&O session

Everyone’s “dubs” are up in this screenshot from an A&O session. Images like this were shared on the New Huskies 2020 Instagram page.

Harry Styles’ “Adore You” plays. A slide welcoming you to the University of Washington’s Advising & Orientation is on the screen, prompting you to share something fun you did over the weekend. Responses start flowing into the chat: “backpacking with friends,” “made Elvis French Toast” (French toast topped with bananas, bacon and peanut butter). Above the slide, you see a line of neatly arranged rectangles showing your new classmates’ faces.

This is Advising & Orientation in 2020. It’s fun. It’s informative. It’s virtual. And, it’s most likely different than any other virtual event you’ve attended thus far.

“This is a whole new virtual experience,” says Orientation Leader Lucas Godfrey. “Students are surprised they are having a good time, meeting people and building connections.”

First, what usually happens

In a typical year, Advising & Orientation (or A&O for short) is a two-day, in person event. In small groups of 25–30, students tour campus, build community through activities like scavenger hunts and games. They hear from experts about academic success, wellness and financial planning and resources. Students meet with advisers who teach them what a balanced course load is and then help them register. By the end of A&O, students are prepared with their schedule for autumn quarter, a solid overview of how the UW works and some new friends.

The goals of A&O are clear: teach students how to register for courses, connect to critical resources and build community. Students have a more successful transition knowing how to navigate the institution and suss out the breadth and depth of opportunities at the UW.

First Year Programs — the Undergraduate Academic Affairs’ program that orchestrates A&O —typically starts its planning a full year in advance. Curriculum, info sessions, dozens of campus partnerships, faculty speakers, orientation leaders, room reservations and catering are all developed, coordinated and reserved.

(Photo in section header from A&O, 2016)

Then a pandemic hits

When it became evident that the novel coronavirus pandemic would make an in-person Advising & Orientation program impossible, First Year Programs’ staff had six weeks to figure out how to welcome this year’s 8,200+ students and their parents.

Their goals remained steady. Achieving them was the question: How would they create an engaging and customized experience? How would they overcome barriers to technology or spotty internet for orientation leaders and incoming students? How would they help students connect with one another over Zoom?

As planning and brainstorming continued, three factors became clear:

  1. First Year Programs and their partners would need to find new ways of presenting information to students.
  2. Personalizing each student’s experience was necessary.
  3. Orientation leaders were critical to the success of the program.

Leadership with a capital “L”

Orientation leaders are UW students who become new students’ knowledgeable “older sibling” who’s already scoped out the school and is ready to show you the ropes. They’ve been in your shoes, and they are there to help, reassure you and let you know that it will all be okay.

“As a first-generation student, I wanted to show incoming students that they can take on these roles and occupy these spaces, that they all have a voice, and [I want to] help them learn to bring that out,” says orientation leader Tiana Cole.

Orientation leaders take a 3-credit class in spring quarter to prepare for their role. This year’s class included some different elements: a consultant to help them learn how to build community in a virtual setting; skits that they prepared and performed online with their classmates; and a deep dive into how to transfer each subject they cover to the virtual setting.

Orientation leaders often pose a few getting-to-know-you questions to ease connections between new students in their groups. Here are a few responses: 

Orientation leaders need to connect with and create trust with their orientees. That trust comes from a combination of the student leaders’ confidence and sincerity. “In class, we really built up our confidence. We learned to say, ‘I’m ready to lead new students through this experience and to have them trust me,’” shares Cole. “We dove into our personalities and learning styles, and built confidence in our style and what we’ve done in the past.”

As orientation progresses, students start to interact with and support each other through the Zoom chat. Here’s a typical example from one group.

(New student’s name has been changed to protect privacy.)

First Year Programs encourages the leaders to customize their presentations to let their own personality shine through. “I’m so impressed by our orientation leaders and how flexible, adaptable and creative they’ve been,” reflects Matt Skirven, assistant director of First Year Programs. “They’re really embracing this opportunity and have really grown.”

Read a few orientation leaders’ profiles (below) from the New Huskies 2020 Instagram page and get a sense of why they connect so well with new students.

  • Tiana Cole,
    Tiana Cole

    Tiana Cole

  • Lucas Godfrey,
    Lucas Godfrey

    Lucas Godfrey

  • Misha Robinson,
    Misha Robinson

    Misha Robinson

  • Steven Tu,
    Steven Tu

    Steven Tu

Customizing connections for thousands

Q. What did you enjoy most about this orientation session?

A. Probably hearing stories from current faculty members about their college experiences and how they started out as it might relate to a student in particular. One professor's story was very similar to mine so I found his journey extremely beneficial and making me hopeful for the future.
Entering studentFrom student feedback survey

“We centered orientation around student voices and connection,” explains First Year Programs Director LeAnne Jones Wiles. “Students start and end the day with their connection groups, which serve as a homeroom. The orientation leaders are there to help students not feel lost or invisible.”

