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Colleges and Universities

Freshman orientation

NCR Staff

Their parents never had it so good.

In recent years colleges and universities across the United States, concerned about student attrition and about students who see the university less as a place to learn than as a place to stay out late and drink, have been on a quest for ways to connect freshmen to their institutions.

Freshmen often report feeling isolated and lonely after the initial excitement of leaving home wears off. Some aren’t ready for the personal freedom or prepared for the rigor of college work.

For public universities especially, attrition among freshmen is high. Nationally, the rate averages 25 percent; at some schools it is much higher. For the institutions, more is at stake than human misery. Declining enrollments contribute to loss not only of public funds but also of prestige. In those ubiquitous college rankings that administrators hate but parents love, one measure of a school’s quality is how many entering freshmen return for the sophomore year.

Programs around the country to boost first-year success range from seminars and small classes that aim to strengthen study skills and connect students to the institution’s resources (sometimes called University 101) to social events, mentoring arrangements, and even outward-bound-type programs to promote student-faculty bonding.

Increasingly, schools have an administrator and staff devoted to freshmen. At the University of Notre Dame, for example, there’s a dean of first-year students. There’s even a national resource center for the Freshman Year Experience at the University of South Carolina, and a journal devoted exclusively to the cause.

Although attrition is usually less of a problem at Catholic colleges and universities, as at most private schools, they, too, are working hard to make the first year better. For one thing, many administrators would like to reduce attrition even more. For another, freshmen programs are a chance to highlight Catholic identity. That helps schools build their image on two fronts: with the Vatican, which is pushing schools to return to their religious roots, and with parents and students weighing the pros and cons of various academic options.

As Phil Lyons, director of student life at St. Louis University, put it, “We have excellent academics, a fine faculty, but it’s our Catholic identity that makes us different. That’s our niche.”

Boston College is among Catholic schools that put enormous energy into an orientation program aimed at instilling values. “Attrition is not our problem,” said Fr. Joseph Marchese, director of the first-year experience. Despite a large freshman class, 2,200 this year, the school’s average freshman-to-sophomore-year dropout rate is only 6 percent.

“We were more interested in affecting the student culture,” Marchese said. “Administrators were concerned about drinking and student behavior; the faculty were concerned about their intellectual precociousness. They wanted students who were alive in terms of their curiosity about the world of ideas.”

Inability to balance

Marchese said he had been struck in conversations and counseling with upperclassmen over the years by the realization that the freshman year had often been marked “by an inability to balance, to make the right choices, to connect to the resources of the university.” Often, he said, students said they did not really understand what was expected of them and had a hard time finding advisors or mentors.

Marchese developed a program based partly on his own study of human cultures at Harvard, particularly the role of “ritual process” in initiating new members into communities and into “their shared sense of values and expectations.” A key component, he said, was “to initiate students to the idea that we are a Jesuit Catholic university,” a place where students can develop “not only a good mind, but a generous heart,” can grow into leaders “with a sense of compassion, justice and faith.” He described the result, which has become a model for other schools, as “a real collaborative effort of a lot of departments across the university.”

The three-day orientation weekend, offered seven times a summer, relies heavily on 40 paid student leaders, selected from some 300 applicants. Marchese’s first job is to build a sense of community and mission among the student leaders through an intensive training effort that begins with a three-day outward-bound experience.

“That peer voice is very important,” Marchese said. “I didn’t want the leaders to be telling students where to get false IDs or advising them on the easy way to get through our core curriculum. It’s very important that they understand the focus I have in mind.”

The program begins with liturgy — a staple of orientation programs at virtually all Catholic schools. After dinner, parents and incoming freshmen learn the school’s fight song, and then hear selected faculty members talk about “the people and ideas that make Boston College special.” Over the course of the three days, parents and students, usually meeting separately, discuss the transition to college life, hear Boston law enforcement officials talk about community standards, view skits on a variety of common student problems, tour the campus and library, dance, collect materials at an “information fair” and gather for a final rally where they sing the fight song they learned the first night.

Parents and students arrive on campus “filled with anxiety, wondering if they have made the right decision,” he said, “so we spend a good amount of time explaining ourselves,” he said.

The effort doesn’t end when the weekend is over. “It’s important that we keep students as close as possible the first year,” Marchese said. Last year he designed a pilot course called The Courage to Know: Exploring the Intellectual, Social and Spiritual Landscape of the College Years.

St. Louis University has a program similar to the one at Boston College but adds to the mix a video presentation for parents on the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola and a classroom experience for students.

Reading together

Students and faculty members are asked to read during the summer Tuesdays With Morrie, the bestseller by Mitch Albom that recounts the weekly exchanges between a professor who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease and a former student. Faculty and small groups of students then meet in classrooms to discuss the book and, ideally, to begin forming faculty-student mentoring relationships. The culminating event for the past two years was a talk and book signing by Albom, the book’s author.

Lyons, the first-year director, said students find Albom extremely engaging even though he tells them what they’ve probably heard before: that the real value of the college years is learning, becoming part of a community, and not, as many might think, the chance to improve their financial standing in life.

