Colleges use new methods, reality shows and serious films among them, to engage incoming students.
August 25, 2006

College students love their reality television.


The “Florida International University Amazing Race” takes root, requiring teams of students to answer a bevy of questions -- how many floors does the library have? -- to solve clues during a scavenger hunt across campus. And Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, gets a reality show home designer to come help freshmen settle in to campus life during this year’s orientation move-in, which started Thursday.

Many institutions have begun experimenting with new ways to make a fresh impression on today’s freshmen, who’ve grown up submerged in a technology- and media-infused world, and who also tend to volunteer more than other generations. Student life experts say that college officials are increasingly tweaking more traditional orientation experiences to cater to the unique quirks of a new generation of students.

“Students today are used to interaction. If we do some flashy stuff, I think that’s positive, if it’s getting them the information they need to know,” said Charlie Andrews, president of the National Orientation Directors Association and director of campus life at Florida International. “There’s been a shift throughout the years from orientations that are just a parade of talking heads.”

“Colleges are definitely using new tactics to reach out to students during orientation,” said Mary Stuart Hunter, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience. “They want to engage students in activities that are going to appeal to them beyond the typical lecture groups and discussions.”

At Lafayette College, for instance, all new students were asked to watch "Crash," the Academy Award-winning movie, before orientation, so that they could be prepared to talk about race and social issues with faculty members and peers. Institutions have long asked that students read a book in preparation for orientation dialogues, and the film approach is a variation on that theme.

Administrators also mailed all incoming freshmen the article, “How to Read a Film: Looking at 'Crash',” written by assistant professors of English Alix Ohlin and Andy Smith, who is also chair of American studies.

“We’ve always wanted to help students think about civic and civil issues,” says Gladstone (Fluney) Hutchinson, a professor of economics and former dean of studies at Lafayette. “The landscape of higher education is changing in a way that students need to learn to relate to people of different backgrounds.”

Hutchinson is adamant that book assignments aren’t the only way to promote conversation among today’s freshmen. “We’re trying to meet students where they’re at,” he said. “They aren’t sitting up in a tree reading a book during the summer months. It’s a visual generation.”

Rose Marie Bukics, dean of studies at Lafayette, believes that using a film is actually “smartening up” the orientation process, rather than “dumbing it down.”

“We have been moving toward these new creative genres that can combine with pedagogical engagement,” said Bukics. “We wanted to focus on a serious and provocative subject, while realizing that students today have different ways of learning.”

This generation has also grown up watching more reality show programs than any cohort before them. “In my day, it was game shows,” said Andrews. “So my orientation had sessions with a bunch of 'Jeopardy'-like question and answer sessions.

“Now, we use shows like the 'Amazing Race' to get students connected to campus,” he added. “It’s all about appealing to what students like in a moment of time in culture.”

Lehigh has taken advantage of the interest in reality design shows, in particular, by getting Diane Albright, a star of HGTV’s “Mission: Organization,” to show up on campus to give students tips on fitting their belongings into the often cramped quarters of dorms. She decorated two mock-rooms with items from the campus store, and is expected to answer questions about getting organized throughout orientation.

Allison Ragon, who coordinates freshman programs at Lehigh, said that the idea is to provide an additional service to a generation of students accustomed to convenience. In the midst of registering new students on Thursday, she said that students and parents have been giving “phenomenal reviews” to the effort,” which is dubbed “Room Service.”

Officials at Pennsylvania State University’s main campus, in University Park, meanwhile, will try a new experiment during orientation this year, trying to capitalize on the well-documented high levels of volunteerism among young people today.

The university’s Division of Student Affairs has been planning "Operation: Home Delivery," a project that will allow students to help build a Habitat for Humanity home starting during orientation next week. Once completed, the house is intended for a family that has relocated to the local region from the Gulf Coast due to Hurricanes Katrina or Rita.

Students will be asked to volunteer a minimum of two hours to start building the frame of the home and to talk about social justice issues. The project is expected to be completed by the end of spring semester.

“We’re engaging on an interest in volunteering that’s already there,” said Geoff  Rushton, a spokesman for the university. “Students now seem to really want to participate in these kinds of activities.”

Andrews believes that all of the new orientation developments aren’t simply a fad.

“It used to be that if you gave them free food, they would come,” he said. “Of course, that’s still true. But we really want to go beyond that to capture their attention and interests.”


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