My College Orientation

By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute 

About a month ago, I was privileged to participate in the annual “college orientation” indoctrination process at a major public institution. My middle son is off to college in a few weeks, and, for our part, we were to visit the institution, he was to stay over the night, and I was to hang out at the campus for a day and a half.

[Editor’s Note: Please understand. This piece is not meant to serve as a diatribe about how awful or how great this orientation was. It was both. I simply want to offer some thoughts on how the process impacted me, given my background as a policy wonk and a parent. I also don’t want to come off as overly negative about the process. I could certainly write both sides. But I do want to point out some things that surprised, if not astonished, me during orientation, many of which are negative. So there is my front-loaded mea culpa.]

Those of us in the higher education world understand that the theory behind the orientation process is to acclimatize students and family members to the institution, leaving everyone with a little less vagueness, unfamiliarity, and, hopefully, less anxiousness about the transition process. After 18 years, your son or daughter will go away, far from your protection, and you are paying another institution to take care of them with the same kindness, appreciation, and wall of safety that you provided. And all the while you’re trying to convince yourself of that, you clearly understand that part of you will leave, either never to come back, or never come back the same. Those are the only two realities. It’s truly heartbreaking.

This was one of approximately 10 separate orientation “weekends” (they actually aren’t on a weekend, but that’s essentially what they are) held at this university for approximately 7,000 new students. At this session, there must have been over 700 students and over 1,400 people in attendance. The university had specially-printed programs for this particular orientation, although they handed out the wrong ones to the participants and had to exchange them later for the correct programs. This was important because the schedules for the two were completely different.

We were somewhat anxious before the orientation, in part because we weren’t told exactly where to go, and not even exactly when. I received no email or mail with the information, and the website was down when I went to look for myself. Even then, there were several “404” errors on their related webpages. Once I did navigate to the right place (days later but the day before orientation), I was able to download the limited information.

On the first morning, we show up at campus and tried to find where to start and where to park. We finally asked someone from the university and got pointed correctly (campuses are always a bit challenging). When we got into the hall, they asked me if this was the first-time I had a child going to college. I said no, so they added an “expert” ribbon to my nametag. True, I was an expert. I felt honored, until later when I realized that the ribbon did nothing for us. We still got herded in the same places with the same information as everyone else. Hmmmm. I was hoping for a get out of jail free card, I’m thinking.

The session started in the concert hall, where 34 student leaders creatively introduced themselves, mostly through rap. For the record, the white kids still couldn’t rap. Just sayin. But all in all, it was very entertaining, effective, and kicked things off to the right start. In fact, the leader who identified himself as from “Virginia Beach” got my attention, and I did search him out later to ask him specific questions. So this strategy worked very well.

Truth be told, I must say that I felt like I was at an AMWAY meeting during most of the 1.5-day event (and yes, I have been to an AMWAY meeting before. Once.). The psychology of an orientation is solid: make everyone feel part of the larger group and create a linkage with the entity. Solidarity, if you may. The university tries to get everyone to yell out of the name of the institution (almost like a rock concert: “Hello, New York!), learn the institutional fight song (and yes, they taught 1,400 of us how to do that), and use humor and other heart-tugging devices to get closer to the place where I will spend about $100,000 in in-state tuition, fees, and probably emergency-room-related fees for my son. For people who know me, they know this “isn’t” me at all. I wanted to pull the fire alarm so we could disperse. For others, orientation provides the necessary comfort therapy to leave their child at college and, as the Germans like to say, rip themselves together.

During orientation, I appreciated everything the college student leaders had to say, and they said quite a lot. Most of the orientation focused on students and was presented by students. I thought this was great, because who were new freshman students going to listen to? People like us? Fifty-five year old Deans and VPs? Um. No. This was smart. The students were well prepared and the institution chose leaders who would make the institution look good. Well done.

The biggest disappointment, perhaps, was the horrible and brutal presentations and introductions by those 55-year old leaders of the institution. Ghastly, unrelentingly bad work by those who should have been better. First by the VP for Admissions, in charge of the orientation, who had no humor or timing, really no vital information, and dragged on far too long. We were all pleading: please bring back the students!  

I was also disappointed with the esteemed Dean of one the schools, who, when talking to us parents (students were ushered elsewhere for hopefully something better) puttered on about how great her department was. We didn’t care. We already drank that Kool-Aid when we signed our future retirement funds away to send our kids here. We’re here, by God. Tell us what we need to know, not what you want us to hear.

The presentation by the financial aid office, which required us each to sit with our child(ren), was quite possibly the worst presentation, or one of, that I have ever had to sit through in my professional life. I’m not trying to sugarcoat, here, but I am at a loss how this could have ever been voted on in a planning meeting. Perhaps the most important information to everyone in the room—financial aid—was so poorly handled, with the most monotone presentation, in a large, dark, low-ceiling room, with, yes, 1,400 people, where someone at the back yelled “we can’t hear you”—and, of course, the obligatory PowerPoint from hell. At the start of the presentation I leaned over to my son and said, “listen to this—THIS is very important.” Well, it wasn’t. At least this presentation wasn’t very important. I would have to do this myself later. Even as a so-called expert on financial aid policy, I was hoping to learn something I did not know to make the mind-numbing financial process easier or more understandable. However, this was an Epic Fail on the part of the university, and the low point, to be sure. And while everyone was probably patting him on the back after saying what a great job he did, let’s be real: he lost us at Hello.

