Up and down the country new students are preparing to head off to university for the first time (some of them perhaps arriving via luxury transport as has been noted here before). At the very outset of their higher education journey they will encounter the wonders (and horrors) of welcome events, freshers’ week or orientation – whatever it might be called – but the nature and suitability of these is increasingly a big issue for universities and new students around the country.
There have been real changes to freshers’ week in recent years as many universities and students’ unions have moved away from the stereotypical boozefest beloved of tabloid writers everywhere to something which caters for a much more diverse intake, especially international students and those who prefer not to drink.
There are now many more creative approaches designed to help students orientate themselves to university life and their new surroundings, support them through what can be a difficult transition and ensure they don’t immediately pack their bags and head for home. This is not about training students to cope with excess and little sleep but about preparing them for the demands of academic study, ensuring they have got all the tools they need to enable them to start their courses and signposting other resources. The many and varied registration, enrolment, visa requirements also need to be navigated.
There is also the need to get across some serious messages about the unacceptability of sexual harassment as well as ensuring students are aware of all of the welfare services available to them, including mental health support. At the same time there is still, of course, plenty of room for the traditional, and essential, freshers’ fair, showcasing the students’ union, its representative and democratic structures, and all of the many and varied student societies.
But beyond this there is a range of somewhat strange approaches to induction as this EAB report notes in relation to some US universities. This includes students at MIT building a rollercoaster for new students to ride on and then these three:
All new students receive an acorn at the end of New Student Convocation to symbolize the start of their higher education—and at graduation, each one receives an oak sapling marking their growth on campus and future growth as life-long learners.
During the First-Year Walk, new students trace the same path Abraham Lincoln did from Baltimore Street to the National Cemetery site where they hear a reading of the Gettysburg Address.
The day before the first day of fall term, every person at the school lines up for “Pumphandle.” One by one, each student, faculty member, staffer, and administrator shakes each other’s hands.
Those acorns and handshakes could really get out of hand if student numbers were to expand greatly.
Things are pretty wild at Unity College too:
At Unity, the summer leading up to the first semester of classes is an adventure—literally. Groups of 12 students spend a week together in the Maine wilderness during the Nova program, named for Maine’s Lake Nova.
They can’t bring cell phones. There are no parents or faculty. It’s just a group of students who can express how they’re feeling about college and what they want for their future. The students go backpacking, kayaking, and canoeing. They also complete community service projects together.
Some odd things do happen in the UK too, e.g. at St Andrews where Raisin Monday is a particular highlight for freshers. But my personal favourite (although obviously I am biased) remains the Nottingham Reading Programme here at the University of Nottingham. This year’s book is Brave New World.
This is the third full year of the programme where we provide a book to all new starters, encourage them to read it and then offer opportunities to discuss it with others in their halls or elsewhere on campus. It’s not a new idea having been common in the US for many years and other UK universities do it too but I do think it remains a really positive contributor to helping new students orientate themselves to university life.