Rolling Out the Welcome Mat
A revised approach to orientation aims to enhance the first-year student experience
By Liza N. Burby
Traditionally, summer orientation has been a time for first year students to form a community of friends, build connections with Stony Brook University and begin to think differently about critical issues facing our society. But the world is changing, and so has the university’s approach to ensuring the Class of 2025 can strengthen these personal links, with an invigorated welcome experience that includes new learning community themes, enhanced social engagement and an inaugural universitywide effort.
“When we first started the Undergraduate Colleges [UGCs] almost 20 years ago, students were very different — the world was very different — and it was a model that was responsive to the student experience at the time,” said Rachelle Germana, associate provost for Academic Success. “But we recognize that the 21st century student and graduate will need different experiences as they prepare to become the next generation of citizen-leaders. The new Undergraduate Colleges program not only provides the foundation for students to make a successful transition from high school to college, but also to build meaningful relationships across differences and disciplines; to communicate effectively and respectfully; and to get involved on campus and in their communities. We want students to have the initial tools they need to graduate in four years, as well as become lifelong learners and problem solvers.”
This reimagined approach not only to Welcome Week but also to the students’ first year and beyond was designed with a key goal of successfully transitioning the newest Seawolves around a framework of small group community building to ensure that there are many opportunities for them to get to know each other and the campus, said Rick Gatteau, vice president of Student Affairs. He added that an important step was providing opportunities for each student to make at least five friends.
“We recognize and embrace that building a strong sense of belonging from the start positively impacts students’ retention and graduation from Stony Brook, so we have invested a lot of time and energy in welcoming our newest Seawolves,” Gatteau said.
These steps reflect the need to be nimble, said Anastasia Zannettis, assistant dean and director for Undergraduate Colleges. “We have to be smart in terms of the work that we’re doing and how we’re really preparing our students for not only their time at the university, but also to help them be successful their first year and then into their entire academic career — and when they go out into the world. We want to make sure that education that they’re getting is really preparing them for whatever the world is going to throw at them when they get out there.”
Even before the pandemic, the university had decided to create a weeklong experience “where students would have much deeper engagement, not just with the academic experience, but also with many of the social experiences and meeting friends and connecting with the campus community,” said Germana. “We had been hearing from students that they didn’t feel like they were meeting enough people during their experience because the groups tended to be very large.”
Revitalized Learning Communities
Zannettis said that recent changes to campus housing — which enabled all residential first year students to live in the same corridor-style community — made it easier to look at the long-held learning themes that have been associated with the program since 2002 “with fresh eyes and engage with students in a really intentional way that also allows our advisors to get to know them more in-depth than we’ve had an opportunity in the past.”
As a result, the Class of 2025, including nonresidential students, picked one of three learning communities: Creativity, Technology and Innovation; Global Health, Wellness and Community; and Social Justice, Equity and Ethics.
“The idea is that these communities immerse students in the problems of today and really try to focus on concrete community-based engagement, helping them build an understanding of the problems and engage them to be lifelong learners,” Germana said. “These changes were inspired in part by what was reinforced through the pandemic, which is that to solve the most complex problems of today, we need groups of people from across disciplines working together that have a content foundation, but also who are nimble thinkers and have an integrated approach to how they think around problems.”
Nonresidential students are also part of the Undergraduate Colleges, fully participating in seminars and a mix of events in the Community Centers (formerly called the UGC Centers) and in the Academic Mall (Stony Brook Union and Student Activities Center), with accessible times spread throughout the day and early evening. “At the forefront is making sure that we’re trying to be as inclusive and accessible for our nonresidential students as we are for residential students,” Zannettis said.
In addition to the curricular aspects of the program, advisors, faculty and residence hall teams will engage students in events and activities that draw them more deeply into the three themes. Germana said their first-year 101 seminar will consist of groups of 20 from each UGC who will work on a project related to their theme that “tries to develop some of these grand challenge skills, such as communication, collaboration and thinking from an integrated perspective. And in their second semester 102 seminar, there will be problem-based learning that’s specific to their theme, prioritizing the interdisciplinary nature of problem solving.” She added that the 101 topics include community involvement, diversity, inclusion and gender equity and awareness.
“One of the goals of our New Seawolves Welcome Week is for each student to make at least five friends. This is an important step in strengthening our community and building spirit at Stony Brook.”
– Rick Gatteau, Vice President for Student Affairs
All these developments are just phase one of the plan for high-impact practice engagement experiences, Germana said. Future first year students will have opportunities to continue with the themes to engage with these learning pathways. And phase three, which will likely launch the same year, will be micro communities within this larger community to experience their theme more in depth.
Another change is how the acclimation process was conducted. According to Gatteau, previous orientations were lecture-based “and there have been discussions for a few years about having a new model for orientation to increase student engagement with each other. The new Welcome Week and UGC structure helps to ensure our first-year and transfer students have an excellent first impression of Stony Brook, that they’re set up with the right resources, and that there’s a support structure in place to ensure that they start the year off with every possible success that they can have because we’ve done a good job in their transition to Stony Brook.”
