Interview with Megan Higginbotham, Assistant Coordinator of New Student and Family Programs
What trends have you noticed in orientation in your time at TAMU, Virginia Tech, and University of Mary Washington?
One trend I've noticed is the increasing number of supportive family members or parents that are attending the orientation with their students. Back in the day, it was common to drop your student off without getting out of the car. Today's parents are more involved than ever. We have a staff member in our office who is dedicated to parent and family programming because we know their continued involvement in the student’s college career can positively influence the student’s experience.
We hear from parents all the time that they just don't want to see their students fail. This can turn into a problem, though, when students aren't self-reliant when they arrive on campus. We often meet students who are unprepared to be on their own, and used to having mom or dad take care of everything. When some students have an issue in the classroom, they often call their parents before reaching out to to the professor. Some students tell me that their parents helped them significantly with the application process.
During orientation, it's important that we're primarily communicating with the student. Our family programming delivers the same information, but allows students to have the freedom of having their own meeting and receive information in a different format. In addition, family programs focus on empowering students to gain confidence. Some of the things we go over include:
- Setting boundaries with your student: We tell parents not to call professors about their students' first bad grade, and not to pick up their students' laundry on the weekends.
- Family newsletters: We introduce our family newsletter that gives them calendars of important dates and helpful things they can do for their students.
- Thinking of parents as "partners": Our Dean of Students also runs a program with other staff on campus called "Partners in Success", that stresses parents' roles as partners, not authority figures.
- Family weekend: We just recently changed the name of this program from "Parents’ Weekend" to be more inclusive of the many different kinds of families that support our students.
One other initiative we've found helpful is for our ESL family members who attend orientation. In partnership with our alumni center, we have been hiring students to translate most materials for Spanish speaking families. Some of these students are even hired to translate in real time at live presentations. Previously, students were often not paying attention to their own orientation, because they were translating for mom and dad. Since starting this initiative, we've seen a lot of success in the engagement of our ESL families at events, and in their students' engagement.
Tell me about some of the programs Texas A&M University runs for new students?
Fish Camp is one of the oldest extended orientation opportunities in the country. About 60% of the freshman class goes to Fish Camp for four days and three nights. The student run program gives freshmen the opportunity to learn more about campus and traditions from their peers, while making friendships that last way beyond the program. A similar program, T-Camp or Transfer Camp, is designed to help transition incoming transfer students.
Gig 'Em Week is our official week of welcome and is a non-mandatory week full of events. There is a series of Signature Events (events with more than 500 attendees), and smaller programs that can be run by any office or student organization at the school. The goal of Gig 'Em Week is to get students engaged and comfortable on campus the week before school starts. Throughout the week, we encourage them to meet with staff, meet new friends and challenge themselves. We have a very diverse student body including a large percentage of veterans, international students, and transfer students. For those students, we highlight "program tracks" during Gig 'Em Week so that they know which programs will be most relevant to them.
How does Texas A&M University approach transfer student support?
On the individual college level within A&M, there are some colleges that are doing better than others. Because freshmen outnumber transfer students, they can often be overlooked. As a university we try to be very mindful not to treat transfer students' needs the same as the freshmens' needs.
Our transfer student programs, for example, recognize that they've been at an institution before and acknowledge that they need different support than freshmen. Some colleges also have their own transfer student initiatives. Many involve mentorship opportunities or transfer student fairs. The Academic Success Center on campus has a Transfer Student Program that is centered around mentoring and providing transfer students with resources to help make the most out of their academic career.
What advice would you give to schools about starting or improving an orientation program?
Make sure that your program addresses the needs of the incoming students. You can do this in many ways:
- Ask current students: What do you wish you knew before starting class?
- Ask groups on campus, like the residential life office: What are students struggling with the first weeks of the semester?
- Ask the police or conduct office: What does it seem like students could understand better?
- Ask academic entities: Where are students struggling?
Showing campus partners and offices why it's important and helpful for them to be a part of orientation, makes your programs much more impactful - and easier to run.
Megan Higginbotham is an Assistant Coordinator for the Office of New Student & Family Programs at Texas A&M University. She advises the Aggie Orientation Leader Program, coordinates Gig ‘Em Week: Aggieland’s Week of Welcome, and supports New Student Conferences, the mandatory two-day orientation for all incoming students. Previously she worked with orientation and student activities at Virginia Tech and the University of Mary Washington.
Additionally, Megan spends time in leadership positions with the Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education (NODA) and the Young Alumni Advisory Council for The Association of Former Students at Texas A&M.