grass field in the spring

Dr. Portia Watkins, the new director of New Student Orientation, was already walking into a big job. Then the pandemic happened.
Dr. Portia Watkins, the new director of New Student Orientation (NSO), was already walking into a big job. NSO is the first touchpoint for new Spartans at Michigan State University: acclimation, acculturation, and celebration, all rolled into one. NSO’s job is crucial and multidimensional: these newly-minted Spartans must learn the geography of a huge campus, get their IDs, and develop the skills to navigate MSU’s plethora of resources and organizations. Ideally, NSO will also leave those arriving on our campus for the first time—often from other states and countries—feel welcome and respected.

Watkins takes the mantle of NSO director at one of the most fraught times in the history of our institution, and indeed our nation. With so many logistical uncertainties ahead, Watkins knows the one thing she can control is the set of core NSO values.

“New student orientation is the first place where we should start cultivating a sense of belonging,” says Watkins. “It’s the students’ first opportunity to understand our culture and values. Regardless of what they think they know about MSU, or what they’ve heard, we want them to have their own experience.”

Watkins is accustomed to helping students make the undergraduate experience their own; before stepping into her current position, she worked in MSU’s Department of Student Life as an assistant director for Registered Student Organizations (RSO), where she helped manage the university’s 950 official student-run groups.

Her work with a broad spectrum of RSOs at MSU, and previously at the University of Cincinnati, around accessibility, DEI, and leadership development ideally poised Watkins to create a welcoming experience for students from all backgrounds.

That breadth of perspective is mirrored in her professional methodology: she sees the student journey at MSU holistically--that means cross bridges and working with other units.

“I like to get information that helps enhance the student experience wherever I can,” says Watkins, who has co-chaired the Student Affairs and Services Assessment Committee at MSU.  “It’s important to understand how data and a culture of evidence can help inform decisions, and make sure we’re able to tell the stories about what is impactful to students to our stakeholders.” 

Her holistic approach undergirds the way she hopes NSO will view incoming freshmen and transfer students—especially during a time when students, offices, and colleges can feel especially isolated while sheltering at home from the coronavirus outbreak. One of Watkins’s main goals in her approach to NSO is to break through the natural tendency of large institutions to silo information. “Universities often operate in silos. We think of ‘business students,’ or ‘engineering students,’ but they are all of our students. We all share them. Spartans belong to MSU. A single student may need the help of Career Services, Counseling and Psychiatric Services, and Student Affairs and Services. When we recognize that the whole student needs the entire university, the students get the experience they deserve.”

Creating the NSO experience students deserve during a pandemic is a level of challenge few leaders face. But Watkins and her team are working as diligently as ever, planning for multiple contingencies. Her team is working on pre-NSO modules so students can look at orientation online, before they head to campus. This reduces some uncertainty about the future of NSO under the pandemic; it also allows Watkins and her team to focus on cultural aspects of the program, such as honing NSO language to be even more inclusive. 

“For instance, we have this history in the United States where we think of family as the nuclear family,” says Watkins. “Families have looked so different for so many years now. We don’t always have families that are ‘traditional looking.’ We have a high rate of foster youth that age out of the system in Michigan, for instance. When they come to orientation, our research has shown that they feel isolated when we tell them, ‘After this session is over, you’re going to find your parents.’ They don’t have a parent or guardian. As their first touchpoint, we’re already alienating them by using language that’s not inclusive.”

Some of the changes Watkins hopes to bring may seem minor, but they can be monumental to a young person just arriving to the university. Says Watkins, “‘Family’ is a great word, but when we define family, we mean ‘everyone.’ We mean aunts, uncles, your chosen family, partners, your counselor. We mean anyone you consider to be family.”

Little is certain about the coming months, but Dr. Portia Watkins and her team plan to be prepared to usher in the next generation of MSU students regardless. Whether online, in person, or a hybrid experience, Watkins and her team are ready and optimistic: “We’re going to do everything we can to prepare an NSO experience where every Spartan feels welcome. I think there’s a great opportunity here to move New Student Orientation forward.”