University InRoads

University InRoads began in 2010 as an attempt to build a sense of community based on students’ academic discipline. It was created based on a formal assessment of orientation outcomes at the University of Guelph, which indicated that some gaps existed in supporting new undergraduates through their academic transition. Creating small to medium-sized groups through which students could make friends serves as a foundation for conveying key ideas about academic life on campus and institutional expectations. It also helps to build a sense of affinity with one’s program, and promotes identity development as a student.

All new undergraduates are invited to participate in a 1-hour session on each of three successive days at the start of Orientation Week. Students are assigned to a group based on their academic program, and activities are facilitated by trained upper year students, known as Orientation Volunteers. Each session is scripted with a series of activities, but facilitators are also taught skills to interject their own academic stories, introduce support services, and go off-script when needed in order to ensure participant engagement.

The program is administered by the Student Transition Office, which is an operating unit housed within the department of Student Experience. The content of the program has evolved through collaborative relationships with campus partners and significant student input.

Guelph Orientation Context

Orientation Week at the University of Guelph is the primary on-campus transition experience for new undergraduate students. It starts on the Saturday of Labour Day weekend and ends eight days later. Orientation Week includes the first two days of classes and spans curricular, co-curricular and social programming. Activities are offered by 130 event planners, span more than 530 events and are supported by approximately 700 volunteers. At times, there can be considerable pressure on scheduling and on creating pathways to help new students navigate the range of programming options. As such, the planning process takes a full year (or more) and involves a significant consultative process.

As the operating unit with direct responsibility for managing the program, the Centre for New Students coordinates the efforts of stakeholders, promotes collaboration, is responsible for risk management and ensures that programming is both purposeful and meaningful. CNS also implements some programming directly. The Orientation Team is comprised of a full-time professional staff member and five student staff members who work part-time during the winter semester and full-time during the summer months.

Each year there are approximately 4,800 new undergraduate students who begin on the main campus in September, about 85% to 90% of whom live in residence.

 

Campus Need

During the assessment of Orientation Week 2008, qualitative and quantitative data were gathered to assess the effectiveness of the program and to explore opportunities for improvement. Some of the notable findings included the following:

  • New students could not accurately identify the academic college they belonged to within the university. As most academic advising is tied to these colleges, this serves as a barrier to accessing help with academic policies and procedures. It also suggested students were more likely to have difficulties in finding an intellectual home on campus.
  • New students wanted more information about what they could reasonably expect from the semester ahead, particularly with regards to challenges they were likely to encounter.
  • Many Orientation Volunteers did not make meaningful connections with new students.
  • A survey asked new students (n=1,739) to rate different dimensions of their transition experience.
    • Respondents were much more likely to describe the social transition as easy as compared to the academic transition (44% vs. 61% respectively).
    • Less than two thirds (63%) reported they had been successful at adjusting to the academic demands of the university by the middle of the semester.
    • 43% had not received sufficiently useful information on academic advising during orientation.
    • 47% needed more useful information on time management during orientation.
  • Students were often confused about use of online learning tools such as the institutional courseware website. The time it took to discover this caused delays in academic engagement.
 

Implementation and Evolution

To address the identified needs, the Centre for New Students met with a variety of stakeholders including elected student leaders, academic advisors, and staff from Residence Life and from Learning Services. The following preliminary plan emerged from these discussions:
Three sessions would run in Orientation Week in dedicated timeslots without competing programming. In the program’s first year, the objectives were to ensure that after program participation, students:

  1. Had a checklist of tasks to accomplish in their first week
  2. Were able to describe two different note taking strategies
  3. Were able to create a personal timetable
  4. Knew how to access the online course platform and understand its purpose
  5. Know the names of three other students in their program

This initiative was originally called “Academic Community Groups”, and invitations to participate were sent by email in the days leading up to Orientation Week. These invitations included personalized information about the specifics of the student’s group, along with details of where and when they would meet. The University of Guelph does not make any orientation programming mandatory, and as a result participation was strongly encouraged but not required.

