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We have begun the process of fundamentally reconceptualizing the process by which students are welcomed into the Michigan State University community.

"Those who are young today are born into a world in which the foundations of the older order survive only as habits or by default."

Walter Lippman, Drift and Mastery


We have begun the process of fundamentally reconceptualizing the process by which students are welcomed into the Michigan State University community. For decades, orientation at MSU operated as part of the Office of Admissions, and as such it was conceived as part of the recruitment process. This meant that a critical part of orientation focused on activities that would increase retention of prospective students after they paid their deposits. Under this framework, MSU's orientation was very successful; nearly 99% of students who attended AOP returned to start the school year as first-year students.

Over the years, orientation evolved into the Academic Orientation Program (AOP) with an increasing emphasis on academic issues, and it migrated from the Office of Admissions to the Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education (APUE) about three years ago. As part of the APUE, the structural limitations of AOP quickly became apparent as the small staff (the smallest orientation staff in the Big Ten, in fact) admirably managed a complex and competing set of demands. The model that MSU uses to welcome its students is simply not sustainable; we have asked AOP to do too much with too few resources and within an administrative structure that is ill-suited to what we asked of it.

Last month, we decided to address the challenges we face in welcoming new students to MSU by reimagining orientation. Recent research by higher education scholars, innovations by peer institutions, technological advancements, and cultural and demographic changes in MSU’s incoming classes combine to offer us an opportunity to fundamentally redesign orientation to allow it to even better support student learning and success. We have assembled a team drawn from different parts of MSU and asked APUE Assistant Dean Korine Wawrzynski to help guide their work. The team is led by Dr. Niki Rudolph, the director of student affairs for the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and also includes Kyle Carter, the former assistant director of residence education for the River Trail Neighborhood; Heather Shea, who leads the co-curricular record project and was formerly the assistant program director for the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment; Laurin Gierman, catering operations manager with the Kellogg Center who has managed logistics for very large conferences at MSU; and Amber Cordell, the educational programs manager from the Office for International Students and Scholars. 

Through their educational backgrounds, their previous experiences with orientation programs, and relationships with campus partners, these team members understand that orientation is vital to students’ introduction to the campus and their success as undergraduate students. They have agreed to lead a process of re-imagining MSU’s orientation to expand its capacity to advance student success and MSU’s other community goals. They will engage the MSU community to design and, together with the current orientation staff, run the orientations that take place before the Spring, Summer, and Fall 2019 semesters. In doing so, they will help us begin to realize some of the opportunities available for us to use orientation to better support student learning and success. This new vision for orientation necessitates a new name: "New Student Orientation.”

Our first charge to the orientation team was to create an explicit set of values that would guide both their work and the goals of orientation at MSU. New Student Orientation (NSO) will welcome new students to our community while supporting their successful transition to and success at MSU through the following foundational values:

Connection: at NSO, students will begin to develop meaningful and caring relationships, interdependence, and collaboration in forming a sense of belonging and community at MSU.

Empowerment: NSO empowers students to take ownership of their learning through reflection, choice, and action to align their college experience with their personal and career goals.

Engagement: NSO promotes the first stages of students’ deep engagement in their college experience to foster their academic, personal, and professional success. Students leave NSO feeling like the experience was worthwhile and meaningful, and that they were “seen and heard.”

Exploration: At NSO, students have the opportunity to continue the process of discovery, of themselves, their academic and co-curricular interests, and their life’s purpose by engaging and connecting with resources in our community.

Inclusion: NSO values an inclusive and equitable orientation process that supports students’ identities, works to dismantle barriers to access, and welcomes all students to the Spartan community.

Innovation: Using innovative technologies and methods, NSO introduces students to the many tools with which they can create inventive, efficient, sustainable, and evolutionary ideas and solutions.

The above values also guide the NSO team of professional and student staff:

Connection: The NSO team will form mutually responsive, collaborative relationships with campus partners, students, and their families to support student success and ease student transitions.

Empowerment: The NSO team is empowered to take ownership of key aspects of orientation and work transparently, productively, and interdependently toward achieving our goals.

Engagement: The NSO team will engage a cross-functional and multi-disciplinary advisory group in reimagining NSO for 2019 and beyond. The team will also engage the broader campus community in providing input and feedback.

Exploration: The NSO team will explore national best practices, gather information from other institutions, engage in professional development, and ask for feedback from stakeholders to enact change.

Inclusion: The NSO team will value all voices and seek diverse perspectives with the aim of intentionally centering equity and inclusion in our work with students, faculty, and staff.

Innovation: The NSO team will approach their work with a growth mindset as they explore the many innovative ways that orientation can best meet the needs of the diverse student body at MSU.

The NSO team has devoted the month of October to pursuing an open and transparent process for rethinking orientation. They have held open meetings to hear MSU community members’ concerns and used online surveying to hear from parents, staff, advisors, and faculty. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to tell them your thoughts by filling out the New Student Orientation feedback form

The NSO leaders have learned a great deal, and they have generated some ideas for a new structure that would enable orientation to better meet student needs. Throughout the month of November, they will begin rolling out draft proposals to the MSU community and all of the stakeholders in MSU’s orientation for a modified orientation program that will be offered in January and May, 2019, and a substantially new orientation program in June and July, 2019.

After we devote a year initiating a culture of reform and community-wide engagement toward reimagining MSU’s orientation, we will undertake a national search for a new director charged with continuing the reform effort.

This is difficult work, and frankly it comes at a difficult time in MSU’s history. There are many other competing demands for our time and attention, and we have to do this work in as student-centered and a cost-effective a way as possible. But this is important work, and when we do it correctly – with transparency, inclusion, and open-mindedness – it will free us of many of the limitations that had plagued AOP and that had required unnecessary effort to work around. We have now, if we are willing to seize it, the opportunity to change for the better not only orientation, but the ways in which the campus works collaboratively and transparently to improve student learning and success.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email largent@msu.edu.

Mark Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.