The Importance of Orientation in My College Life in Harvard University

Orientation has always been an important part of the college experience. This process has taken a more involved turn in recent years. Just a short time ago the orientation process consisted mostly of class registration and textbook purchases. Also, the parents were not involved much in any of the orientation process, besides buying the necessary material. From my experience as a freshman at the College of Wooster, and as a transfer student here at Wittenberg University, I say that the orientation of previous generations is not adequate.

Orientation should serve as much more than just a registration and book purchase time. It should be a time in which the students are formally invited to campus, engaged with their class, and begin building their social network. Equally, this should be a time in which the parents are assured that their student is moving into a safe environment and that this new chapter in their lives will go as smoothly as possible.

The social network a first-year student builds is crucial to persistence in the first year. Over the years their social bonds will only grow, making them feel more comfortable; but the initial bonds are the most important. The social network they build is like a safety net. When times get tough, that’s what they fall back on and the place this network begins is in orientation. Harvard University gives us a great example of a long extended orientation process. All incoming freshman must participate in one of their five (5) week long pre-orientation programs. These programs are geared toward the student’s main academic interest but the main goal is to form a social bond between the students. (CITE)

For example, if you are an art major, you might enroll in the Freshman Arts Program or FAP. In this program 55 students per section are grouped together and stay together all week. This program includes workshops and classes taught by master art instructors at the university. The end of the week culminates “in a collaborative presentation of all-original student work (fondly known as “The Pageant” – this presentation is never the same twice!).” (Pre-orientation) Other programs include a weeklong wilderness trip in Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont. Students spend the week camping, canoeing, or doing community service. After the pre-orientation week, the students return to campus and go through the regular campus tours, class registration, and textbook purchases.

How successful is this program for Harvard University? Harvard’s retention rate for first year freshman is an astonishing, 98%. This the fifth best retention rate in the country. Only Yale and Columbia University have higher percent’s; Brown, Dartmouth, and California institute of Technology also have 98% retention rates. (USnews) This high retention rate could be a combination of many things; the reputation of the college, high academic requirements for entry, financial obligation, or the prestige the student holds when he/she graduates.

Those could be reasons why their retention rate is so high, but why do these freshman stay in when times get tough? It’s because they are connected to other first year students. They know that they have people to fall back on, who understand what they are going through. They have connections to other students and faculty; people that they became close to over the course of pre-orientation and orientation. Harvard’s programs are there to build that first year community, to keep their students strong when they first start out.

Vince Tinto is a distinguished theorist of sociology at Syracuse University. He is a scholar of higher education, especially in areas concerning student retention and learning communities. Tinto acknowledges this trend of social integration in his 1975 book titled Dropout from higher education he says “..social integration occurs through informal peer group associations, semi-formal extracurricular activities, and interaction with faculty and administrative staff.” He goes on to say that these “successful encounters” are important to “social rewards that become part of the person’s generalized evaluation of the costs and benefits of college attendance.”

Furthermore, “social integration should increase the likelihood that the person will remain in college” (pg. 107) This directly relates retention rates to social programs, especially in the first year when there may be no form of pre-college social connections among students. Another need for good orientation programs or summer programs, relates to graduation rates. Generally the student attrition rate is greatest in the first year, then subsequent years the attrition rate falls by almost half per year. By decreasing the attrition rate in the first year you can greatly increase your graduation rate over four years. (promising practices, pg. 37)

Not all colleges have the luxury to send their students on weeklong orientation trips, but there are other ways to get to the end result. For many small colleges, private and public, the orientation process consists of a few days on campus, general workshops, activities, and parent activities. In my experience at the College of Wooster, we met with our RA’s as we moved in, then were greeted with many icebreakers and fun floor activities. This helped us get to know the people we were going to be living with, but also kept things fun. After that the workshops began.

There were many different workshops ranging from necessity of sleep to sexual assault. These workshops were not meant to bring us together as a class like the floor games, but they purpose served to show us that college life is much different. Following the workshops were nightly activities and on our final day we came together as a class. We took our class picture, had a paint fight, and made a huge human chair circle. This stuff may seem kind of ridiculous but it worked just like Harvard’s pre-orientation programs and shows the principle behind Tinto’s theory. Everyone became more comfortable with their floor, their class, and the staff/faculty around them. This success is reflected in Wooster’s freshman retention rate, 89%. (USnews)

My experience at Wittenberg was quite different. The orientation process was short and not very socially engaging. After move in we had a floor meeting where our RA went over the various items we were not allowed to have in our rooms and some of the other big rules across campus. The next day consisted of a few workshops and a tug-o-war between another halls. After that we purchased our books and began classes. There were no full class icebreakers, no floor verse floor competitions, no parent programs, and no formal tour/welcome to campus.

The social connections and bonding was not forced upon us by the college, rather just left for us to do on our own. This lack of social bonder pressure is reflected in Wittenberg’s freshman retention rate. Only 76% of Wittenberg’s freshmen stay at the college. There is not much difference between Wittenberg and Wooster. Bother are private liberal arts college, financially close Wittenberg $38,000/year, Wooster $39,000/year, student enrollment Wittenberg 1,900, Wooster 2,000, and both colleges are well known for their programs. What is the difference? Student orientation.

As you can see, orientation is a very important part of the first year experience. It is vital to student success and graduation rates. Also the more socially structured orientations provide the best outcome. Here at Wittenberg, we need to make some changes. Wittenberg’s orientation program needs to be longer, more interactive between halls, floors, and faculty. By adding just a few icebreakers, and fun competition, we can increase the amount of freshmen that stay after their first year. This would be an easy change that will help improve the college overall.

Works Cited

  1. Vincent, Tinto. Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research. American Education Research Association, 1975. Print
  2. DeWitz, Joseph, Lynn Woosley, Bruce Walsh. College Student Retention: an Exploration of the relationship between self-efficacy beliefs and purpose in life among college students. 2009. Print.
  3. Gaither, Gerald. Promsing Practices in Recruitment, Remediation, and Retention. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999. Print.
  4. USnews, Freshman Retention Rate. 2012. Web. http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities/freshmen-least-most-likely-return
  5. Usnews, Freshman Retention Rate. 2012. Web. http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-liberal-arts-colleges/freshmen-least-most-likely-return/spp%2B50/page+2
  6. Usnews, Freshman Retention Rate. 2012. Web. http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-liberal-arts-colleges/freshmen-least-most-likely-return/spp%2B50/page+4

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