In wake of pandemic, TU's New Student and Family Programs prepares for an online-only orientation
When Katie Murray joined Towson University’s New Student and Family Programs, she knew she wanted build a strong new student orientation program.
For the last four years, Murray and her staff have done just that, creating an award-winning program that prepares the newest Tigers on their social and academic journey at TU.
When COVID-19 led to a distance learning model for the campus, Murray and her staff started moving orientation to an all-online experience. While Murray is sad because it won’t be the same experience for students, she’s excited to have another tool to utilize.
“We’re going to be able to help new students better transition to TU with more information that is truly customized to them,” Murray says. “I think the thing that gives me solace in the whole experience is we’ve got more for them, and we’re not taking things away.
“We’re going to be giving these incoming students more resources that they can continue to refer to through the course of their entire first semester.”
During a normal year, new students flood campus for their orientation sessions starting in June. But because the uncertainty caused by the novel coronavirus, New Student and Family Programs couldn’t commit to starting on time and in person.
The staff partnered with Advantage Design Group, an edtech company that specializes in online orientation programs, to adjust the program to a strictly digital platform.
New Student Orientation will now take place throughout July, with eight sessions each for freshmen and for transfer students. Each session has a capacity for 325 new students, with TU welcoming more than 4,400 new students.
According to Murray, one of the bright sides of having a virtual orientation is that with that volume of students, in-person orientations would have lasted well into August—something nobody wanted.
“It’s going to be a sprint,” Murray laughs. “But now that we have a direction, we all feel much more grounded and ready to go.”
Before their online orientation session, students will need to complete a pre-orientation module, which is now available. The module must be completed 48-hours prior to their scheduled orientation. They will then be given a Zoom login for their orientation session through their TU email.
On their scheduled orientation date, new students will have Zoom meetings with an orientation leader and other incoming students. They will also get to meet virtually with an academic adviser in their major, register for classes and meet with Towson University staff members.
Incoming students will be able to speak with orientation leaders during a two-hour panel discussion. Orientation leaders are current students who drive the orientation process and serve as the first interaction many new students have with the TU community.
This year, the orientation leaders were hired right before the pandemic hit and were offered a chance to defer their role until next summer so they can have the in-person experience.
But many are still on board for this summer.
While they are a little bummed out they won’t get to welcome new students in person, they are excited to help these incoming students build a connection—even a virtual one— with Towson University.
“Our goal is to have an open space where our incoming students can talk to orientation leaders and build some kind of community to help feel connected to the university,” says Gail DeShields, who is a coordinator in the Office of New Student and Family Programs, and works closely with the orientation leaders.
“Some of our incoming students haven’t been on campus yet, and some won’t be there until fall. Having some kind of community building, like getting to know other people in their major or their college, lets them have a familiar face when they do get on campus.”
While going through test runs of the new digital format, there have been some bumps in the road. But most of them are the usual ones that you have when dealing with technology, such as connection issues and getting all the elements online.
But for the Academic Advising Center, there are also new sets of challenges with a digital orientation. When meeting with a new student, academic advisers help make class schedules so new students are in the right classes for fall.
Academic advisers have been hard at work to make sure they are ready to migrate their work to a digital platform.
“Our job is to make sure students understand why they have the classes they do,” says Vicki Cohen, director of the Academic Advising Center. “We show them that while they might not have gotten everything they wanted, they have the classes they need and how it all works toward their graduation goal.”
“Our big challenge is how we can make this personal experience work virtually and training our faculty and staff on how to use the technology to do that. It may be a strange beginning to the students’ TU journey, but it will help in their final goal, which is to graduate.”
Along with students, families will also go through the virtual orientation. This year, families will get access to their student’s pre-orientation module, giving families more access to the student side of orientation than they ever had before.
Families will also participate in a live Q&A webinar covering topics they would normally encounter during orientation: housing and residence life, campus safety, financial aid and the bursar’s office.
“We want to make sure that even though we are not physically together, they still feel like they’re part of their student’s experience and the Towson University community,” says Kathryn Knaus, assistant director of New Student and Family Programs.
“We really want to welcome them just like we're welcoming their student. Students who have involved family members are successful students.”
After months of not know what orientation will look like, Murray and her staff are ready to breathe a sigh of relief once those first Zoom meetings start. Murray been very grateful to her staff for their patience and how they have handled this change as gracefully as possible.
While orientation has gone through so many changes this year to adjust to the world’s current landscape, one thing remains the same: Murray’s excitement for orientation.
“Whether it's online or in person, orientation is about getting them to understand the community that they're joining,” she says. “We want to show them there are members of this community that care for them and are here to support them on this journey.”