Seizing First Impressions

Darryll Pines and KerryAnn O’Meara describe the important role they play in strengthening an institution’s identity, values and impact.

September 30, 2021
 
University of Maryland
 

All college and university presidents want to boldly define what it means to be a member of their community. What it means to be a Golden Bear. What it means to be a Greyhound. Or, in our case at the University of Maryland, what it means to be a Terrapin.

Proud community members, whether recent alumni or longtime faculty, may attempt to define it themselves. They may describe the culture of their alma mater or beloved institution, citing a cherished memory or a quintessential campus experience. But one of us, Darryll, made it a priority on his first day as the current president of our university to find a way for new Terps to know what being a Terrapin means from day one, no experience required. And through our work over the past year, we’ve determined that a critical part of this goal lies in first impressions.

We have been thinking a lot about the role of first impressions in inclusion and in creating a common university identity that inspires action. Social scientists have revealed many reasons that first impressions matter. To begin with, new members of an organization are paying attention. They are primed to be looking for information, signals and sense making about their new home. Second, there is a primacy effect, wherein human beings tend to remember the first event more in a sequence of events. Third, when people experience such early messages as salient and relevant to their future success, it can create a sense of cohesion and community. Alternatively, silence leaves individuals unsure of an organization’s identity and values, and they can then find it hard to connect personally to it -- to feel included and as if they belong.

In the past, first impressions at the University of Maryland were generally formed during our traditional orientations, which focused more on the nuts and bolts of how to function at our university -- payroll, parking, course registration and the like. But as we began reflecting on the specific first impressions we wanted our new students, faculty and staff to have of our institution, we realized that we had missed an important opportunity to take advantage of their first days with us to communicate a collective university message of welcome, values, history, tradition, community and responsibility.

We decided to seize that opportunity to create a campuswide welcome for all new students, staff and faculty and to introduce them to new places to learn, work, contribute and engage in community and service to one another. We had some important questions to answer:

  • How can this onboarding be accessible to new community members from many different perspectives and experiences?
  • What content might be considered relevant to membership in our community, regardless of whether the individual is a student or employee, joining us from Baltimore or Peru, being paid hourly, or joining us on scholarship? What content is important and why?
  • How might this content be experienced and why?
  • Whom might we engage in the process to create an onboarding that is distinctly representative of our distinct institutional history, values, traditions and diversity?

Here is how we have answered these questions at the University of Maryland. Launched this summer, our new TerrapinSTRONG onboarding initiative embodies the vision that the university strives to create an inclusive environment where every member of our community feels that they belong and are empowered to reach their full potential. We understand this as a collective, ongoing project. The TerrapinSTRONG vision has four key components: 1) welcome and community, 2) recognition of history, 3) commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and 4) the embracing of traditions and Terrapin pride.

TerrapinSTRONG onboarding begins with a welcome from Darryll as president of the university and from current members of our staff, faculty and students. It introduces new Terps to our history, including acknowledgment that the University of Maryland, College Park, campus is on the ancestral lands of the Piscataway people that were stolen by European colonists. This same land became the plantation of Charles Benedict Calvert, president of the university, who also owned slaves. It recognizes university trailblazers like Chunjen Constant Chen, Parren Mitchell, Hiram Whittle and Elaine Johnson, as well as the roles great Marylanders like Frederick Douglass played in achieving freedom and civil rights for all.

TerrapinSTRONG onboarding defines and outlines our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. We ask new Terps to reflect on their own identities and what that allows them to contribute to the university. We share collective efforts across the campus to contribute to social justice within and beyond it. We introduce new Terps to campus landmarks and traditions. And at the end of TerrapinSTRONG onboarding, new Terps create an action plan, choosing from a menu of options in categories such as University of Maryland history, landmarks, traditions and diversity in order to continue to develop within our community.

Our values related to diversity, equity and inclusion run throughout all parts of TerrapinSTRONG onboarding. That history includes disenfranchisement, discrimination and restricted access, and it includes trailblazers and pivotal moments. Our university is an institution where students, faculty and administrators served on both sides of the Civil War, with most fighting for the Confederacy. It is where Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP sued to grant the first African American student access in 1951. It is where Darryl Hill became the first Black football player and broke the color barrier in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It is where John B. Slaughter became the first African American chancellor of a major state university. All of which brings us to today, when we offer rich opportunities to engage diversity, broadly defined, and face real challenges to full participation.

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Today, the University of Maryland is home to the Nymburu Cultural Center, the Gamer Symphony Orchestra and Technica, the world’s largest hackathon for women and nonbinary students. We are a campus where overwhelming support and love were expressed in a campuswide vigil for those lost to anti-Asian American hate and violence, and where organizers challenged leaders to do more. We are a campus that has made big strides toward sustainability. We are a campus working to support small businesses in Maryland and taking on grand challenges of environmental injustice and sustainability and health inequity. And we are a campus that rubs the nose of a turtle for good luck. All these features and aspects are part of who we are as a community and what we are inviting new members to join and contribute to.

As of early September, more than 7,900 students, faculty and staff have participated in the required TerrapinSTRONG onboarding. We have heard from many of them that the experience increased their sense of belonging and excitement in joining our university. New Terps found links to communities that they want to join, and they left the onboarding program eager to pursue their TerrapinSTRONG to-do list.

We are hoping the TerrapinSTRONG onboarding contributes to our continuing collective effort to create a more welcoming, inclusive culture. We want new Terps to feel seen, valued and aware of the possibilities and opportunities inherent in their new community. Strengthening campus values, identity and inclusion creates a launchpad from which Terps can tackle grand challenges, such as racial justice, climate change and civic engagement, which are central to our mission.

First impressions and beginnings only start a longer conversation and bigger, longer-term work. We realize it is only a beginning -- a promise we give as new Terps experience the University of Maryland for the first time. But beginnings matter, and it is a good promise to try to keep.

Bio

Darryll J. Pines became the 34th president of the University of Maryland in July 2020 and announced the TerrapinSTRONG vision and onboarding initiative on his first day. KerryAnn O’Meara is professor of higher education, distinguished scholar teacher and special assistant to the president for strategic initiatives.

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