In 2013, the program was rebranded as University InRoads, the objectives were updated and the format became more structured. The retooling of the program was undertaken in order to capitalize on early successes that demonstrated a proof of concept, while building a more dynamic, content-rich, and consistently delivered experience for participants.

Each meeting is structured as a series of activities:

  1. An icebreaker that facilitates introductions and opportunities to initiate friendships.
  2. Storytelling about first-hand life experience, which allows the volunteer facilitator to demonstrate trustworthiness and share insight into life as a student.
  3. Two activities that promote self-awareness and skill development, and that are linked to campus resources. Each activity concludes with a short debriefing.
  4. Information to take away:
    1. Guidance on how to ask questions in order to enhance participation in other activities
    2. A fact about academic expectations
    3. A concept to think about that will help guide learning
    4. Direction to the next event(s)
 

Overview of Informational Content

 

Session 1

Session 2

Session 3

Activity A

A guided visualization designed to enhance motivation by exploring the ability to achieve success with difficult tasks.

Linked to: Supported Learning Groups

A game to teach skills that help with retraining new information.

Linked to: Learning Services

A puzzle game that exposes the tension between help-seeking and working through a problem.

Linked to: Library Research Help

Activity B

An activity that encourages students to engage in discussion about long-term goal-setting (vision for the future).

Linked to: Career Services

An activity that asks students to recall a stressful experience and how it affected them.

Linked to: Stress Management Clinic

An activity that helps students to tune in to self-talk.

Linked to: Academic program counselling

Take-away 1

Getting the most from a resource fair

How to explore the myriad of student organizations on campus

Talking with faculty during Meetings for Majors

Take-away 2

Introduction to Courselink

What is a course syllabus?

How much time to spend studying outside of class

Take-away 3

What is experiential learning?

Employability skills

Reflecting on learning during orientation

Take-away 4

Up next: lunch and a community service project

Up next: lunch and free-for-all of small scale events

Up next: a series of academic programs

 

 

Volunteer Facilitators

To facilitate this program, a team of approximately 80 volunteers was created known as Academic Community Builders (ACBs). The volunteer team are now known as Orientation Volunteer Facilitators (OVFs). They are recruited as part of the umbrella Orientation Volunteer program, and participate in March in-person training, online summer training, and two days of training in August before Orientation Week begins. Dedicated training that is specific to the University InRoads program lasts a half day. Training focuses on small group facilitation skills, appropriate telling of an academic story, familiarity with academic resources on campus, appreciative inquiry, and learning how to facilitate the various activities associated with the program. Overwhelmingly, these student volunteers live off campus and pay for their own transportation. They receive a free volunteer t-shirt and meals during training.

There is significant value-added dimension to volunteering in this capacity. OVFs learn valuable skills, make meaningful mentoring connections with new students, promote vital community development, and have an impact on individuals by supporting new student success. Focusing on these benefits is an instrumental part of the volunteer recruitment initiative. Specific recruitment strategies are included in the overall Orientation Volunteer process, and have included:

  • Face to face conversations at promotional booths in high pedestrian traffic areas
  • Classroom presentations
  • E-mail sent to a large network of involved students, particularly those who were in the early stages of getting involved in campus life
  • Referrals from academic advisors and other well-connected stakeholders 

All of the stakeholders who were involved in the preliminary the design of this program also assist with recruitment and training of volunteers. Their buy-in to the potential value of University InRoads was the key to quickly developing the organizational capacity necessary to successfully implement the program.

 

Costs & Infrastructure

The cost of running University InRoads is marginal as it primarily relies on infrastructure that was already in place to support Orientation Week. The overall number of Orientation Volunteers has not increased substantially, so resources including food, t-shirts, water bottles, etc. remainsunchanged. OVFs continued to perform many other volunteer functions outside of this initiative.

There was additional staff time required for planning training and coordinating with stakeholders. The collaborative effort of professional colleagues was seen as an investment of time that was consistent with their existing roles and functions. However, since the program was largely implemented by volunteers with minimal handouts and other materials, it is a relatively low cost program.