Later in the day, the parents sat around round tables to talk about our issues and experiences. Not to be a surprise, I was at the back table trying to find a place where people wouldn’t notice me, and where I could potentially escape with little attention and get a little work done on my laptop. I sat at a table with three other ladies, all of whom were very nice. I think they felt like me, which is probably why they were similarly sitting in the back. We had a little patter, but none of us really wanted to talk about our experience. It was “fine.” Being the late afternoon of Day 1, we were kind of done and tired. But the university wanted us to bond more, so they left a dozen or so pipe cleaners in the middle of the table of various colors and asked us to make a shape that best represents how we feel.

I almost died.

Three college degrees, 30 years as an educator and/or in education-related work, and I’m relegated to Romper Room (yes, that dates me considerably).

Again, I get what they were doing. I’m ok. But… we were tired. And then… they asked us to “share.”

I felt the flatlining coming hither.

At our table, two of us clearly weren’t into the process at all. The parent across from me took three pipe cleaners and entwined them together. As she said, this represented the connection between her, her daughter, and the institution. Bring me a bucket. The person to my right made her pipe cleaner into a dollar sign, and she wasn’t the only one in the room to do so (that should say something, shouldn’t it?). Others, including grown men, made hearts out of their materials. And, of course, when they asked people to share across the room, there were lots of people prepared to do so. Some were funny. Some were scary.

But here is what killed me the most about orientation. On the morning of Day 2, new students were to get their ID cards and, at that time, course registration was to begin. And guess what? There was NO guidance and NO counseling to help students pick their class schedule. I was incredulous that they expected students to choose their courses with no individual help from counselors and/or others. Let alone that they were told that many of the necessary English and mathematics courses were already “sold” out. Unbelievable.

So, here is the real learning point from my orientation experience: teach your child to be his or her best advocate because you cannot expect anyone else to take on that role. I took it upon myself to find someone of leadership who would tell us more about course registration. We found one of the VPs, who said, “well, didn’t they go over that in your school/department session?” Um. No. The Dean was too busy patting her back and showing off her unique double-jointedness. This VP was great, though. She immediately got on the phone to the counseling department. They closed in 20 minutes, so we booked it over to the other building that we didn’t know existed and found the office with about 5 minutes to spare (at which time, the entire adult workforce of the campus completely disappeared (seriously; it was like watching ants move from pesticide). We sat down with the counselor, who is also looking at the clock wondering what the hell we are doing there. But in his favor, he sits and asks what he can do for us. My son states (because I said this was his gig, not mine) that he didn’t know what courses he should take now as opposed to later. And the counselor was great. He immediately printed out a piece a paper and started circling what he called the courses to never, ever look at, and underlined those that my son needed to fit in to his schedule.

For a 10-minute period of time, we got exactly what we needed. And we got it on our own. I’m sure we were a small fraction of the 700 new students and parents that were similarly satisfied that day. I understand that orientation is a numbers game, but I am beside myself that they expect all these students to register for courses without a one-on-one counseling session. A hundred grand and this is the best they can do? Wow.

We thanked the counselor and went for the lollapalooza of a dinner in the courtyard, complete with a student-led jazz band (very good). My son and I got our plates and sat and listened to music. We were cooked, so to speak. The food, by the way, was the best thing of the orientation. They sure pulled the stops out on that one.

We weren’t quite done. My son was told to try and do his math placement test (this for someone who took AP calc in high school), so we found that building at about 6pm and were told it was closing and couldn’t complete it in time. He would have to do it online later, even though he could not register his math class until it was done. By the way, a month later and test completed weeks ago, he still cannot find a section of that course that fits in his schedule. Comforting.

There is much more to this story, of course, but this was the essence of my orientation experience. Everything was not lost, and it surely was not dismal. In a nutshell, there were just too much of the things that didn’t matter and too little of things that did.

In another week, I’m going to have to rip myself together and watch my son leave home, hoping that everything sorts out and the institution takes good care of my little boy.

Heartbreaking.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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2 Responses to My College Orientation

  1. I’m glad that wasn’t my university (we only had about 4000 students for orientation). It does sound like the administrators at the school are incompetent, though. I bet they get paid as if they were solely responsible for all good things at the school, and none of the bad.

  2. Shirley says:

    No counselors?! Seems like a McDonald’s attitude at that college.
    Thankfully, my dd is headed to a state school (about 8,000 students) with people who are willing to help her register and easy to contact via email.
    No math placement test for her (she took calc).

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