Lyons admits that close student-faculty relationships don’t develop through the program as often as he’d like. “But at least the students find out that our faculty members are good people who are interested in them,” he said. Recently the university hired 25 new faculty members so that the small-class experience can continue through the freshman year.

Both Boston College and St. Louis University include presentations that help parents understand the transition students will be going through as their excitement about going away to college turns to anxiety. “We’ve learned that more introverted students will often act out against their parents and more extroverted students will withdraw,” Lyons said. The presentations give parents “a wide understanding” of the emotional ups and downs of the first year, he said.

Like St. Louis University, Franciscan University of Steubenville asks its students to do some summer reading. But the readings, and on-campus discussions, have a more theological focus: a selection from Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University and an essay titled “Franciscan Values in Higher Education.”

Peer-to-peer programs

“Most of the students struggle with Newman,” said Mary Kay Lacke, dean of evangelization. Generally, though, she said, “our orientation is just a lot of fun.”

“I’ve been here 21 years, and I’ve seen our orientation grow a lot,” Lacke said. Some recent additions include “peer-to-peer programs,” where older students talk about such issues as date rape, alcohol use and eating disorders. Those issues, troubling for many students today, are part of orientation discussions on many Catholic campuses.

John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland presents “psychosocial skits” based on common social and emotional problems. By an informal measure of success, Lisa Heckman, director of student leadership, said it works. “Every year, at least once during an orientation, students stand up and talk in front of their peers about problems they’ve had,” she said. “To me, that’s validation in and of itself.”

John Carroll, where nearly 90 percent of the students are Caucasian, also wraps some “diversity training” into orientation. “One of our goals is to orient students to the university; another is to sensitize them, to make them aware of issues they may be encountering,” she said.

At Xavier University in Cincinnati, efforts to welcome new students begin with “move-in,” when upperclassmen greet arriving freshmen to move their belongings into dorms. “Parents don’t have to lift a thing,” said Kimberlie Goldsberry, director for leadership and orientation. That evening, students gather in an open field for a large, interactive “group bonding” activity called Playfair. “A group comes in and facilitates it for us,” Goldsberry said, conducting directed activities that give students a chance “to meet countless numbers of people.”

On Sunday, day three of a four-day program, students are invited to a retreat at an off-campus center, followed by a dance that evening. On Monday, the office of academic affairs hosts a convocation.

As at many Catholic schools, one of the biggest struggles at Xavier is talking to students about the school’s spiritual heritage without setting their minds adrift. “How to articulate that” in an engaging way — what comprises the Jesuit tradition — “has been a struggle for many years,” Goldsberry said.

This year the staff developed a video presentation of students talking about what the tradition means to them: caring for persons, service, becoming men and women for others, she said. The entire orientation program is called Manresa, after the town in Spain where Ignatius of Loyola had the spiritual experience that changed his life and led him to form the Society of Jesus.

Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., have built volunteer service programs into orientation. “Our mission statement, our Catholic heritage and tradition really permeate our whole orientation program,” said Frederick Lorensen, director of freshman development and student services. This year, as part of orientation, some 200 students helped out in four to five projects around the city. At Rockhurst, nearly 300 students, virtually the entire freshman class, along with upperclassmen, faculty, staff and alumni, do cleanup projects in the urban area surrounding the school.

Using the city

Other schools using small classes as a way to help freshmen succeed include the University of Notre Dame and the University of San Francisco, which models its program partly on DePaul’s. At San Francisco, Sacred Heart Sr. Theresa Moser, assistant dean for academic services, said the faculty members are encouraged to develop courses that attract students with catchy titles and use the city as a learning resource. For example, one course in the university’s Freshman Advantage program, When the Fat Lady Sings: Opera in San Francisco, includes attending performances. Another, Poetry in San Francisco, culminates in dinner with a local poet.

The University of Notre Dame has long had a program called First Year of Students — since 1962, according to Eileen Kolman, dean of first year studies. It was prompted by alert administrators who noticed a problem of freshman attrition at schools around the country. Freshmen choose from writing-intensive seminar courses specifically geared to them. Topics range widely, according to professors’ areas of interest and expertise, and ideally help students become familiar with resources at Notre Dame.

The school’s retention rate is one of the highest in the country, with 97 percent of freshmen returning the second year. In part, that’s a product of selectivity. Statistically, at any school, the better the student, the more likely he or she is to return in successive years. But Kolman said Notre Dame’s success is higher than expected: a “plus 13” factor in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings. “We graduate 13 percent more students than statistics would indicate we should given their incoming ability and class rank,” she said.

This year Notre Dame, beset like other schools with keeping entering students focused on nonsocial orientation events, shifted its start-of-the-school-year liturgy to Tuesday, the program’s fourth day and the day classes begin. The Mass was followed by a picnic where three bands played: A Latin band, a blues band and a rock band, culminating in a fireworks display.

Expressing a sentiment that is shared by many Catholic administrators, Kolman said, “I think orientation is more about a spirit than about giving out information” (although Notre Dame also does a good bit of that). “We would like to leave parents and students with the feeling that choosing Notre Dame was a good decision, that we know what we’re doing here.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999