There is no specific budget for this program over and above the general operating budget of Orientation Week. The only dedicated expenses in 2015 were for the design and printing of the handouts (about $1,750).

 

Addressing Diversity

Historically at the University of Guelph, student leaders from culturally diverse backgrounds have been less inclined to participate in Orientation Week than those who come from the dominant religious, cultural, or ethnic groups. In the past, this sometimes created an alienating experience for new students from these groups as they had difficulty locating people who could speak to their experiences and backgrounds. Given that University InRoads relies heavily on the broader Orientation infrastructure, particularly with regards to staff and volunteers, the integrated approaches we have taken to address these issues are relevant and highlighted below.

10% of funds gathered from the Orientation Fee each year are set aside for an Innovation Fund to which groups can apply for support to create new programming. The criteria for funding new initiatives are explicit about seeking to promote participation by historically underrepresented groups, and this is reflected in the proposal assessment rubric. The goal is to reduce any financial barriers some groups may face when it comes to full participation.

Job descriptions of staff positions have been modified to include responsibilities that relate to seeking out and engaging historically underrepresented groups. It is a core part of our mandate to attend to the needs of students from diverse backgrounds, and this means recruiting a staff team that has competencies in this area. The result has been greater diversity in the candidate pool and among those who are hired.

In order to recruit candidates who are both qualified and come from diverse backgrounds, we seek to create a deep pool of students who have relevant experience. This is achieved by partnering with student groups that focus on cultural themes (e.g. Taiwanese Student Association, African Student Association, Muslim Student Association, Jewish Student Organization, International Student Organization) in order to recruit volunteers into entry-level experiences, so that they can go on to eventually become more highly involved.

Once we have engaged students from culturally diverse groups, we seek to maintain their involvement by ensuring there are people in leadership positions from culturally diverse backgrounds who are visible; anti-oppression training is integrated into training for people at all levels of participation; and meals always include kosher, halal, vegetarian, and vegan options. We also proactively acknowledge and accommodate volunteers and participants who observe holy days during orientation (e.g. Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan).

Promotional materials frequently include photographs of students who are actively engaged, and while being mindful of tokenism, an effort is made to ensure a range of visible forms of diversity are represented.

It should be noted that OVFs are a mixture of women and men (though there were significantly more women), from a variety of racialized backgrounds, some of whom experience disabilities, and some of whom openly identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. As facilitators of this program, they served as role models for our new students.

Beyond our overarching strategies, University InRoads also addresses the needs of students from a variety of subgroups by ensuring that the meeting of each group is unique, even though they have a common curriculum. The volunteers who facilitate sessions for engineering students answer questions and offer insight that is specific to the culture in that discipline, whereas the volunteers in the general arts program facilitate conversation that is appropriate to the needs of new students in that context.This is important because some academic programs have a lower retention rate than others, and this approach allows us to tailor the meetings in a way that can help boost the success of students in each program.

 

Program Evaluation

University InRoads is assessed in the context of a larger assessment project that considers the entire orientation experience at the University of Guelph. It should be noted that it can be difficult to tease out the specific impact of InRoads as there are a variety of initiatives offered during Orientation Week that meet similar objectives. However, most of the academically themed transition programming has been quite stable in recent years, with the only significant change being the evolution of University InRoads.

More specifically, a comprehensive evaluation on the successful achievement of learning objectives from Orientation Week is conducted regularly. Five times over the last six years, we have used a benchmarking survey based on the instrument developed by NODA. In addition, a series of focus groups and key informant interviews are undertaken each year to garner more specific insight into various dimensions of the orientation program. This qualitative data is gathered from:

  • New Students
  • Volunteers
  • Event Planners
  • Elected Student Leaders
  • Staff and administrators

Approximately 75% of new students attended the first University InRoads session this year, which was held on Sunday, August 31st, 2013.  There was a slight increase in participation on the second day and slight decrease on for the third session, though participation generally remained very strong across all three days.  This is particularly encouraging given the optional nature of the program.

