4 ways you should be using your orientation leaders this summer

Expert Insight

4 ways you should be using your orientation leaders this summer

The impact of COVID-19 has forced many colleges and universities to recreate orientation in a virtual format from the ground up. On top of navigating new virtual platforms, supporting remote staff, and preventing Zoombombing, enrollment and student affairs leaders must decide how to use another important component of successful orientations: student orientation leaders (OLs).

Predictions of declined student enrollment and drop-off mean orientation leaders’ roles will be even more critical this year in retaining the incoming class. The following strategies will empower your orientation leaders to build community and engagement among the 2024 freshman class in the new remote environment.

1. Leverage orientation leaders’ social media skills to build affinity and belonging

Generation Z students are digital natives, and orientation leaders are no exception. While some older staff may struggle to engage students digitally, orientation leaders can leverage platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitch to meet students where they are—on their phones.

  • Use Instagram to provide a glimpse into campus life: At Rider University, OLs created a RiderOrientation Instagram that features profiles of each OL with personalized descriptions of their life on campus and their favorite activities. Each OL also does a “Takeover Tuesday” where they run the account’s Instagram Live page and answer questions from incoming students like, “What’s your favorite memory on campus?” or “What dorm do you recommend staying in?” Using the Instagram live platform has the additional benefit of allowing OLs to use their own pictures when answering questions, so incoming students can see a picture of things like students celebrating at sporting events when OLs answer questions on topics like favorite campus memories.

Pro tip: Invite incoming students to the page early so they can interact with the account over the summer. Also provide OLs with guidance around what photos are appropriate and not appropriate to share on the account to avoid any social media mishaps.

  • Incorporate social media engagement into orientation: Taylor’s College drove student engagement with social media by making it a formal component of their orientation schedule. On the first day of virtual orientation, students’ initial required activity is to follow the OL Instagram and Facebook pages, ensuring all students know where to connect and find information posted from their OLs.

Pro tip: Not all students have Facebook or Instagram accounts, so inform students before the first day of orientation that some activities will be completed on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, etc. and that they may want to set up accounts. Build time into your orientation for students to create those accounts in case they fail to do so before the first day.

2. Create peer connections by leading small group or cohort-based experiences

Students’ sense of belonging on campus has been linked to retention, satisfaction, and academic performance. Peer connections are crucial for incoming students to feel like a part of campus, but large virtual meetings can make it difficult for students to connect on a more personal level. By offering small group or cohort-based experiences, OLs can better build community among their orientation groups.

  • Organize orientation groups around shared interests like the same residence hall, potential major, or interest in a student activity: OL groups should be strategically organized so students in virtual orientation groups are likely to connect later on campus thanks to their shared interests or assigned housing. Organizing orientation groups in this manner gives students a more vested interest in connecting with their orientation group because they know they will interact with each other regularly after they arrive on campus.

Pro tip: Institutions can further foster peer connections by having students participate in multiple small orientation groups for different purposes. For example, North Dakota State University will host virtual hall meetings on its first day of orientation so students can connect with other students assigned to their hall in addition to meeting peers during smaller group sessions with assigned orientation groups.

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  • Offer activities where students can engage in smaller groups: Providing students opportunities to talk with one another in smaller settings helps ensure every student has an opportunity to connect with others and can help build stronger bonds with peers before arriving on campus. OLs can break students into smaller groups of 2-4 students each using Zoom breakout rooms (or a similar platform) to discuss specific orientation content, or just to chat. OLs can provide ice breaker prompts to help get the conversations started.

Pro tip: Conducting orientation over Zoom is a new experience for most OLs, so institutions should offer Zoom how-to trainings. Cover platform basics like best practices for secure meetings, how to enable breakout rooms, how to help students who can’t turn on their video or microphone, etc. Offering best practice tips for virtual presentations like engaging the audience every 3 to 4 minutes, incorporating interactive quizzes and surveys, and using videos and pictures to keep students engaged will help OLs run successful virtual activities.

3. Incorporate insight and experience from orientation leaders into existing orientation sessions

Managing fewer students on campus gives OLs greater capacity to assist with events traditionally led by professional staff. By incorporating OLs into sessions like the overview of the honor code, institutions will be able to provide incoming students with valuable first-hand insight into how the topic applies to student life. Incoming students are also more likely to engage with OL-supported events as many students prefer peer-to-peer interactions over formal support.

  • Invite OLs to staff-led orientation events: An easy way to incorporate your OLs into more events is to invite them to participate in existing orientation programming. Incorporating OLs into existing virtual events will give them more opportunities to connect with students and present themselves as a resource for the incoming class. OL participation will also make your events more engaging for incoming students because they can hear the student perspective on the event’s topic.

Pro tip: Campus leadership can also appear on OL-led programs to introduce themselves to incoming students and establish themselves as a friendly face on campus. Guilford College has its orientation leaders host livestream Twitch sessions with incoming students each week. The OLs interview “special guests” like faculty members and staff from student-facing departments, making staff and faculty seem more approachable to the incoming class.

  • Ask OLs for advice on how to make existing orientation modules or requirements more engaging for incoming students: In addition to bonding with peers, orientation is a time for students to learn about key practices, guidelines, and policies at your institution. OLs can provide creative strategies to make these sessions more engaging for incoming students in a remote environment. Penn State has already given its orientation leaders more say in how content is delivered by brainstorming with OLs about ways to provide incoming students more opportunities to connect with peers in a virtual format.

Pro tip: Student input does not have to stop at orientation. Florida Atlantic University incorporates student input on how to improve remote programming by having students participate in a student engagement task force alongside university leadership.

4. Reinforce key safety messages

OLs serve as a key source of information and advice for incoming students during orientation. Keeping OLs up-to-date on COVID-19 safety information and practices will prepare OLs to answer questions from students and families and further reinforce key safety messages before students return to campus.

For many institutions, this year’s orientation will require navigating uncharted territory. Through strategic collaboration with your orientation leaders, you and your staff can blaze a new path for virtual orientation and develop strategies and practices that will benefit incoming students and your institution both this year and moving forward.

  • Provide OLs with up-to-date information about COVID-19: Safety will understandably be a huge concern for incoming students and their families as they try to navigate the fall semester in the wake of COVID-19. Prepare OLs to answer questions from students and families by providing them with up-to-date information about COVID-19 and your institution’s strategy to keep students safe when they arrive on campus. OLs should be connected to your institution’s regularly-updated COVID-19 FAQs page and encouraged to subscribe to any emails from institutional leadership that provide updates on the institution’s COVID-19 response and strategy.
  • Promote awareness around social distancing: Whenever students do return to campus, they will have to practice social distancing measures to keep themselves, their peers, and their campus community safe. OLs should be encouraged to reinforce messages about social distancing during orientation so students are more likely to take the guidance seriously when they arrive on campus.

For many institutions, this year’s orientation will require navigating uncharted territory. Through strategic collaboration with your orientation leaders, you and your staff can blaze a new path for virtual orientation and develop strategies and practices that will benefit incoming students and your institution both this year and moving forward.

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