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IOWA CITY — In summer of 2019 — before COVID eviscerated higher education norms — University of Iowa officials, as they had for decades, gave first-year and transfer students the option to participate in one- or two-day orientation visits to campus.
Most first-year students, according to UI, chose the two-day experience — which involved rubbing elbows with other incoming students, exploring the campus, convening in small groups and eating and staying overnight in dining halls.
Then the pandemic hit in spring 2020. The historic rite of providing high school students a summer entree into on-campus living was temporarily lost and, in some ways, forever changed.
All three of Iowa’s public universities shifted their mandatory orientation programming online.
“While we know our future Hawkeyes and their families looked forward to an on-campus experience, please rest assured you will receive the support you need to succeed through this virtual experience,” the UI reported in its summer 2020 orientation materials.
Last summer — with vaccines in circulation, but COVID-19 still a concern — the UI kept its orientation entirely virtual, while Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa dipped their toes back into on-campus orienting with a hybrid model.
Iowa State, for example, made incoming students participate in online academic meetings and a virtual class-registration session with an adviser. But it also offered an optional one-day “OnCyte” campus orientation — which about half its new students signed up for, according to Iowa State’s new student programs director Sarah Merrill.
“We were excited to know that most people wanted to come back for a traditional orientation experience,” Merrill said.
Using that feedback as a guide, Iowa State and UNI resurrected their fully in-person orientation programs this summer — including offering students the chance to spend the night in a residence hall.
The UI, for the first time since 2019, is offering an optional in-person orientation component this summer. The required part of orientation — academic advising and course registration — remains online.
The optional second part lets incoming students visit and explore the UI campus for a day, but with no overnight stay.
Although Iowa State and UNI report a vast majority of their new students are choosing the in-person orientation experience, both campuses still are offering virtual alternatives.
“We implemented a new opportunity called ‘orientation your way,’ where the student could choose whether online orientation or on-site orientation was a better fit for them,” Merrill said.
“And 90 percent are choosing on-site. That makes a lot of sense to me. I think we're finding that students really appreciate the opportunity to make their orientation experience their own.”
Having made the 45-minute drive from her home in Marion to Iowa City for orientation Friday morning, incoming UI freshman Lily Haars, 18, told The Gazette she was thrilled to get to orient herself to the campus in-person.
“I'm super excited about it,” Haars said before orientation began. “I feel like it's a lot easier than just online.”
Having already completed the required online portion of orientation — registering for classes and meeting with an adviser — Haars on Friday checked out an “information fair” with her parents before breaking away for sessions on housing and dining, university billing and academics.
She said she would have liked to spend the night in a residence hall.
“I think it would have been fun, for sure,” she said.
UI online option likely will continue
UI officials were unable to share how many students registered for orientation because they’re still taking reservations for their 13 orientation dates, which started June 7 and run through July 12.
But about two-thirds of the students signed up for in-person services, according to UI Orientation Services Director Tina Arthur.
Arthur said she doesn’t know if the university will return to a two-day orientation experience in the future, but she thinks the online option is likely here to stay.
“Our old orientation system required families to come back in June and July. It was the only way they could register for classes,” she said. “Now, we have some flexibility with what we can offer families to complete that step.”
In the past, students who couldn’t make the trip to campus to register during summer orientation — perhaps because they lived across the country — could do so when they arrived for classes in August. But they wouldn’t always get the times they wanted, Arthur said.
“We’ve seen those numbers shift dramatically,” she said, noting 400 to 500 used to register for classes in August, the week before the semester started. “Now we’re seeing less than 100.”
‘Hard to replicate online’
At Iowa State, more than 5,000 first-year students plan to participate in its 17 on-campus orientation sessions this summer — meaning orientation in total could generate 15,000-some visitors to campus, as students typically bring two family members with them, Merrill said.
Each session will host about 300 students, who will spend two days touring campus, getting their ISU card, visiting individual colleges, and — in some ways — charting their own orientation that could include trips to fraternity and sorority houses or other ISU sites, depending on their interests.
Director Merrill said she’s not surprised so many incoming Cyclones want to orient in person.
“It's a big transition from high school to college,” she said. “We have students that come from all over the country and all over the world to experience Iowa State.
“So to be able to visualize yourself with your feet in the grass, thinking about what it’s going to be like to have a seat in a classroom, to eat in the dining hall, they can stay overnight in a residence hall if they like, they can even play activities in the evening.
“They get to meet faculty, staff, peers,” she said. “And I think those experiential components are pretty hard to replicate online.”
A fully online option still is available this summer, which Merrill thought would be more popular.
Merrill noted not every student who signs up for orientation has committed to Iowa State. Many use orientation to help make that final decision — especially because some campuses still are limiting, delaying or restricting campus tours.
“They may still be considering multiple colleges, or they may be considering not attending higher ed at all,” she said. “So we want students to know that they can be successful at Iowa State. We want them to be able to feel confident in their decision and prepared to take those actions that will make them a successful college student.”
UNI: ‘Vast majority’ in-person visits
Although total enrollment across Iowa’s three public universities dropped last fall, all three institutions saw slight upticks in new first-year undergraduate students — with Iowa State reporting a 6 percent increase, UNI reporting a 5 percent bump, and the UI up slightly with 11 more students.
That bucks the national trend among public four-year universities, which saw a slight freshmen decline in fall 2021 — continuing the 5 percent freshman enrollment loss the sector experienced in 2020.
Although orientation participation isn’t the same as first-year enrollment, the two are correlated and can serve as an indicator.
UNI, which reported 1,554 new first-year students last fall, this summer is reporting 1,438 incoming freshmen are signed up for orientation — plus another 574 new transfer students — totaling 2,012.
“Orientation programs for new UNI students are taking place in person this summer, and include one-to-one appointments with faculty advisers, small group activities with peers, and information about campus resources and opportunities,” UNI spokesman Andrew Morse told The Gazette.
“We do offer an online option for students who prefer that format, but the vast majority of students have chosen an in-person program.”
Students participating in the on-campus experience at UNI have the option of spending the night in a residence hall — before the full slate of orientation activities the next day.
Seeing the UI dorms
Anna Stivers, 18, of the Quad Cities, was attending the UI’s orientation Friday and said she’s glad about the return of at least some in-person programming — in part because she hasn’t yet gotten to check out her new living situation.
“I kind of want to see the dorms because I haven't seen where I'm staying yet,” she said. “But I kind of wish we were meeting our guidance counselors in person — it just seems like more of a personal thing.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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