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Connecting Freshman to Campus

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Illustration by Sara Franklin

A couple of years ago, Bettie Ann Brigham spotted the father of an Eastern University freshman walking slowly up a path on campus and stopped him to check in. “Is your daughter nervous?” Brigham asked.

“No,” replied the father. “I’m the one that’s a wreck.”

He may have sobbed the whole way home, but, chances are, his freshman daughter was just fine. And if she did have any problems, Brigham and the rest of the folks at Eastern would be there to help her handle them—and not just at orientation. Today’s colleges and universities recognize the need to provide strong foundations for first-year students—the better to help them succeed in the classroom and with other components of campus life. 

Through a variety of integrated programs, today’s institutions aim to create a comfortable environment where newcomers can overcome issues that could make their early days difficult, or perhaps even tough enough to torpedo the rest of their time at school. “Historically, people always thought students would go to orientation and be set,” says Jennifer R. Keup, director of the 28-year-old National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, based out of the University of South Carolina. “But the first-year experience isn’t just one program; it’s a constellation of support programs.”

In the not-so-distant past, a three-day orientation was deemed sufficient. The goal now is to place students into a system that provides long-term support. But this isn’t about administrators acting as surrogate parents. It’s more like a bridge from one world to the next, with way stations to mark progress and troubleshoot problems. “We want freshmen feeling like they’ve made some connections, friendship wise,” says Kathy Byrnes, associate vice president for student life at Villanova University. “We want them to have a connection to campus.”

Another major component is teaching new students how to direct their campus experiences and engage in their new surroundings. Byrnes says four out of five students with whom she speaks agree that self-management is the toughest adjustment they’ll make. 

In order to make acclimation a little easier, Bryn Mawr College has its first-year students take a wellness course that addresses the concept of transitioning from high school to college. Among the areas covered: how to handle stress, the importance of getting proper rest, substance abuse, even women’s self-defense.

For the first time this year, Bryn Mawr is offering a twice-weekly session for up to 15 students that favors a more introspective approach. Christina Rose, an assistant dean at Bryn Mawr, is teaching the course. “We’re trying to get them to think about who they are,” she says. “We want them to think about how they learn. What are their strengths? Are they visual learners or stronger in quantitative terms?”

It’s a nontraditional approach, that’s for sure. Students will meditate and learn stress-reduction techniques, while discussing the difficulties of staying true to themselves as they seek a place within a larger group. 

Taking a proactive approach, Bryn Mawr administrators will identify newcomers who may be more inclined to struggle, and then suggest that they take the class. If things go as Rose plans, the course will grow to accommodate the school’s approximately 300 conscripts.

“For most students, being away at college is a whole-new experience,” Rose says. “Unless they went to boarding school, the freedom and independence of that first year can be really overwhelming for some. There’s no longer a safety net, and there is a lot of trial and error.”

Like Bryn Mawr, Haverford College is interested in making sure there is much less room for error—at least, catastrophic error—in those first months. To that end, Haverford enlists the help of 180 upperclassmen during orientation. Between 14 and 20 freshmen are teamed up with eight juniors and seniors. Some will stay with the newbies for the entire year as resident advisers and academic counselors. More than anything else, the weeklong program attempts to provide some serious social engagement for students. 

As Haverford College’s dean of first-year students, Michael Martinez tries to meet with every student early on. “I want to eliminate some of the stigma of meeting with the dean,” he says. “The message is clear for people who work with new students on campus.”