Interview with Larry Cloud, Assistant Director of New Student Orientation at Georgia Institute of Technology
How do you walk the line between orientation being inclusive and also personalized?
I think it's a function of how we present our program. There is some information that every student needs to hear including school traditions, campus policies, academic integrity, etc. That said, 45 years of experience has taught us that we also need to work closely with student leaders to make personalized connections. We break up large presentations into smaller groups of fourteen or so students. These groups provide a place to create intentional connections with icebreakers and games. We really count on our leaders to create group identities that new students can feel belonging for. They've accomplished this in all sorts of ways over the years including having quirky names, giving out tokens, and making food for their groups.
We also encourage our student leaders to look outside their groups for those connections. In every group there will be students who need one on one time. Engaging icebreakers isn’t for everybody, and we want to be conscious of that in our orientation programs.
How do your programs provide personalized support for freshmen, transfer students and international students?
First year students have a traditional two day program. The first day is all about "success outside of classroom". We partner with campus departments and divisions to provide different programs and presentations that are relevant to all freshmen. We also break them up into small groups during sessions, where current student mentors can talk to them about issues and concerns.
One program that we've had a lot of success with is "tech stories". Most orientation programs have some variation of "life skits", where students act out parodies of critical issues on campus to spur discussion about how to handle them. Tech stories is slightly different. It allows current students to share their stories in a single person presentation model. New students get to hear genuine, authentic, and relatable stories which are always well-received. Students learn that even classmates who seem outwardly successful, have all faced similar struggles.
Transfer student orientation is a little different. We just recently started a two day FASET program, which stands for "Familiarization and Adaptation to the Surroundings and Environs of Tech", specifically for transfer students. Previously our sessions lasted one day, because we originally thought that transfer students weren't interested in staying overnight. Our research and surveys, however, eventually helped us realize that they wanted more value from the program. The two day transfer orientation has some of the same aspects of first year orientation but the content is entirely refocused for their unique needs.
Georgia Tech is also home to a large international student population. Our Exchange FASET program occurs two weeks before school starts and partners with the international student office. We have programming that walks students through the logistics of their visa and important paperwork. Importantly, we also work with the international student office to train our student orientation leaders, so that they understand the unique challenges that international students face.
What challenges do new students at Georgia Tech face?
At Georgia Tech, we are known as an academically rigorous program. Academics are number one on campus. For that reason, being aware and improving the mental health of our students is a major focus. Typically students come here having always been successful. They could have gone to any school in the nation and chose to come to Georgia Tech. Because of this, our student body tends to be chronically competitive and comparative. When they struggle they often don’t know how to react. They tend to believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness.
We need to teach our students that one bad grade doesn’t define them. We make sure to address it during orientation in several different ways. We also prepare parents with strategies for dealing with their students' stress. Administration-wide, resources, programs and funding goes to mental health. It's important to help students understand that they can and should take advantage of those services.
What were the motivations behind creating a new school-wide mentorship program this year?
Until this year, Georgia Tech did not have a holistic or generalized mentorship opportunity. Much of the mentorship we offer is tied to specific majors or interests. For example, our school of biomedical engineering sets up mentorship relationships that are tied to that discipline. If a student's major doesn't offer this kind of program, or they want to be connected with someone outside of their field of study, they previously didn't have any options. After talking to advisors and students, we decided that there was a real need for a program like this.
The main focus of the program is the success and transition of new students. I believe: "You can say that you’re a mentor, but until someone identifies you as their mentor you’re not yet a mentor.” For that reason, we're really focusing on the quality of our matched mentor-mentee pairs. One of the things we're doing is running a pairing event so that students can put a face to mentors in the program.
At Georgia Tech, we’re always innovating with new programs, and sharing our programs with other schools. Whether at conferences or through newsletters, we’re by no means hesitant to share the details of our programs with others. If you or a colleague have any questions about the programs talked about in this article, our office is more than happy to have a talk.
Larry Cloud has been Assistant Director of Orientation and New Student Programs at Georgia Tech since 2013. Previously he has worked at Southern Polytechnic State University in residential life and experience. In 2010, Larry graduated University of Georgia with a Master's in Education.