"Really? You live right by my high school!"
"That's what I want to major in, too."
"We should get together for coffee!"
Those are the kinds of comments that usually fill the quad, residence halls, and hangouts like the Bridge and the Dav as new students arrive and get to know each other. This year, the students were hundreds and thousands of miles from campus.
But the connections are still happening — at virtual mixers, through online orientation events, and at over 50 events, from Drag Bingo to Jazz in the Garden to this Thursday’s Virtual Involvement Fair, that are part of All-American Welcome.
All-American Welcome’s Drag Bingo event went virtual on August 25
Let's say your job is to orient students to their first year at AU — to help them feel comfortable in their new homes, learn their way around, and get them off to a confident, well-informed, successful start to the next four years.
Then comes 2020. The plan changes, and changes again in response to the evolving pandemic. But there are still around 2,000 new students starting at AU, and if anything, they’re more confused than ever. Nothing like this has ever happened, for universities or, of course, for the students you need to orient.
What do you do? How do you ensure that students get what they need, even in the unprecedented circumstances?
Orientation Leaders train and present during Orientation sessions
That was the challenge for the staff of Orientation, Transition and Retention (OTR) staff this year. They had to rethink orientation and welcome activities for 2020, do it quickly, and do it well. The staff quickly reworked orientation and collaborated with key partners such as the Center for Student Involvement to move welcome events online.
"One thing that has been a highlight to the virtual orientation program is getting to know many people and how motivated all of the staff is to make sure we are welcomed and excited in joining AU even with everything going on," says one student participant.
"This was such a huge shift for us," says Jennifer Johnson, Director of Orientation, Transition and Retention, about the switch to a virtual orientation platform.
Here’s what usually happens in the summer: first-year and new transfer students are assigned to an upper-class Orientation Leader (OL) who leads about 100 orientees, in groups of around 16, to familiarize new students with AU's campus, services, classrooms, and dorm rooms.
This year, Virtual Orientation started a full month ahead of time, with the 20 OLs connecting with each new Eagle through social media and messaging platforms like GroupMe.
This allowed OLs to stay connected to their students longer and lead them through the program, which had been transformed quickly from a two day in-person program to 12-week, summer- long program. Usually, the team runs six two-day orientations in June and July and several one-day orientations in August for transfer students. The switch allowed new students, families, and transfers to more easily access planned events and adapt them to their schedules.
Over 1,600 students registered for the summer-long orientation, which included fun events such as virtual game nights along with informational events but family forums, student involvement panels, and informational modules and webinars such as Academic Resources, Support Services, Life at AU — all available to watch later as well.
So how could incoming students expect the same content as years prior when orientation was on campus? "We went session by session reviewing our on-campus Orientation schedule for students and families. We were able to translate almost all our campus office presentations to virtual webinars," says Johnson.
Events like Academic Welcomes were reimagined and moved to video recordings shared with students ahead of class registration. Meetings with academic advisors were now happening on Zoom. The trick was to keep the focus on the main objective — support the journey of transitioning to college — while changing the mode of delivery.
Online All-American Welcome
In other years, All-American Welcome events are a time to meet new friends, find out what kinds of groups and organizations are on campus, and start to get a sense of where you fit in — all while enjoying yourself at events such as Drag Bingo, which typically draws hundreds of students.
This week began with two drag queens and 70 students vying for prizes in online Bingo to the tune of Shania Twain’s "Man! I Feel like a Woman!" DC-based entertainers Brooklyn Heights and Sasha Adams have hosted the popular "Drag Bingo" event for AU students for the last five years, and this year, they brought it to student’s Zoom screens. Even behind a computer, the buzz of the show could be felt as the drag queens showed up in all their glitz and glamour. "Isabella, I love your makeup!" said Sasha, while Brooklyn couldn't help but point out all the participants with pets in their Zoom frames.
The online space may not be the same experience, but activities and events are still filling the computer screens of new students. With a schedule of about 50 events between August 18 and 30, All-American Welcome aimed to have something for every student.
A brief sampling: There’s been Jazz in the Gardens, a virtual music experience from the Center of Student Involvement (CSI); a Virtual Movie Night, celebrating queer characters and themes organized by AU PRIDE; CSI’s CultureFest, featuring cultural organizations; and much more.
New events have included Regional Mixers, drawing together Eagles from seven designated regions around the US as well as international Eagles, who came from as far away as Medellin, Colombia and New Delhi, India to chat with each other over Zoom.
President Sylvia Burwell made an appearance at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Mixer representing West Virginia (left); students and staff meet at the International Mixer (right)
"They were well organized and presented and helped me to feel reassured regarding my daughter's choice — that she (we) are in good hands — that the university has many supports in place and is very thoughtful regarding students' needs and the freshman experience," says one parent participant.
The response to COVID-19 has meant that, this Fall, new Eagles haven’t yet moved onto campus. But the Orientation team has succeeded in doing the next best thing — bringing AU’s campus, and the AU spirit, to the newest Eagles.