Below are some relevant findings from the 2013 assessment of orientation at the University of Guelph that relate specifically to University Inroads.

  • The gap between respondents’ experiences of the academic and social transition to university life has been narrowed to about half of what it was previously. 50% say the academic transition is easy, compared to the 59% who say the social transition is easy.
  • There has been a marked increase in the number of students who report that they have been successful at adjusting to the academic demands of the university – up to 72% from 63% prior to the creation of this program.
  • There was a dramatic improvement with regards to students’ understanding of what to expect academically – up to 60% from 48% before the program began.
  • For students who said they had not received useful information on academic advising during orientation, there was also a significant improvement (down to 32% from 43%).  
  • Fewer students said the information on time management that during orientation was inadequate (down to 36% from 47%).

There is also a counter-intuitive finding in the survey data: fewer students indicate that they feel prepared for the first day of classes compared to 2008, with a noticeable decrease occurring between 2010 and 2011 when University Inroads was first implemented.

How prepared were you for your first day of classes at this college/university?

n = 1,741

n = 1,199

n = 1,491

n = 1,247

n = 1,063

Year

2008

2009

2010

2011

2013

Extremely prepared

17.1%

18.3%

18.0%

11.9%

13.6%

Very prepared

50.7%

50.4%

48.8%

36.2%

38.2%

Top 2

67.8%

68.7%

66.8%

48.1%

51.8%

It has been found that the increased focus on academic resources, expectations and skill development during Orientation Week is raising students’ awareness of their own need for growth, rather than measuring an actual decrease in preparedness.  Indeed, being conscious of the need to learn is often a prerequisite to effective self-directed learning. The survey also indicates that the majority of new students know where resources are and have had success in accessing them, so we can conclude that students may not feel entirely prepared but they do know where to go for help.

In order to enhance the program in the future, we intend to continue to strengthen the volunteer training component of the program.  Much of the success of University Inroads relies on the skills of our ACBs.  To date, the largest components of the training curriculum have focused on a dry-run of the activities and learning relevant information.  It is our intention to incorporate more opportunities to practice skills and boost an individual sense of mastery.

 

University InRoads Partners

The following list includes the stakeholders involved in the ongoing evolution and implementation of the program:

  • The Centre for New Students
    • Manager
    • Coordinator, Orientation Programs
    • Orientation Facilitators
      • 5 student staff
    • Orientation Volunteer Facilitators (OVFs)
      • A team of 75-100 volunteers
  • Academic Advisors
  • Learning Services
    • Learning Specialist
  • Office of the Vice President (Academic)
    • Coordinator, Undergraduate Academic Information Centre
  • Student Housing Services
    • Residence Program Coordinator
    • Manager, Academic Learning Communities
  • The Orientation Week Advisory Committee
 

Implementation at Other Institutions

Replication of this program requires recruiting a new team of volunteers, or adding responsibilities to an existing group. These student leaders must be willing to commit to ongoing training in small group facilitation skills, as well as learn key information about how to be academically successful. Although this information would vary from institution to institution, some institutions may find that staff or volunteers from their summer orientation programs may be interested in facilitating these groups in the September Welcome Week (where they exist).

Other institutions might already have a volunteer pool attached to Welcome Week that they can draw on for this program. Where the volunteers are recruited and managed by the student union, this program presents a unique opportunity for a partnership between the university administration and the relevant student group(s). The student union can recruit more committed volunteers by increasing the value of the experiential learning for students who participate, and the institution enhances the meaningful programming offered to new students. Indeed, this philosophy has been the cornerstone of how orientation at Guelph as evolved over the last 15 years – our program is truly collaborative, with a joint sense of ownership between university administration and student governments. University InRoads is but one example of many that demonstrate how this approach has been successful.

Ultimately, committing to the importance of small, academically-themed community groups outside of residence can be a powerful tool for promoting engagement. With a minimal budget, a clear sense of purpose, and buy-in from key campus stakeholders, implementing University InRoads should be possible at many institutions.