Summer Loving | The Connection Between Student Onboarding and Support Services

I am in the midst of training for my new role as a course instructor in a higher education institution. I am, essentially, a new student. I have been in training for almost three weeks and have attended numerous sessions and completed numerous training modules. I am learning the many facets that make up the life of a faculty member who supports students in our programs. In addition to the goals and mission of the university and the education model of the institution as a whole, I am also learning the responsibilities of my specific job through the technology platforms for internal and external communication, student tracking and documentation, organizational culture, and the learning management system for faculty as well as the learning management system for students. In addition, I am learning our assessment and evaluation processes; student resources, including wellness, support services, financial aid, and enrollment; and FERPA, ADA, and student privacy. Not to mention, you know, the content of my actual course! Two things have stood out to me the most during this time: I keep wondering how, for a new college-going student, this wealth of information and new expectations must feel. I also think about all of the best practices I’m learning from colleagues and my trainers that aren’t necessarily in the manual and how new students do not typically receive that kind of guidance.

“Student orientation sessions are pretty much the norm for any college program, whether in person or online. However, they are usually short (a week at most and many are 1-2 days) and focus primarily on logistics, such as students’ identification cards, a campus tour, and some rules and guidelines.”

I will be the instructor for a large number of students, helping them develop study skills, master content, and pass their competency assessment. Having a very good understanding of all of the departments of my institution and how they function together so that I can direct students to the most effective resources is a crucial aspect of my job. That being said, I have multiple degrees and have about a month to learn it all. The students with whom I work will increase gradually so that I have time to practice our processes and get to know all of our resources better. In contrast, most new college students have about a week-long orientation session and then are expected to fully function in their classes, and approximately one-third of postsecondary students are first-generation students, meaning neither of their parents completed a postsecondary degree (Skomsvold, 2015). The transition to college would be stark for any student, so imagine the effect on a first-generation or new traditional student who potentially has never attended college or hasn’t for many years. My guess is that on many campuses, the student resources and services exist, but students may have a hard time recognizing them, finding them, and organizing them into a cohesive support system. One of my lifelong words of wisdom is that you can’t know what no one has told you.

Student orientation sessions are pretty much the norm for any college program, whether in person or online. However, they are usually short (a week at most and many are 1-2 days) and focus primarily on logistics, such as students’ identification cards, a campus tour, and some rules and guidelines. At my own alma mater, I attended orientation as a freshman and then was an orientation leader as a senior. Our program was four days and included team building activities and information sessions. I know we mentioned our various student resources, but I don’t remember it being extensive nor do I remember receiving or providing any kind of organized guide to those resources. Smith College in Massachusetts gives incoming students the opportunity to choose a focus for their orientation week; last year’s session included options like first-generation students, women’s health, outdoor adventure, and “connecting through identities,” which focused on appreciating diversity. Williams College, also in Massachusetts, holds a pre-week for first-generation students to help them learn the culture and nuances of being a college student, thereby providing more of the differentiated support this student population needs and increasing their academic capital. Many universities, like the University of South Carolina, the University of Connecticut, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, offer a “First Year Experience” course that is a more robust introduction to academics and student life than a summer orientation, though the length of the course, credits offered, and whether it’s optional vary. With such vast differences in how students are on-boarded for their postsecondary experience, how are they made aware of, let alone utilizing, all the resources available to them? How does a student who has no familiarity with college structures suddenly lead a completely independent and successful postsecondary life?

Student support services are a wide umbrella. I learned today that my institution considers fulfilling laptop requests from students, requests for reimbursement for professional exams pertaining to their program, and sends flower and condolence cards when the student loses a loved one. Postsecondary institutions do not all have to do this; I share these examples to pose the question of how higher education communities are presenting resources and helping students seek them out. I have quite a few questions:

  • How do students know these types of resources, beyond what’s listed in the handbook, exist?

  • Who can be the peers who share the nuances and unspoken rules of college life?

  • How can they be a part of student’s experience beyond the first few weeks?

  • How can institutions build the information like they would an academic course, where the sequence is logical, paced effectively, and ultimately leads to a deeper understanding for the student?

  • Are students referred to the correct place when it’s needed, such as knowing when a student needs disability services versus wellness services versus study skill services?

  • Do students receive reminders about these resources throughout their postsecondary career, not just as a new student?

  • Are the types of support and how they’re communicated differentiated for different student populations?

  • When can students learn about all of their rights, such as ADA, Title IX, and safety?

My point is that just like our instruction, our planning and delivery of student resources needs to be organized and strategic and focused on the student. It makes me think about campus fairs and how, as a freshman, I ended up on an overnight camping trip with a student group that wasn’t really my cup of tea. I had no idea what the purpose of the group was when I accepted their invitation – I was just trying to make friends! I had to politely decline joining the group long-term at the end of it, which was a little awkward!

I always marvel at the multiple departments that make up an institution and how each one contributes something important. On every campus, people devote their careers to student services and are invested in students’ success and health, so we want them to be known and utilized. Programs like the First Year Experience provide a great chance for students to really explore all their campus has to offer, which can only lead to higher graduation rates and happier, healthier students. They can’t access what they don’t know is there, so comprehensive guidance that lasts longer than an orientation is necessary. If I need a month to learn my role, students will certainly benefit from more than a few days to learn theirs.