Illinois colleges consider issue-based orientations

By Debbie Kosinski

Remember high school summer reading lists? Some colleges are incorporating this idea into their freshmen orientation assignments, along with some requiring service projects and other hands-on activities.

Although most universities that adopt this type of regimen are small, private, Ivy League schools, state schools like NIU, EIU, U of I and ISU are looking at these programs with interest.

NIU’s orientation program is a one-day affair in which prospective freshmen are familiarized with the university through testing, advising and registration.

Denise Rode, associate director of NIU’s Orientation and Student Assistance Office, said the orientation programs of the smaller schools seem very beneficial for incoming students. However, since NIU is such a large school, having students meet with faculty for discussions on required texts or checking up on students about service projects seems to be an impossibility.

“An orientation program, such as Brandeis’ or Dartmouth’s could be a valuable thing to do if the students could understand why we (NIU) are asking them to do it,” Rode remarked. “If the required texts or service projects could be tied in with a common experience to all incoming freshmen, then it would make sense to do it.”

Dartmouth College in New Hampshire has its incoming freshmen watch a number of skits, written and performed by upperclassmen, that focus on homosexuality, racism and other cultural differences.

Rode explained that these differences are usually not real to freshmen until midway through their semester. Thus, freshmen may not see the value in learning about these issues beforehand, she said.

Mary Jo Fabich, ISU coordinator of Orientation and Transitional Services, said ISU holds skits during its two-day orientation program that focus on issues similar to Dartmouth’s. This form of education is common to most colleges these days, she said.

Fabich did not think a university the size of ISU could adopt the same pre-orientation assignments as other colleges.

“It’s impossible to have each student read a book before orientation and go into discussion groups at orientation. I also don’t think it’s feasible to say that we could organize the same for service projects,” she said.

Terry Tumbarello, a representative from EIU’s Orientation Office, said the orientation assignments other schools require sound like excellent ideas, although they may not work for EIU.

“My institution is slightly conservative,” Tumbarello said. “Every campus has different environments, and things that are good for one campus aren’t necessarily good for others.”

EIU’s orientation is an intense one-day program during which prospective freshmen must take a math placement test, take a tour of campus, receive information about every EIU office and meet with an academic adviser to register for classes.

Students also can choose to see a skit titled “Speed bumps and Potholes” that deals with AIDS, alcohol and campus safety issues, which parallels the skits done at Dartmouth.

Tumbarello said imposing reading requirements for orientation and service projects would not be very likely to work at EIU.

“EIU would have to incorporate these orientation assignment ideas into our curriculum to ensure that the students are doing them,” he said.

Jen Mach, NIU senior art history major and intern at the orientation office, said that if a text is required for orientation, then it would have to be used in some class or the students will not read it.

“Students just have so much to do before college and if there’s no clear incentive on why to read the book, students won’t read it,” she said.

Rode said she agreed with this and also pointed out that for NIU to start requiring these new orientation assignments, NIU would have to extend its orientation program. This would make orientation more expensive for all involved and some parents may not be able to attend.

“NIU has one of the highest participation rates for family members at orientation because everyone is usually able to get this one day off work to attend,” Rode said.

Rhonda Kirts, assistant dean at the U of I’s Office of Students, explained that during U of I’s two-day orientation program, attending students choose two subjects and listen to their respective professors detail course expectations.

Kirts said U of I currently is looking at adopting similar pre-orientation assignments such as the ones found at smaller private schools.

“Students might be required to read a text or a work of an author that is to be studied in a freshmen-level class,” she said. “U of I’s Council on Undergraduate Education just started looking into this possibility.”

Rode said she was not aware of any new programs coming up for NIU’s orientation program, however the program is continuously changing as issues’ importance evolve every year.