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Support and Advocacy

New Student and Family Orientation Vibrant as Always, but Online for Now

NC State's New Student Programs was able to quickly pivot from in-person to virtual orientation sessions in a matter of weeks.

zoom group view of new student orientation orientation leaders
Orientation leaders and New Student Programs staff prepare for the launch of the new online virtual orientation.

New student orientation is a crucial aspect of incoming student success on campus. It’s an irreplaceable aspect of college life — of being on campus and realizing, ‘I’m at my university! I’m a college student!’ It’s a special time of making new connections, learning how to navigate the academic and social aspects of college, and teaches new students about all the resources on campus and what it means to be part of the Wolfpack.

Normally (pre-COVID-19), 700 people attend summer New Student and Family Orientation sessions, Monday through Friday. In any given summer, during the six-week orientation period, there are between 14,000 and 15,000 new students and family members on campus.

But this summer’s New Student Orientation is anything but normal. Due to the safety precautions in place for COVID-19, the entire orientation process was converted to an online program. “Nobody said it would be easy to make this adjustment. What we do say was that these students deserve to have a rich orientation experience that will give them what they need to thrive and be successful in their first year,” said Michael Coombes, director of New Student Programs.

Commitment to New Student Success

“Our community rallied together to create the best experience that we could with all of the unknowns in a very short time,” said Cameron Hill, associate director for New Student Programs. “Everyone committed to making sure that new students started with their best foot forward as a result of their online orientation. Although changed to virtual format, our commitment was the same: new student success.”

Everyone committed to making sure that new students started with their best foot forward as a result of their online orientation. Although changed to virtual format, our commitment was the same: new student success.”
– Cameron Hill, Associate Director of New Student Program

The New Student Program team developed an online orientation with a deep commitment to balancing key information for students — when and how they would be able to assimilate it. 

“We were thinking about all the options and recognized that people did not want to spend a day and a half sitting in front of a screen,” Coombes said. “As a result, we limited what they had to do ‘live’ so that they had the flexibility to participate on their own time.”

With in-person orientations, there is a finite time for students and families to get a ton of information.

“By being online, we can showcase so many things — for example, offerings from the Information Fair — in a way that they can go back and revisit at another time. It’s not ideal, but it allows us to expand what students can access, including an expanded reach of all of the university departments,” Hill noted.

The new online orientation includes:

  • Online Zoom sessions based on a student’s college or academic program;
  • Online orientation platforms where students watch self-paced videos (with six weeks to complete);
  • Optional transition talks which include department hosted Q&A sessions, Instagram Live events, and opportunities for students and families to connect

Orientation Leaders Adapt and Embrace Online Sessions

A team of 37 student orientation leaders (OLs) are hosting live events and assisting with all of the orientation sessions.

Among these is Shilpa Giri, a sophomore in biomedical engineering and a first-time OL this summer.

“I admit, when I first signed up to be an orientation leader I had very different expectations for what I would be doing,” Giri said. “I imagined wearing a Polo shirt on a bright summer day, walking around the university and introducing new students to our beautiful campus. When I first heard we would be doing online orientation, I was quite disappointed.

“But now that I’ve been through the orientations, I realize that there are surprise perks,” Giri continued. “I have gained new skills that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise; I’m a Zoom expert! The orientation team was incredibly supportive. Although this isn’t what any of us expected, it’s not an experience I would change. This is a once-in-a-lifetime, pandemic experience.”

Giri said that students reported mixed responses to the online orientation. Some were disappointed at the whole disruption of their anticipated college experience. “But most students and parents shared how much they appreciated that we managed to transition to an online platform so quickly. They aren’t disappointed in the school. They are disappointed with the entire pandemic disruption.”

Giri said she is confident that her OL team is doing a good job because the students report feeling welcome and are making connections with other students, faculty, and staff.

Vibrant Inter-Campus Collaboration

Coombes reflected on the incredible inter-campus collaboration triggered by going online. “Working with our campus partners on every aspect of rebuilding a new version of New Student Orientation was extremely rewarding! There was a lot of filming to do, and a number of campus units jumped in and dedicated videography teams so that we could get it all done in one month. The campus partnerships are the reason we could get all of these things done,” Coombes said.

The NC State New Student Programs team also collaborated with other UNC system schools across the state in formulating the final orientation experience.

“The response of the student staff has been incredible,” Coombes said. “What they signed up to do is much different than what they are now being asked to do, and they are doing it all with such grace. They have been incredibly fun to watch as they hold each other accountable and adjust to their new roles.”

So far, the interactions and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive, according to Coombes.

“People recognize our efforts to provide them with a quality orientation experience,” he said. “Even though there are feelings of justified disappointment, we know that we made the right call. Despite going online, we all appreciate the opportunities to help new students and their parents connect, learn, get questions answered, and navigate the system.”