Helping new students find their way
Orientation programs help students become part of the campus community right from the start.
By BEV BETKOWSKI
(Edmonton) As the University of Alberta campus turns its traditional fall shades of green and gold, 4,000 students can expect a warm welcome during various orientations this week.
“It’s always a very exciting day,” says Sarah Howe, program lead for new student orientation. “We want to ensure students feel welcomed into our campus community and provide them with the support and resources they need so they can feel comfortable asking questions. And so they can have fun!”
This year, orientation for students new to campus happens on one day, Aug. 31, instead of two, to make up for a new fall reading week in November. The day is jam-packed with activities, all designed to make students feel welcome and supported as they adjust to a new life journey. To help them out, a crew of 700 friendly volunteers—who were once anxious first-years themselves—are trained and ready to help, Howe says.
“A lot of new students are nervous. They want to meet new friends and they’re excited, but also nervous because they don’t know what to expect,” Howe says. “They just want to feel included.”
The volunteers spend the day with groups of new students, showing them around and encouraging them to get to know one another. Campus tours show them where various buildings are located, and volunteers may also offer their own survival tips on the best places to get coffee, grab a nap or get some study advice.
This year, some of the volunteers are giving formal presentations about what to expect from life as a U of A student, told from a first-person viewpoint, to give newbies a better idea of what to expect in highs and lows from August to April, Howe says.
“It is pulled from the perspective of students and it creates an environment where students learn that it is OK to ask questions and access services, for instance, during exam times, which can be stressful.”
During the latter half of orientation, each faculty also welcomes its students with a dean’s speech and opportunities to find out about faculty-specific student associations and student advisers.
Pizza follows, then everyone is invited to troop down the hill to Hawrelak Park to hear U of A President David Turpin give his first president’s address to open the school year. Edmonton mayor and U of A alumnus Don Iveson and Students’ Union president Navneet Khinda are among others attending the event.
A candlelighting ceremony finishes the day, “igniting the spirit of the student and celebrating the beginning of a new journey for the students,” Howe says.
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Giving students a home base
For 1,250 new students coming to the U of A this fall, they’ll be living away from home for the first time. “Coming from home for the first time, the reassuring resources of friends and family aren’t there,” says Jordan Carson, social media co-ordinator for University of Alberta Residence Services. But BaseCamp, now in its third year, brings new students together for a week of acclimatization and fun from Aug. 25–28, so they can launch friendships and create a neighbourhood for themselves that will sustain them throughout the school year. The program is open to all first-year students in Lister Hall, Résidence Saint-Jean and, participating for the first time, St. Joseph’s College.
“BaseCamp provides a framework for students to get to know one another, settle in and really start to feel at home before facing the challenge of academics,” Carson says. “They realize that they are all going through the same experience, so it doesn’t feel like they’re on their own.”
Programming for the week includes a pizza night, campus and residence tours, and information sessions on academic, mental health and other resources geared to easing students into university life. The week ends with a Day of Service Aug. 28, which sees the students fan out into the surrounding Edmonton community to lend a hand.
This year, they’ll work with community leagues doing some landscaping and painting, run a fun casino for seniors, sort goods at a food bank and recycling centre, and volunteer for various other local organizations.
“The Day of Service is a way to help students, especially those new to Edmonton or even to Canada, engage with the community and familiarize themselves with some of the surrounding area and the people of the city,” Carson says. “They can appreciate that they are part of a larger community and they can also see how deeply the university is involved in surrounding communities.”
