AssessmentOrientationThoughts, Feelings

Asking the Obvious: Why Does Student Affairs Engage Students During Orientation?

This Sunday, after days (in some cases, weeks) of student staff training, Ryerson University kicks-off Orientation by moving 900+ students into Residence, followed by a week filled with hundreds of events organized by academic, staff, and student groups across campus, and continues throughout the first 6 weeks of class (and beyond). It’s unnecessary for me to tell SA professionals (if there are any of you able to break away from Orientation planning to read this right now)—RyersonSA is busy as a beehive! There’s a frenetic, apocalyptic energy permeating campus, and student affairs folks are crowding the centre.

It may seem odd then that I want us to take a moment and pause, but it’s very important I think to remind us why we’re here. See, I want to ask you a question. A simple question, but one with very important ramifications to our work:

Why does student affairs engage students during Orientation?

I know, right? What’s this guy playing at? It’s so obvious, we don’t even need to say it, we’re just going to go back to focusing on making our Orientation programming a thing able to happen, m’kay?

But I don’t think the answer is as obvious as it feels, and more importantly, the more obvious something feels the more inclined I am to ask why. I don’t care to take anything at face-feeling; I’ve too often been led astray by it. So I ask you: Why does SA engage students during Orientation?

We dedicate so much staff, money, hours, energy, effort, resources, focus, meetings, plans, etcetera, to this moment in time, isn’t it important that we understand why—no matter how obvious—so that we can continue to reflect, learn, and actually grow? If we don’t ask why, we stagnate. We lose touch, repeating the same methods over and over again, becoming more and more distant from the people we support.

So I set out to lose some friends by asking my colleagues, as they scrambled to train student leaders, finalize programming plans, and get ready for the impending Orientation Beast—why do you and your department, as members of student affairs, engage students during Orientation? Here’s what they had to say.

Student Life

By Woo Kim — Coordinator, Tri-Mentoring Program

If you’re a fan of Student Development Theory like I am, you may know about Schlossberg’s ideas on Mattering and Marginality (literally one of my faves). This theory confirms a pretty important point: people want to feel like they matter. If you feel like you matter, you are more likely to engage and flourish. If you feel like you are on the margins, you are less likely to flourish.

One of the best things about Orientation (and there are so many) is that it is our large scale chance to make our students feel like they matter on campus. This big welcome is for them. We care about them and their well-being and success so much that we planned a huge welcome event—just for them! We station ourselves around downtown to make sure they get to campus, we welcome them directly (how many times will you say “Welcome to Ryerson!” during Orientation?), we plan events so they know they are now part of the community, we ask questions to find out more about them. We get to know their names.

For students who do feel they’re on the margins, we run programs to invite them into the community because we want them to feel like they belong here, that in choosing Ryerson, they made a great choice. As student affairs professionals, this is what we strive for in our year round programming, so—of course!—we are part of the whole campus community welcoming new students to Ryerson on Day 1.

I couldn’t agree more. If you don’t feel like you belong—especially from the very beginning—you’re less  likely to feel safe, and thus willing to persevere through bad times (nor enjoy the happy ones). It’s impossible to thrive if you’re still struggling to feel like you belong. We’re already members in the community, it’s our duty to welcome new members when they arrive.

Housing & Residence Life

by Ann Le — Residence Life Facilitator

Orientation is our opportunity to welcome students to their new home at Ryerson. Residence is an environment where they will live and learn, academically and personally. We want to ensure that they know they are a part of a community within residence, as well as the greater university. The Residence Life team puts a great effort into connecting with students so that they have individuals they can turn to during the start of their new chapter and throughout the year.

Engaging with students during Orientation is important for us because we want to ensure students know that they are supported and have many resources available to them. The transition into postsecondary can be exciting, but also challenging; especially if it is a student’s first time living away from home. Orientation is their first impression of their university career, and we want to ensure it’s a meaningful one! These personal connections can go a long way for our incoming students, and we hope that it can make a lasting impact that will lead them to convocation.

There’s that word again: community. An important word in students affairs, but even more so for housing and residence life. These buildings are not just homes to students, they’re the largest classrooms on campus. Living and learning happen continuously, side-by-side, and it’s important that the new group of incoming students know they are supported by their peers (Residence Advisors), but also by one another.

Student Health & Wellness

by Allan Macdonald — Director, Student Health & Wellness

When Luke stepped into my office at the end of a recent workday and asked me to write a blog post about the Ryerson orientation experience, this is how I felt. I have to confess, even though I have 8 years of postsecondary education under my belt, my student affairs experience is comprised / limited to attending (many) sporting events and the exceptional McMaster Physiotherapy Halloween parties. Since joining the RyersonSA team, it has been a privilege to begin thinking about how the work we do in Student Health & Wellness (SHaW) can continue to contribute to the orientation experience here at Ryerson.

