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Orientation programs take fresh approach to welcoming students

As students arrive at Emory on Saturday for Move-In Day, they will be greeted by a dedicated team of staff and volunteers. Emory Photo / Video

When first-year students arrive at Emory this weekend, eager to leap into a full slate of orientation activities, chances are you'll find Rhiannon Hubert ('07C) deep within the thick of it all.

Rhiannon Hubert

As a former student of both Oxford and Emory, Rhiannon Hubert brings an important perspective to her work as Emory’s director of orientation: She’s been there, done that. Photo by Jeff Roffman.

As Emory's director of orientation, Hubert knows that the programs meant to help acclimate students to life on campus actually started months ago, as new students began their introduction to university life through online training modules and meeting classmates via social media tweets, texts and posts.

It's a far cry from the freshman orientation experience Hubert went through herself back in 2003 as a first-year student at Oxford College or what she remembers going through as an Emory College of Arts and Sciences continuee two years later.

But Hubert welcomes the expanded opportunities and technological enhancements that today's students will encounter during their immersion into campus life, academics and culture.

In the calm before the university's Saturday, Aug. 23, move-in day, Emory Report talked with Hubert about her professional life and what's new around orientation weekend — the culmination of a year's work, which still gives her the buzzy, adrenaline-stoked feeling of an opening night on Broadway.

How did you find your way to Oxford College?

I went to a really big high school outside Houston, Texas, so when I was looking at colleges I wanted something smaller. An Oxford admissions officer told me about this gorgeous campus that was heavy on the liberal arts and I was sold. That summer, I remember students from Oxford emailing me, congratulating me and offering to help. As soon as I got to campus, it felt like I was home.

What stands out about your first-year orientation experience?

You would get a welcome packet, but there wasn't anything you did over the summer, besides paperwork, until you got to campus — that's when orientation really started. I was assigned to a PAL (Peer Assistant Leaders) group, and actually, my PAL and I are still friends, to this day. There was a lot of fun stuff happening, but mostly I remember that the excitement on campus was palpable.

When does orientation actually begin now?

Around the end of May students begin receiving "first-year Friday" emails, which introduce a series of online courses and educational modules they'll complete in their own time throughout the summer. One focuses upon the importance of the liberal arts while others address general educational requirements, how to plan schedules and balance their time, register for courses, and collegiate happiness. The intention is that they will arrive having some foundational knowledge. It also leads into a course they'll take the first semester, Pre-major Advising Connections at Emory (PACE), which provides support to incoming students, both academically and socially, during their first year. Of course, students are also connecting with new classmates well in advance through their class Facebook group.

What's new on tap for orientation?

Orientation is planned by me and my colleague Aysha Daniels in the Division of Campus Life. She has been instrumental in helping spearhead a new social justice initiative called Creating Emory, now in its second year. It's aimed at creating a sense of Emory community from the beginning, helping students come together to identify some of our values and things we find important as a campus. We talk about diversity and identity, sexual assault and violence, microaggressions and things that happen on campus. From the first week, we want new students to know they have an important role in creating the Emory community.

This year we're also starting a Weeks of Welcome campaign, a student-led initiative during the first month of school that highlights programming and activities for new and returning students. This is a way to unite all the campus groups, both academic and non-academic, and create a common calendar for students in order to facilitate a seamless transition from orientation to regular social life at Emory.

While we will have a detailed printed orientation guide, we'll also have that schedule available online through an app called "Guidebook." There's also an app called "Group Me," which a lot of orientation leaders will use to set up group chats and texts. During orientation, we'll be doing a lot of tweeting and Instagramming.

Also, several years ago, (former coordinator of new student orientation) Tanya Willard created an Oxford Day at Emory — Oxford sophomores came to campus before classes started to get their bearings. We're also trying to do continued programming throughout the spring so students have a seamless transition once they arrive.

What's the biggest challenge of orientation weekend?