For Nakiya Findley Drago ’13, interim director of New Student Programs, that meant rethinking how the information required for a smooth transition was delivered. She recalled her orientation when she arrived at the university as a first year in 2009.
“I remember feeling welcomed, having a campus tour, having some transitional conversations and registering for classes in early July,” Drago said. “My next time to connect was on move-in day the weekend before classes. Not only was it a lot of information to process, the level of engagement with the rest of my class was challenging. That’s why in New Student Programs we’ve been looking at ways to really engage our students more than we had already because we recognized that all the information we knew they needed to be successful and feel supported throughout their first year was a lot to absorb in three days — orientation day and then the two days before classes started.”
And so this year engagement began even before students arrived on campus with online orientation modules they could schedule on their own. It was another new initiative that Drago said was expedited by the pandemic and that recognized students were already learning online. They connected in small groups via Zoom and Q&A workshops and got to choose when they wanted to talk with faculty advisors throughout the summer. New Student Programs hosted three connection days a week, offering students up to 15 options of times from which to choose. “Their advisors were able to really connect with them a little bit deeper in terms of their enrollment and we’re doing that all throughout the summer,” Drago added.
The information will be also available to students via YouTube throughout their time at SBU.
Drago said another way new students are being supported is through student leaders, Peer Assistant Leaders, formerly known as orientation leaders. They are the first SBU students with whom first-year Seawolves will meet and interact through the last day of their second semester.
Campus Community Involvement
The connections to acclimate students further to the university go beyond the learning communities with the introduction of a broader range of expanded learning opportunities based on the small group model necessitated by the pandemic.
“We realized we needed to do a more effective job of ensuring that we were building community connection and a sense of belonging right from the start, and connecting with each other, to other students, to faculty and staff,” Gatteau said. “Ironically, because of COVID, we were forced to do small group activities, and I think people realized how impactful they were. If not for that experience, we would have been fearful of arranging small group activities for a population of 5,000 students.”
To do that, there was a need for greater involvement from the entire Seawolf community. A required diversity workshop, Seawolves: This Is Us — designed to introduce students to the multicultural SBU campus environment, community values and expectations for fostering respect and civility — needed 140 facilitators to hold smaller sessions of 25 students each. Gatteau said his office reached out to faculty and staff across campus to serve as facilitators and was able to meet the goal.
“Volunteer facilitators were provided information and training on activities and exercises to help engage students in discussion about the many dimensions of diversity that make Stony Brook a rich community of backgrounds, ideas and perspectives,” he said.
Further, for the first time, an invitation was sent out universitywide asking for faculty and staff volunteers to share their skills or interests. Gatteau said the response was so positive that there were more than 200 faculty and staff who offered hundreds of sessions. The resulting choose-your-own workshop model gave students a choice of small group activities led by student orientation leaders, faculty or staff based on a variety of options from outdoor recreation activities, like ultimate Frisbee, to career and academic programs like learning about getting an internship, studying abroad or cryptocurrency, to just-for-fun sessions like cooking demos and origami.
Drago said there was another purpose for the engagement of the larger campus community. “While we still want students to have some important, critical information like how to graduate and how you use the library, we also want them to know the people behind the offices, like the director of our counseling center, who showed students how to garden, and the director of our student center, who taught how to start a podcast,” she said. “We wanted the administration, faculty and staff to feel less like folks who respond to emails and phone calls all day, and have students really get to know there’s a person who has a whole life outside of the work they do so they can form better connections to them throughout their time here.”
Some students were able to opt into another inaugural initiative to help form connections: the pilot Seawolves Outdoor Adventure Program (SOAP). Marie Turchiano, director of Recreation and Wellness, said the new three-day program, which ran from August 15 to August 17, had 400 applicants for 60 spots.
SOAP began with a group dinner and activities on Sunday, brunch and ice-breaker exercises on Monday, followed by outdoor programs on Tuesday. Choices included a boat tour and kayaking at Stony Brook Southampton, Greenbelt hiking in Woodbury, horseback riding in Central Islip, ziplining in Wheatley Heights and a yoga/meditation retreat at the Walter J Hawrys Campus Recreation Center.
“The goal was to make the transition from high school to college smoother and help them build a sense of community and make friends with people in these three days that hopefully will last a lifetime,” Turchiano said.
All of these changes were displayed in the new weeklong move-in period. Themes were added to each move-in day as an extra step in making everyone feel welcome. Recognizing that graduate students also need connection to be engaged and assistance with the transition to a new school, Gatteau said, they were invited to participate in move-in week events, such as the Friday resource fair. There are additional plans for graduate students in the future.
Germana said that what connects all these changes is that they expose students to experiences they might not have access to before. “The bridge among all of the changes that we’re making is really about trying to connect students to different experiences and building lifelong learning that informs every aspect of their lives. I think that is what’s most exciting about the new first-year experience.”
Liza N. Burby is a freelance writer and features editor for Stony Brook University Magazine, as well as a journalism professor.