While institutions across the nation continue to finalize their Fall opening plans, many of them have opted-in for a virtual orientation program. About a year ago, I shared a blog post on what I remembered about orientation as a low-income, first-generation student. Although orientation is understood as an opportunity for newly admitted students to learn more about their campus, I reflected on the lasting memories I had during my orientation that made me feel unprepared and unwelcomed.
Although many students will be having this orientation experience virtually, it is important to consider how these virtual programs may be an incoming student’s first experience at an institution. Every effort should be taken in order to ensure that these programs are welcoming. For the past few weeks, I have participated in dozens of virtual programming — some social for an opportunity to learn more about colleagues, some informative to learn about data trends or resources that affect the work that I engage in, and some that are interactive. ranging from having 15-20 participants to over 200. I have also spoken to friends in different industries about their experiences working in virtual settings. Through these conversations and experiences, I considered what colleges and universities can do to make sure these types of programs are inclusive. Here are some suggestions:
- Not everyone can use a virtual background. Virtual backgrounds seem like a great option to offer students who may not want their surroundings to be visible to their peers. However, what happens if their technology is not updated enough to be able to use virtual background settings? The attempt to provide everyone with the same background may backfire if one or some students aren’t able to get it to work on their devices. In sessions I’ve participated in, I’ve appreciated when facilitators encourage us to participate via video if we can but also acknowledge that it may not be an option for all of us at the moment. I appreciate not feeling guilty if I do not share my video at all or if I am able to mute my video momentarily to deal with sudden changes or distractions in my environment.
- Give a heads up about materials needed for an ice-breaker. One ice-breaker that I’ve heard of that sounds fun to me but may be hard for others are those that require you to grab something nearby and talk about how it relates to a question. For example, I’ve heard of an activity where a participant had to grab something that represents their culture, their personality or hobby, and their favorite book. How about suggesting them to share a slide with images of these things to avoid a student who may not have access to books at the moment, or simply does not have things readily available to show everyone? The intent of these activities is to have students open up and learn more about each other, but you just do not know what everyone is going through right now. If you proceed with this type of activity, the least you can do is offer the students instructions in advance to prepare and give the option to participate in different ways.
- Avoid asking participants what they did over the summer. In the prior blog post I referred to, I shared my experience of being with a group of dorm room peers and the RA asked us to talk about what we did during the summer. While the socio-economic make-up of student bodies vary widely across institutions, at mine, most students in my group traveled all over the world, had internships, and participated in pre-orientation programs that I still cannot afford. Even though we are in a pandemic right now, it seems like the more financial resources you have access to, the more flexibility you have in enjoying your summer. It can be off-putting to a student when everyone else reflects on exciting things while others had to take classes in the summer to catch up, or had a very difficult summer given what is going on in the world right now.
- Accessibility and on-going instruction of how to engage with virtual programming. Every platform is slightly different and offers different interactive tools to participants. Don’t assume everyone has an advanced understanding of how to use the platform in which you are providing the virtual program. Dedicate time in the beginning to go over the functions that participants are encouraged to use (and provide this information in advance). You should also consider live captioning given audio quality issues and sensitivity to folks who prefer or need captioning.
- When creating groups for virtual programming, consider asking for the time zone of where students will be during the day of the program. Do not assume their home address is their current address when assigning groups for orientation sessions. A lot has changed over the past couple of months, and you would want to avoid scheduling a student to participate in a session that is at a time where they would normally be sleeping.
- Consider ways to engage student families. For institutions that are completely virtual or hybrid this semester, many students will be in school at home. Their families or whoever they live with will experience the semester with them. Liliana Castro, Director of Orientation and Family Engagement at Harvard College, stressed the importance of involving families with orientation this year. She said, “We are actively engaging parents during our orientation program and making sure that our videos and program materials are accessible to Harvard students and their families in the top two languages that are spoken at home.” There are third-party vendors who offer these types of services or you can try to use free online services like YouTube captioning.
- Don’t ask about surroundings or noises. Did you see someone walk by the screen? Heard a sudden noise? Noticed that a participant looked away momentarily? Reactionary questioning is off-putting and simply intrusive. Maybe it was a pet or family member that the participant wouldn’t mind sharing. However, what if it’s not?
I’m sure there are many other things we can do to create more inclusive and effective programs to engage incoming first-year students. However, these are some tangible, easy steps institutions can take to ensure that what they have planned in the upcoming weeks is not off-putting to their students.