Probably logistics, in general, and the challenge of trying to adapt and change every year, because our students are changing each year. It doesn't do them justice to do something because "it's always been that way." It's such a huge transition to go to college, both for our students and our families, and that is also a source of pressure. We're reps for ensuring these students feel safe and happy and welcome. For most, it may be their first time away from home.

When does it all begin for you?

Aysha and I will begin planning for next year's orientation immediately after we finish this year's program. However, the real excitement for us begins on Move-In Day, when all of our captains will meet on campus Saturday at 5 a.m. — orientation leaders come at 5:30. After all this time, you wouldn't think it was that exciting and high-energy, but it's kind of our opening night. Our student leaders are excited, our new students are excited, and our parents are excited. That's when it's all worth it.

How did you find your way into a career built around orientation?

Right after I graduated from Emory, I had an internship with Tanya Willard. After that, I had a strong sense that I wanted to go into higher education. I worked with Oxford the next year, and one of my jobs was to help plan orientation. Then I went to graduate school at Columbia University, hoping I would land back here, which I did.

How do you get a sense of the impact that you'll make during orientation?

Anecdotal stories, mostly. Our student leaders all reference back to their own first days here. If an experience gives them such a memorable, passionate response, something is working. Every year we probably see about 300 to 350 students apply to be orientation leaders; we end up selecting about 150.

What keeps you engaged in this work?

I really love what orientation does, acting as a "welcome wagon," but it's also a really important part of keeping students in school. After graduate school, I spent a few years teaching in high school. Retention was a big issue. Orientation seemed a natural fit for that. That's what I really enjoy — I hope I have a role in establishing that sense that a student really does feel they belong.

Emory orientation highlights

First-Year Friday emails: Students receive weekly emails throughout the summer directing them to a series of online courses and educational modules to complete in their own time.

Orientation apps: In addition to a printed guide to orientation, students can reference that material online through an app called "Guidebook." Orientation leaders also reach out to first-year students with an app called "Group Me," which can be used to set up group chats and texts.

Weeks of Welcome: A new initiative led by Emory students Brian Diener, Berit Reisenauer and Andrew Goldstein that highlights programming and activities for new and returning students throughout the first month of the academic year.

Academics and Culture at Emory (ACE): A three-week program offered before fall semester begins that helps first-year international undergraduate students adjust to academic, social and cultural life at Emory and Atlanta, Aug. 3-Aug. 22.

Student Outdoor Adventure Retreat (SOAR): First-year students may join a three-day outdoor adventure immediately before orientation to meet other freshmen and learn about Emory from upperclassmen, Aug. 19-Aug. 22.

Crossroads: First-year student retreat focuses on community building among Emory’s diverse incoming student body; Aug. 22-24 and Oct. 11-13.

Emory Expo: Students can learn more about a wide variety of campus departments and programs; Saturday, Aug. 23, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Woodruff PE Center.

Bienvenidos: Incoming Latino/Hispanic heritage students can network and socialize while learning about the Emory experience from current students and Office of Multicultural Programs and Services (OMPS) staff; Saturday, Aug. 23, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

President’s Coca-Cola Toast: President James Wagner leads a traditional "toast" to new students and their families, Saturday, Aug. 23, at 4 p.m., McDonough Field.

Class Photo: The Class of 2018 gathers on the Emory Quadrangle to receive a free t-shirt and spell out "2018"; Saturday, Aug. 23, at 6:30 p.m.

Playmania: Orientation staff and Play Emory host free food, music and games on McDonough Field; Sunday, Aug. 24, from 9 p.m. to midnight, McDonough Field.

Creating Emory: Students come together for a three-part conversation to explore what it means to be part of the Emory community; Monday, Aug. 25, at 4 p.m.,  Woodruff PE Center.

Opening Convocation: Students walk with Orientation Leaders to the opening ceremony of the academic year; Tuesday, Aug. 26, at 4:30 p.m., Woodruff PE Center Arena.

Songfest: Students from each first-year residence hall write and perform songs that celebrate their respective communities in a fun-filled competition; Thursday, Aug. 28, at 8:30 p.m., Woodruff PE Center Arena.

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