Higher education

Iowa universities keeping busy orienting students

'We've gotten a lot of positive feedback'

New students have ID photos taken during orientation at Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Monday, June 13, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
New students have ID photos taken during orientation at Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Monday, June 13, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Standing in front of hundreds of parents about to launch their children into college careers, University of Iowa Dean of Students Lyn Redington, who has two college-aged students herself, braced them.

“Some of the decisions that my students have made have just warmed my heart,” Redington said. “Some of the decisions they have made have really made me cringe.”

During one of the university’s 23 orientation sessions this summer for new and transfer students, Redington sought to prepare parents for both.

“Some of the things that you’re going to be hearing will be some fairly difficult things to talk about or to listen to,” she said during a “welcome” event for parents earlier this month. “We will talk about alcohol. We will talk about drugs. We will talk about safety.”

The UI, along with Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa, are in the heart of the summer orientation season — which sees tens of thousands of students and family members flood the campuses for one or two days of extensive college preparation programming.

Program schedules have evolved over the years to accommodate student body and institutional changes — including enrollment growth. UI, for example, recently overhauled its orientation program, including — among other things — separating parents and students.

“During your time here today and tomorrow, you are going to hear lots of different pieces of information,” Redington told parents of about 975 incoming students. “Your students will be getting some of the same information, just in a different format.”

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For example, she said, students spend a lot of time hearing from returning students and talking among themselves during orientation.

“One of the things that we know is that oftentimes students will hear better, listen better and actually retain information better if it’s coming from peers,” Redington said.

Program topics differ, too. Although UI parents and students are united for some orientation events — such as discussion sessions on honors, engineering and diversity — the lineup includes student-only “explore Iowa” campus tours, late-night events in the wellness center and residence halls, and special small-group curriculum sessions.

Parents, on the other hand, are offered special sessions on “letting go” and on the university’s billing process, how to use the UI’s career center and on campus safety — issues on which administrators seek parental collaboration.

“The University of Iowa is a safe community, Iowa City is a safe community, but we do have our challenges,” Redington said. “We have a lot of folks — a lot of faculty, staff and students — who are very actively engaged in making this a safe community. But it will take all of us. It will take you, it will take your students to help make that true.”

‘Good news’ and ‘positive feedback’

The UI is expecting another record-breaking freshman class this fall after last year’s first-year enrollment reached 5,241 — 575 more than in 2014 and the largest in school history. Officials expect a 500-student increase for the upcoming school year, and 5,800 freshman are going through orientation this summer — not to mention another 1,200 transfer students.

Iowa State has seen nine straight years of growth, including seven consecutive years of record enrollment. Projections for this fall show the total student body figure reaching 36,540 — up from 36,001 last fall — and officials are expecting to welcome about 6,000 new students in August.

UNI is planning for a third consecutive increase in first-year students, with freshman housing contracts up five percent year-over-year.

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Those new-student numbers have UI holding 23 orientation sessions this summer, ISU offering 22 sessions and UNI providing six.

Brent Gage, UI associate vice president for enrollment management, said the growth “is good news” for his institution, especially as more buildings damaged or destroyed by the 2008 flood come back on line.

“We are very excited about the level of interest in the university,” he said.

And UI Director of Orientation Tina Arthur said maintaining the institution’s standards of excellence with the larger class size starts at orientation. The staff has designed programming around learning outcomes, with the goal of teaching students to use the institution’s online system, access campus resources and get involved in academic and extracurricular activities.

“They spend time one and one with advisers or with groups looking through courses and helping them build a balanced schedule,” Arthur said.

Students at orientation are introduced to the Iowa Challenge, which highlights expectations using five keywords: excel, stretch, engage, choose and serve:

1. “Excel” refers to academic excellence

2. “Stretch” addresses the campus’ diversity and the benefit of experiencing new cultures

3. “Engage” promotes the idea of extracurricular activities

4. “Choose” reminds students of daily decisions they make affecting their education and future

5. “Serve” is a reminder that students are members of the community.

“You have the opportunity and the responsibility to be a good neighbor and citizen,” according to the challenge.

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Arthur said the university’s big orientation overhaul occurred last summer, when they split up student and families during the welcome portion and changed some of the options and information available to both groups.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” she said.

Students, parents ‘become more confident’

Mindy Thompson, a Sioux City mother whose 18-year-old daughter Ashton Thompson is about to enter her freshmen year at UI, was at an orientation session earlier this month and said she appreciated the separate lineups for parents and students.

“They need different kinds of information,” Mindy Thompson said.

“We get the cool stuff,” Ashton Thompson added.

Marina James, a 19-year-old incoming Hawkeye from the Chicago area, said she hoped orientation would fill her in on Greek life, the recreation center and academic expectations.

“I had a light senior year,” she said. “So this might be a bit of a shock.”

Study-abroad opportunities were at the top of incoming UI freshman Brianna Lupo’s list of orientation interests. And the 17-year-old from Eden Prairie, Minn., said she’s not daunted by the size of her freshman class or the number of orientations peers.

“I knew I wanted to go to a big school,” she said. “So it doesn’t concern me.”

Iowa State’s large orientation sessions also focus on the nuts and bolts of college life, including getting students identification cards, online IDs and email accounts; laying out financial aid options and how the university billing system works; and matching them with academic advisers for help registering for fall classes.

Returning ISU students, as with the other two campuses, are intricately involved in the programming, giving advice on transitioning to college life. Tours also are made available, including of the entire campus, residence hall system, sorority and fraternity houses, and the library.

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Liz Kurt, director of Iowa State’s new student programs, said this year’s crop of prospective Cyclones are coming from states are far as California and New York — and, of course, from countries abroad. And, she said, the campus tour can be an important step in ISU engagement.

“Coming for orientation doesn’t mean they’re enrolling at Iowa State,” Kurt said in a statement. “Some of these students are still looking at multiple schools.”

Even students who are committed to the campus can gain a lot from the orientation experience, said Katharine Johnson Suski, ISU’s admissions director.

“They build relationships with other students, connect with important campus resources and offices and become more confident as new Cyclones,” she said, adding that parents “learn how to support their students, get their questions answered and discuss the changing family dynamic of sending a student to college.”

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