New, Newer, Newest: We all need orientation in Fall 2021

This semester, I decided to participate in the first level of the Narwhal Leadership Institute here at the New School, the Emerging Narwhal Leaders program. The group is composed of first and second-year students. During the first session, when the thirty-person cohort was asked to introduce themselves and share their reason for participating in the program, nearly everyone mentioned their desire to meet new people and connect to others in the community. Everyone wanted to affirm that they too felt disconnected due to online school and wanted to make friends, and no one wanted to pretend as though they felt differently. Listening to the repetition of the same comment wasn’t painstaking, it was invigorating, though my hands trembled after I included “I want to make friends!” in my own response. These desires, ricocheting around the Zoom room, were the first indicators that a group composed of students from the different schools within the New School would be able to connect.

Six weeks into the eight-week program, the Director of Orientation spoke to the group about opportunities to lead Fall 2021 orientation. After she introduced the office, she asked the cohort to share concerns about Fall 2021. Students immediately raised their hands and expressed worries about navigating the campus and fears of getting lost. One student asked a question that many of us had, given the nods of affirmation and head tilts of inquisitiveness that emerged after it was asked. The student asked whether there would be sophomore orientation and opportunities to participate in traditions like the Fifth Avenue Parade. Based on these concerns, I think the New School can help students transition from online school to in-person school by extending Fall 2021 orientation activities to all students. 

I don’t want to discredit the amount of effort that was put into the planning and execution of Fall 2020 orientation. Plus, it was fun! I enjoyed dancing in the (Zoom) spotlight at the dance party, and the breakout rooms enlivened the tedious informational sessions. However, given its online nature, I’d be remiss if I said that the orientation recreated the opportunities for meeting other first-year students and acclimating to the physical space of the campus that would’ve happened in person. 

A key component of Fall 2021 orientation should consist of making certain activities and events accessible to the entire community rather than limiting them to the first-year and transfer student population. The New School should offer optional tours of the campus to the entire student population, as it could be invaluable to students who have only done online classes and perhaps serve as a much-needed refresher for returning students. The location of professors’ offices should be especially emphasized during the tour in order to encourage those who have only done online classes to take advantage of in-person office hours. Likewise, informational sessions, ranging from an introduction to the library and its database to workshops held by the Office of Civic Engagement and Social Justice, should be open to all students. 

The online pre-orientation meetups that were held in August 2020 and structured around common interests and identities (such as the cooking-lovers meetup) should also be held in person and open to both new students and students who have only done online school. The orientation team could also partner with first-year seminar and first-year writing program professors as well as any other interested professors to host “reunions” of class cohorts. The first-year seminar and first-year writing courses are said to have played a large role in the first-year student experience and social life in years prior, so “reunions” could replicate this opportunity that some may feel they lost due to online classes. Professors would also be willing, as organizing a “reunion” would prevent them from having to gauge which students from their classes they have and have not yet met in person. My first-year writing professor, first-year seminar professor, and professors from a variety of other departments whose electives I’ve taken have all encouraged students to introduce themselves if/when they see them in person. Professors could upload the gathering information to Narwhal Nation. Even if it may be awkward and uncomfortable at first, reminiscing about hilarious Zoom mishaps or discussing what it’s like to be in person again will make for a seamless transition to post-pandemic life. 

The idea that orientation is solely for “new” students and transfer students is obsolete. In fact, orientation will need to extend beyond the first-year student population in order to facilitate the transition back to campus life. The onus does not only fall on the orientation team. It’s on the student population as well. A sophomore who has only done online school and encounters a freshman who's taking the same first-year seminar that they did can establish rapport by comparing the differences between their online and in-person experiences. Likewise, the returning student population can help by offering students who have only done online school recommendations for favorite coffee spots where they can spend the time between classes that they use to spend on the couch at home. We’re at the New School after all—everybody’s new.