August 3, 2005
The University of Minnesota requires all incoming freshmen to attend one of a series of orientation sessions throughout the summer. The sessions are jammed with presentations on residence hall life, safety tips and course-work advice.
St. Paul, Minn. — The university's orientation session begins with a welcome reception. After the reception the prospective students and their parents split up. They barely see each other for the remainder of the two-day orientation. The separation is intentional. It's a small-scale reminder for both the student and the parent of the extended split coming when fall classes start. Parent Elaine Sorum says she appreciates the gesture, but she already gets plenty of reminders from her son.
"I haven't seen much of him since high school graduation, but he did ride up here with me today," Sorum said.
Still, she got teary remembering his subtle hesitations when they parted for their separate orientation sessions. Sorum lives in Milwaukee, so she won't be within easy driving distance. She said orientation helps put the student and parent at ease.
"I think some of the benefits involve getting the parents used to the idea that they're going to be leaving their kids here soon, and getting the students used to the idea of being on their own pretty soon," Sorum said.
"But also, I think they deal with some fairly direct issues with the students in the student orientation," said Sorum. "They deal with rape, date rape, things like that, and they're pretty graphic with them. I think that's a good eye-opener for the students. And it might be too much for the parents."
Sorum's son is one of 250 or so other young men and women in this orientation session. The orientation facilitators avoid calling them kids. They're called "first-years." When the facilitators are talking to parents, they say "your student," not "your child." It's a verbal dance to emphasize passage into a new phase of maturity.
Incoming freshman Matthew Sargeant, from West Allis, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, intends to major in astronomy in the fall. The new adventure can't come soon enough.
"This is my first time in Minneapolis," Sargeant said. "This is the first time I've really been in a big city like this. Milwaukee is kind of big, but this has actually got skyscrapers and everything. We just have kind of large buildings."
He relished the prospect of independence.
"Hopefully I'll be able to go home, look my old man in the eye and tell him, 'Hey, I'm doing my own thing without your help.' It'll also be real nice to be able to do my own thing," said Sargeant. "I'll be living here with my friends and stuff -- the whole new experience of living on your own. I'm going to have my own job, my own place -- my own rules."
Sargeant's already lined up a work-study job. But he admitted to a little anxiety about what's ahead.
"Most of the problem I have is worrying whether I have enough money to stay up here," Sargeant said. "Things you really can't plan for ahead, just things happen to you. What if this happens or what if that happens."
Preparing new students with a picture of what might happen is the job of orientation leaders. They're a herd of outgoing older students, all dressed identically in school colors. They start with some ice-breakers, and presentations on subjects like the organizations new students might want to sign up for.
They're not necessarily actors, but the leaders present a skit that brings to light some scenarios the students might face involving alcohol, drugs and sex.
Some of the leaders put in more than 14-hour days shepherding the first-years from event to event. One of the leaders, Nick Johnson, says if the students come from smaller towns, they're frequently worried about safety.
One of the important tasks of orientation is to prepare new students to engage with people who are different from them in an unfamiliar setting.
"Coming from areas where there might not have been a lot of diversity," Johnson said. "We make sure we touch on that. We are an urban campus, so we introduce them to what that might be like."
By the time students head home at the end of orientation, they will have their class schedules, be well-versed in the university's Web site offerings, and will probably have a bond with at least one other person they can contact when they return for fall classes.
If Marjorie Savage has done her job, parents will also leave with a better sense of what their children are getting into. Savage is director of U of M's parent programs. She said with each new orientation group, the magnitude of the transition to college becomes more evident.
"We see a progression over summer in parents' reactions," Savage said. "In the beginning of the summer they're pretty cavalier about it all. College is going to happen, it's on schedule. As we get closer to school starting, we notice parents will become a little more emotional. We had a few parents in tears in the audience today I noticed. That happens this time of year."
Savage said the turmoil students feel can also make it even harder for their parents.
"Students are tense. They're a little worried about putting themselves into new situation," said Savage. "Often it's easier for them to take out that tension on their family, because they trust their family will be there, will put up with it. So families end up getting a little more conflict than they might normally be used to. It's not always easy, but it's normal."
One family member typically receives the brunt of the outbursts, Savage said.
U of M officials expect more than 5,000 students to go through orientation this summer. There's one more, last-minute orientation session before classes start at the end of August.