I have a front row seat observing student development in my other role, as faculty in the Physical Therapy Department at the University of Toronto. Our students move through a remarkable progression from the “deer in headlights” look of the first week to polished professionals actively contributing to conferences at the end of their two years. We aim to help our students appreciate from Day 1 that they are part of a powerful group of future leaders who will be learning together for the next two years, and will end up making a massive contribution to the health of Canadians (and abroad!) when they graduate. I’d like students beginning this stage of their life (from the deer to the polished, and everything between!) to hear the following from SHaW:

  1. It might feel like it at first, but you are not alone at Ryerson. If you’re feeling unwell there are so many people here who are willing to help.
  2. We are some of the people here to help—we have counselling services, a health centre, and all kinds of creative group options for those who are interested or need it.
  3. At SHaW, we’re really interested in helping you invest in your health as you create your future, whatever that might be.

Allan is a new member of RyersonSA (he was hired in July), and is very new to student affairs in general, let alone his department and Orientation. But I told him that’s precisely why I want his take on student affairs engaging students during Orientation. Someone new to the field—without preconceived notions or past experiences but with unique perspectives—sitting down and just thinking about why it makes sense.

I’m not surprised he came to a conclusion of support (it’s kind of the baseline of what SA does). I see it as him confirming our first principles through independent thought. (He doesn’t know it yet, but I want to ask him the same question again next year, to see how his answer evolves after experience an Orientation and a full-year cycle.)

Student Learning Support

by Aleksandra Kulesza — Peer Learning Support Facilitator

In general, Student Learning Support seeks to make the connection between academics and campus engagement. The academic journey need not be a solo-adventure, and SLS orientation hopes to create those communities for students to feel welcome to join our programming, ask for assistance, and hopefully create their own learning communities.

We want students aware of the academic support they have on campus, and to know how to find us when they need the assistance. It’s very important for students to know what services are available to them and to begin their studies prepared with the appropriate skills and support.

Few students needs our help during O-Week, but by being there at Orientation, we lay the groundwork for the future when they will need our workshops, one-on-one meetings, and peer support by getting to know us and our space.

That’s a second shout out to “support.” In fact, I’m starting to see some trends across all these answers. Learning Support is one of our most important functions, I’d say—since they so directly connect the academics, the reason people are on campus being students in the first place. But for all those like me (that wished all of my professors to hold off actually lecturing until the second class…), the start of Orientation is no time for books! Still, knowing the support exists, and meeting some of the people involved before I’m stressed out and thinking about nothing but that paper…

Career Centre

by Rachel Barreca — Manager, Campus Engagement

The Ryerson Career Centre engages with students during Orientation because we know it is important that we are integrated into their Ryerson experience. Our first Principle of Support (“Full Student Lifecycle”) is all about empowering students to develop their careers from before they arrive through to graduation and beyond. The sooner someone starts exploring their career pathway(s) the better.

We also know that our incoming students are not in the right headspace to think about their careers in any specific way during Orientation Week. This is a time when they’re worried about finding their way around campus, making friends, discovering places to eat, and understanding what it means to study at Ryerson University. (We’re talking about the first two to three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, here.) So, we meet our new students where they’re at and engage with them in ways they will hear and see us.

We participate in fun activities, give away free stuff, run contests with prizes, answer questions, and help them meet new people (otherwise known as networking). Our O-Week programming goals are for new students (and the student leaders who help them) to know:

  • We exist.
  • Where our office is located.
  • That we are friendly, welcoming, and approachable.

If we meet those goals, we think it will be is easier to convince them to start participating in our regular programming throughout their time as a Ryerson student.

I love this answer. It’s so reflective and understanding of departmental goals (large and small), but frames them to effectively succeed within the given context. Again, they engage for support, but know that now may not be the best time for deep learning; but it’s never too early to lay the groundwork for deep learning.

It also gave me pause in my own thoughts. I’ve been questioning recently (as you can guess) the role of Orientation in a student’s development, both as a person and academically, and whether or not we, as student affairs professionals and beyond, are doing an effective job with it. Rachel’s response (along with conversations with peers while crafting this article) reminded me that I have but one perspective on the matter. I look forward to bringing this contemplation to further discussions on the topic.


Why do student affairs professionals engage students during Orientation: community and support.

It may seem extra obvious now, however, I for one feel better achieving a slightly deeper understanding of why community and support (admittedly, the bread and butter of student affairs) is central to our engagement at this time of year. I like understanding how these two elements interplay across our division, under the different departments’ mandates and goals. I like asking the question, making the reflections, and continuing to grow.

In the end, Orientation isn’t likely to be a person’s first impression of campus and your postsecondary institution, but this is their first impression of actually being here, as a student. Academia, campus—these are a part of their world now, and we are ambassadors, standing at the entrance with the doors held wide open, waving them in. Along the way we offer them a smile and a high five—while quietly slipping a pamphlet into their backpack for when they’re ready or in need. Community and support; that’s why we engage.

All next week I ask SA colleagues, in 250-words, how their departments are engaging students during Orientation, and why they chose that particular method? We’ll be looking at therapy dogs, SHIFT, a Faculty of Community Services career development workshop, and the new O-Week Music Fest! Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!