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A girl leading a group of students up a flight of stairs.

A University of Minnesota orientation leader--one of 26 this summer--leading a group of new students and their parents on a campus tour.

Home away from home

By Pauline Oo

June 30, 2006

How does an office of seven people manage more than 5,000 new college students and close to 4,000 eager--and some, probably, anxious--parents?

With very good planning and 26 super friendly orientation leaders.

Every summer, the University of Minnesota's Orientation and First-Year Programs (OFYP) coordinates multiple orientation sessions for students who are entering the Twin Cities campus in the fall. This year, 5,400 first-year students and about 4,000 parents or guardians will go through the program on June 7 to July 14; about 2,000 transfer students and 200 parents between August 7 and September 1; and approximately 800 graduate students from August 22 to 26.

The award-winning program has drawn attention from peer institutions, namely for its Web innovations. In addition to a two-day orientation (one day for parents), freshmen can continue to enhance their knowledge of the U over the summer through a Web portal. The MyU: University of Minnesota public portal gives, for example, the Class of 2010 timely information related to financial aid and course schedules, as well as a daily link to going-ons at their enrolled college.

"A lot of people in the Big 10 look to each other for ideas on how best meet the changing needs of our students," says Lisa Gruszka, the U's associate director for orientation. Feedback from the students themselves is also valuable. Gruszka says her office is able to consistently provide top quality service and meet parent and student expectations during the orientation sessions thanks to "real-time evaluations." Students, and their parents, are encouraged to submit written and verbal feedback daily or while they are undergoing the orientation.

A typical summer orientation involves optional activities on the first morning for students and their parents--families can choose to meet a financial aid counselor, visit a residence hall room, go on a campus tour, or learn about study abroad and how to pay their bills. Following an official U welcome, the students and parents go their separate ways.

The students are placed in small groups based on their college of enrollment. Each group is assigned an orientation leader, a current student who shepherds the group to meetings to learn about their college's expectations and how to register for classes. At the end of the first day, the students and parents reunite and attend a session to learn about the U card, the multipurpose University of Minnesota student ID card. After that, the students leave again for evening activities and spend the night in Frontier Hall.

Taking care of the parents

When Marj Savage was hired at the U in 1993, part of her job was to start a newsletter for parents. University Parent began that year and continues to this day as a quarterly publication that's mailed to parents of full-time undergraduate students who have enrolled at the U within the last five years. It has a circulation of about 20,000.

That was just the beginning. The newsletter begat a program, which now provides a number of communications vehicles, including e-mail messages, which are sent to parents about every two weeks with information about pending deadlines, campus news, and special notices; a question-and-answer service provided by Savage herself for phone or e-mail queries; and the University Parent Web site, which provides updated information in categories such as "News Updates," "Timely Issues," and a "Question of the Month." Recently, the Parent Program began offering online workshops for parents. Last fall, it offered a workshop on mental health, which received about 700 hits in the first two weeks.

All of these efforts have put the University at the forefront of parent communications. Savage won the national Susan E. Brown Award earlier this year "for outstanding contributions to programs and services for parents of college and university students."

"Students are going to be [in college] alone, so the idea behind this separation [of child from parent during orientation], really, is, let's get that process started early," says Gruszka.

Mother and daughter embracing.
Mother and daughter embrace during summer orientation at the University of Minnesota.

For parents, orientation means a chance "to learn how the U works," says Gruszka. For example, parents learn about the advising process from their child's college, billing from the One Stop office, and how to support their students in the transition to college life from the Parent Program. "This is their opportunity to become familiar with the campus and where their students are going to be living," says Gruszka.

Over the past decade, freshman applications to the Twin Cities campus have increased by more than 70 percent, while the number of high school graduates in Minnesota has increased by only 20 percent. Enrollment of freshman students of color has increased by 65 percent since 1992. These application numbers show that students recognize what the U offers, says Provost Tom Sullivan, "and that includes a wide range of areas in which to major and the opportunity to study with top faculty."

The University of Minnesota's summer orientation sessions join a host of other offerings at the U designed to improve the freshman experience, including a revitalized Coffman Union, a restored Jones Hall that serves as a welcome center, streamlined class registration and financial aid services, and the rebirth of convocation.

Further reading From weeks to minutes: A big college puts orientation registration online PG-2006: Parental Guidance Accepted Class of 2008: M follows two students as they navigate the first-year experience Class of 2008: Making the grade