A smooth transition for international students Coming to a new school can be daunting enough, but adding a new country and a new culture to the mix can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, international students from more than 140 countries attending the U of A this fall will get a helping hand in learning how to adjust to their new surroundings and ward off isolation and loneliness. “We want to help them feel good about starting their programs here,” says Anica Dang, programs co-ordinator for International Student Services, University of Alberta International. “Students coming from other countries face a unique set of needs, so our goal is to ensure they have a good start and that they are educated about the services available to them on campus. That helps them make a healthy adjustment to life at the U of A.” By using the Campus Check-In service when they arrive, international students can deal with immediate details like getting a cellphone or a place to live, finding a bank or learning where to buy groceries. The check-in remains open to Sept. 11. Then from Aug. 26 to 28, they can attend the Transitions program, which offers three days’ worth of activities to get plugged into life on campus. A booth fair offers one-stop shopping for various services, campus tours are given, and representatives from the U of A and the City of Edmonton greet the newcomers, which Dang says is important for international students “because many of them come from cultures where it means a lot, having a dignitary from the community welcome them.” Specific sessions also address intercultural relations, immigration information, personal and academic well-being, and on the lighter side, tips on “day-to-day life,” Dang says. A crowd favourite, the Aug. 28 sessions touch on how to navigate the city, shop, stay fit through campus recreation services and most important, how to cope with Edmonton’s long winters. Orientation wraps up with a barbecue featuring a photo booth, music, U of A mascots and a special fun activity with the green and gold mittens each Campus Check-In participant receives in a welcome tote bag. The larger U of A community can also help international students feel welcome, Dang notes. “They bring a lot of diversity to campus, and that’s one of the things that makes the U of A such a great university. So during orientation, we really encourage the community to reach out to these students. They chose the U of A, they want to meet Canadians and they are more than happy to make connections with staff and students who are here.”
Building Bridges for Aboriginal students
Frybread and friendship will be served up during the Bridges orientation Aug. 27 and 28, welcoming all First Nations, Métis and Inuit students who are new to campus. The program, offered by the Aboriginal Student Services Centre (ASSC) and sponsored by Shell Canada, aims to introduce them to the many support services at the U of A, and to have fun along the way.
“Aboriginal students, like rural or international students, may come from communities smaller than campus, and that can feel intimidating,” says Tricia Beaudry, Aboriginal student adviser. “We want these students to feel welcome, to make a friend and to know that there is a lot of support on campus.”
The Bridges orientation session opens with a traditional smudge or prayer led by an elder, then offers campus tours, a library tour, tips on how to navigate Bear Tracks and E-class, and information on how and where to access student services. Students are also welcomed by faculty advisers, who share information about their specific faculties and provide a friendly face students can connect with throughout the school year.
“When a student feels involved in campus, it becomes a home away from home,” Beaudry says.
Students also get U of A mugs and T-shirts as gifts “so they feel they are a part of the university.” A traditional lunch of Indian tacos, bannock and frybread is served the first day, pizza the next, along with vegetarian and gluten-free options, and the orientation concludes with a talk from Aboriginal novelist Richard Van Camp.
The Aboriginal Week of Welcome (TAWOW), also organized by the ASSC, wraps up the week in the Education Gym with an information fair and, for every Aboriginal student who attends TAWOW, a new U of A backpack from an anonymous donor.
Supporting graduate students
The 7,600 graduate students studying and working at the U of A at any given time play a vital role in furthering research and enriching the academic community through their intensive work. Feeling supported while here is important to their success, says Denise Giles, communications associate for the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research. Working with the U of A Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), the two groups offer a full slate of services to help ensure students have what they need during the average three to six years they spend here.
“Graduate students are juggling a life, a heavy course load, sometimes parenting and family—a lot of responsibilities—so our goal is to let them know we are here as a resource for them and that they feel supported from the time they are admitted to their convocation day. Orientation shows them the support services that are available to them,” Giles says.
GSA hosts an orientation information fair for all new and current graduate students Aug. 28 at the Telus Centre, where FGSR and other U of A service providers will also have booths. Students receive an introduction to all the services they are entitled to as automatic members of the GSA, such as health and dental benefits and financial assistance, as well as information about parenting and child care; career counselling; and legal, financial and nutritional consultation. The faculty, which will also be at the Transitions orientation for international students, also offers support services, among them $26 million in scholarship funding and ongoing professional development, which provides skills as they ready themselves for careers.
“We provide lots of opportunities for students to learn about themselves and increase their professional skills,” Giles says.