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Stephens, Columbia colleges prepare freshmen through service projects, scavenger hunts

Thursday, August 19, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Austin Miller shares a laugh with his fellow Columbia College orientation leaders during a team building game inside of the Atkins-Holman Student Commons on Columbia College's main campus on Tuesday, Aug. 10. Miller and his peers were working to build communication between themselves before student orientation began.

COLUMBIA — Each year, Columbia sees an influx of new students as freshmen flood the city for their first year of college. For long-time residents, this means more traffic, longer waits at restaurants and a generally busier city.

But for the city's newest inhabitants, it can mean starting the most nerve-racking time in their lives.

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Stephens and Columbia colleges offer summer orientation programs that focus on making sure freshmen are kept too busy to dwell on much else.

"We try to stave off that homesickness that can settle in," said Kim Coke, director of student development for Columbia College. "We do that pretty intentionally."

Classes start on Monday at Columbia College and on Tuesday for undergraduates at Stephens College.. Before that, both schools hold days of team-building activities to try to put freshmen at ease before they begin their first semester in college.

Columbia College

Columbia College expects about 130 freshmen this fall. The school's jam-packed orientation week starts Thursday, but community consultants — the name for the school's orientation leaders — don't wait until mid-August to contact freshmen.

During the summer, the community consultants send freshmen letters with their phone numbers and e-mail addresses and encourage students to keep in touch.

"They can contact us, ask us questions at any times," community consultant Austin Miller said.

Coke said they try to encourage students to move in early so they can get their space set up before the craziness of orientation starts, because once it starts, it's pretty nonstop.

"We really try that first week and a half to keep them really engaged," Coke said.

Community consultants are current students who have been chosen to guide freshmen through orientation and their first semester. Right off the bat, they take students to pick up necessities such as mailbox numbers, parking permits and student IDs.

The traditional pinning ceremony is one of the most important aspects of orientation week. In the more than a decade-old ceremony, students are welcomed to the Columbia College community. They receive a lapel pin that says Columbia College and commitment, and they meet the college's president, Gerald Brouder.

"We basically are welcoming them in for the first time as that new class," Coke said

When they graduate, they are given a white rose to symbolize that they went through the pinning ceremony and completed their education with Columbia College.

New to orientation this year is a "speed mingle" with faculty members to give freshmen a chance to meet their teachers in a nontraditional setting. Coke said she knows a lot of freshmen are nervous about encountering college faculty, and she hopes this will be a way to break the ice and foster lasting relationships.

"Because Columbia College is such a close-knit community, the faculty truly get to know you," Coke said.

Planning for the speed mingle is still in the early stages but will include "mocktails" and appetizers.

Community consultants also take freshmen on day trips out of Columbia as a way for them to get to know different areas in Missouri and each other. This year students can choose one of three trips: Six Flags near St. Louis, the Lake of the Ozarks or Rocheport and surrounding areas.

"It's just an opportunity for those students to really get to know those students they're going to be in school with," Coke said.

Miller, who is in his second year as a community consultant, said he became involved with orientation because he wanted to live up to the example his community consultants set.

"They were so cool, and they knew everything," he said. "I really appreciated that."

Miller, now a senior math major, said his community consultant was always around to answer questions. They also had a couple of classes together so she would check in on him after class.

Training for community consultants focuses on communication. They do team-building exercises, learn how to effectively communicate with international students and try to find ways to relate to the anxieties new students might feel.

"A lot of it's being able to understand the perspective of where the freshmen are coming from," Miller said.

Community consultants receive some course credit for the training they do during the spring semester. They also receive a stipend. However, that's not why they chose to become community consultants, Miller said.

"None of us ever do it for the money," he said. "You get more from it than just that."

Stephens College

Stephens College runs a four-day orientation program to prepare its freshmen before classes begin. The orientation includes a casino night, teamwork activities and an annual service project called Stephens Goes to the Streets, said student services coordinator Erin Zevely.

For the service project, which is mandatory for new freshmen but not for transfer students, students are divided into groups and take city buses to different locations in Columbia to perform volunteer work.

Past locations have included the Central Missouri Humane Society and the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri (formerly the Central Missouri Food Bank), Zevely said.

By participating in the volunteer project, students earn credit for their Stephens Success Class, a class that's offered to freshman during the first half of the first semester. Stephens senior Sam Schwartzman, who is also an orientation group leader, called it a "college 101 class."

One peer teacher and one faculty member teach freshmen about campus life to make it easier for students to adjust to college and to living on campus.

"It's like a transition kind of thing," Schwartzman said.

Schwartzman decided to become an orientation group leader after not getting the campus introduction she wanted.

"My orientation experience was kind of crappy," she said, adding that her first semester at Stephens would have been better if she had received more guidance.

Schwartzman said the orientation program has improved since she was a freshman. It's more fun and leaders try harder to encourage participation, she said.

"We're not just leaving them by themselves," she said. "At least we're, like, trying to help them."

Part of helping prepare freshmen includes letting them know what orientation, and the school year, will be like.

"We are constantly communicating with the new students telling them what to expect," Zevely said.

No estimate was available for the coming semester, but last fall's freshmen enrollment was 298.

Zevely and the other leaders are trying to make sure freshmen "start off the experience with a good start," Schwartzmann said.

Schwartzman is not paid for being an orientation leader. She might be able to earn a credit hour but hasn't received a final answer about that yet.

A couple of her former freshmen are now orientation leaders themselves, she said. "I guess they had a good experience."


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