What All First-Years Need to Hear at New Student Orientation

Posted on: Nov 12, 2018

Categories: College

For administrators, New Student Orientation can be a checklist item, or it can be the highlight of your year and a life-changing experience for students. Which one of these describes the way you see it?

Sure, New Student Orientation is about orienting new students to the campus, the clubs they can join and how their meal plan works. But it’s about so much more than that: it’s your opportunity to make students feel like they chose the perfect college and to empower them to develop healthy habits and mindsets. And if you do your job well, 500 more people who otherwise would have dropped out could finish their degree.

Having been a New Student Orientation keynote speaker on hundreds of college campuses and talked with thousands of individual college students and their parents, here’s what I’ve found young people actually need to hear in the vulnerable first few days of their college experience:

1. Yes, college is hard. But you’re not here on accident.

Students should be fully aware after orientation that the four-year experience they’re entering into is no cake walk. But they should also be reminded that they were chosen out of a large pool of applicants to have the privilege of attending your school, and they are worthy of sitting in this room and taking on this new challenge.

2. There are people and organizations here to help you.

Balancing homesickness, new friends, challenging classes, hours of homework, an on-campus job, community service, and a leadership position in clubs—not to mention the pressure of figuring out life after college—can leave students feeling exhausted, depressed and anxious. Having been invited back to some universities for over ten consecutive years, I have seen students’ needs and experiences change. Mental health is an increasingly prevalent and very real issue.

Coping mechanisms for this level of stress are a given. It’s up to orientation facilitators to introduce healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with loneliness, failure and fear of the unknown. The most successful people ask for help the soonest, so if I’m on stage, I’m always quick to tell students that it’s a sign of strength to get a tutor or a counselor.

3. You are part of our family.

Most college students don’t drop out or transfer because they can’t make the grade; they leave because they don’t feel like they’re part of the community.

Orientation is the foundation for making students feel like they belong. They need to hear this from the stage and have it reinforced by their small group leaders.

4. Failure is an event, not a person.

Students, especially first-years, are going to make mistakes. They might get their first failing grade, drink more than they intended to or forget to turn in an assignment. None of these things have to define who they are. Don’t shirk these topics at orientation—a surefire way to perpetuate unhealthy habits is to ignore them. The best way to prepare students for success is to teach them to bounce back—no one achieves perfection on the first try.

5. College is an amazing privilege—not an automatic step after high school.

Only about a third of Americans and 7% of the world’s population has a bachelor’s degree. Even though some students may feel like everybody goes to college, it’s an incredible privilege to attend a university.

While of course there is diversity in students’ backgrounds—from first-generation students to those carrying on a family legacy—all need to be reminded that attending university is the best opportunity they will ever have to write a new script for their life.

6. The only person who gets to decide what your college experience will be is you.

College is also the perfect time to let go of old scripts. If a student’s high school script told them that they were a slacker, a loner, a low-performer, or anything else that holds them back, college is a blank page. I tell students that because most people on this campus don’t know them, they can be anyone they want. Starting today, they have the opportunity to become the person they’ve always wanted to be.

They need to know that being on their own and starting fresh doesn’t have to be intimidating: it’s empowering because they have the power to create their future in these four years.

7. If you do what you’re supposed to do today, you can change the world tomorrow.

Daily quizzes, 12-page essays and group projects can feel meaningless for some students who want to be world-changing doers. As they enter college, incoming first-years need to understand that all of their seemingly trivial homework assignments really are moving them closer to their dream career.

Even though college students may not have the opportunity to change the world while they’re in school, they can still partake in the most important part of making an impact: changing lives.

Speaking of changing lives, New Student Orientation is your opportunity as a leader to completely shape first-year students’ view of what college really is and to set the tone for their success.

So, as you reflect, does your university treat New Student Orientation as a checklist item, or is it the highlight of your year and a life-changing experience for students?

This is an awesome opportunity and a great responsibility—don’t waste it.

Curtis Zimmerman is a nationally-recognized keynote speaker and best-selling author who is a favorite at new student orientations for over 100 universities, including Florida State University, Savannah College of Art and Design, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Mercyhurst University, Morehead State University and Western Michigan University.

Click here to have Curtis inspire students and parents on your campus.  

Click here for my guide to the 7 Things Parents of New Students Need to Hear.

And click here for my 7 EmpoweringTips for New College Students.