Throughout the day, groups of 16–20 students (or 4­–6 students for transfer student orientation) attend sessions about campus resources, registration and lunch and learns, then return to their homeroom to debrief, review what they heard and ask their orientation leader questions.

Example of a virtual name tag

“It was very easy to follow the schedule thanks to the personal agendas and virtual name tags.” — Entering student, from A&O evaluation survey

Individual agendas — or virtual name tags —  created for each student let them know their presence mattered. Based on the physical name tags students typically receive at in-person orientation, these took the form of individually created webpages for each incoming student. On it is a students’ personalized agenda with links to each of their sessions.

Registering for classes is a big component of A&O, and academic advisers from Undergraduate Academic Affairs and the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity worked hard to customize the experience for each student.

After learning broadly-applicable information like credit requirements, students learned the details about their fields of interest and connected live with advisers from those subject areas. Advisers helped students build a balanced schedule and were able to answer students’ questions about schedule construction in small groups or one-on-one.

“Our goals going into virtual A&O were to help students begin to imagine an undergraduate experience that is meaningful to them, register for autumn courses, connect with their adviser, and prepare for a successful transition to the UW,” says Joslin Boroughs, associate director of UAA Advising.

Advisers sent a follow-up email to students, are excited to continue the relationship and are available to students throughout the summer. Early indicators show this commitment is paying off: Students are following up with their advisers at a higher rate than before.

This is just the beginning

Orientation leaders are proud Huskies. They’re eager to welcome the incoming class and reassure them that they belong at the UW, even as instruction and their Husky Experience is physically elsewhere. Over the course of A&O, they see their orientees transition from thinking their remote experience will be tough to navigate, to eagerly awaiting the possibilities that exist. As A&O draws to a close, orientation leaders invite students to set an intention for their new UW journey by finishing the prompts, “I believe …” and “I am …”

Here are a few of their responses:

This experience gives me hope that in my transfer to UW I will be met with a positive environment and people are willing to help me on my road to success.
Entering studentFrom student feedback survey

More about Advising & Orientation

Here are a few more details about A&O, what it took to make it happen and what students had to say about it.

A&O by the numbers

The scale at which orientation happens is possible because of the campus community coming together around the common cause of helping new students feel welcome, included and that they belong at the University of Washington.

Students and parents learn the how to’s of college

Different groups of students need different types of information — as do their parents. First Year Programs developed a modified version for each group.

6200+ // Freshman A&O

1600+ // International A&O

1500+ // Transfer A&O

4300+ // Parent Orientation

(Note: Numbers participating in A&O are larger than anticipated numbers of first-year students because of the traditional “summer melt.”)

It really does take a village

65+ partners from around campus came together to welcome students to the UW.

Professors welcome students

10 evening office hours with professors from chemistry, the Information School and political science.

Covering more than classes

10 live webinars on topics ranging from academics to health care to buying textbooks remotely. 

Successful launches

Contribute to the UW’s strong retention rate: 93% of first-year students at the UW return for their second year. Nationally, the first-year retention rate for public institutions is 81%.

Icon of a laptopAvoiding awkward and unstable internet syndrome

Like all Huskies in the spring of 2020, orientation leaders took all their classes online, experiencing the awkwardness and technology glitches that can come with video conferencing or unreliable internet service. To make sure all orientation leaders had a stable connection, they were set up with a UW residence hall room “office” in order to access the UW’s stronger WiFi network and be at a safe, physical distance from others. New students without a laptop or stable internet connection were sent loaner computers and internet hot spots.

Students’ orientation fees cover the cost of orientation. Carlos Guillen, associate director of First Year Programs explains that the virtual format brought some cost savings as well as different expenses. “Our priority,” says Guillen, “was to make sure that we reinvested that money in students. Instead of room reservations and catering, we shifted that funding to virtual offices for orientation leaders, the cost of the virtual engagement training consultant, the welcome packages, and technology partnership with the Student Technology Fee loan program.”

I enjoyed being able to talk to incoming students who were feeling the same way as me. It made me feel that I wasn’t alone in the process of attending a university. Meeting with my academic advisor was definitely a highlight. I felt like they cared about my success and truly wanted the best for me.
Entering studentFrom student feedback survey
It was really nice to get so much information and be kind of passive about it — right now everything is REALLY STRESSFUL and the fact that I didn't have to go out and find all the information I'm going to need by myself was really nice! The general support, wide range of topics, and care that everyone took was lovely.
Entering studentFrom student feedback survey

Story written by Jenelle Birnbaum. Videos and welcome pack photography by Sovechea Sophanna.

Originally published September 2020

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