Failing “Akeisha”: Who Isn’t Coming to Orientation Week?
Orientation Week. The big, “Welcome to Ryerson!” We plan for months to create this inviting, inclusive space, accessible to all incoming students—and only a handful attend. There are many students that don’t come out to Orientation; which means they miss that first connection point to campus, their academics, and the next years of their life at Ryerson.
Somewhere along the way, we aren’t able to engage every one of the ~9000 incoming students to join us for this curated Ryerson welcome experience. Why? Are we failing to make orientation interesting for them? Are we failing to meet their needs? Are we not thoughtful enough about what they want to experience during their first week on campus? Who isn’t coming to Orientation Week and why aren’t they coming? And what does this mean to our work in Student Life Programs, Student Affairs, and Ryerson University as some of our students don’t feel connected from the start?
These are the main questions that came to my mind as I was asked to reflect on how Student Life has “failed” a student/students. Orientation came to my mind because, as I thought back to my own postsecondary experience, I did not feel connected. I left after the mandatory part and did not think I missed out on anything because I didn’t feel like the activities were for me, my interests, and my needs. I was failed. And now, I am thinking about those students similar to me who do not see themselves reflected in Orientation and I want to make sure I, and we, do not fail them.
Getting at the Truth: Start with Data
To start, we need to get into the truth about who isn’t coming and why. Upon reviewing our feedback survey from 2016, we noticed there were specific groups that were not attending in significant numbers: commuter students, first generation students, and racialized students. Out of the 14% of survey respondents who indicated that they did not attend any orientation activities, 76% were commuter students with a commute between 30 minutes to 1.5+ hours, 34% were first generation students, and 28% were racialized students. As we went further into their individual responses, we analyzed the responses of these groups to better understand why they did not attend.
Within the first group we analyzed, commuter students, 28% of the respondents said that they did not attend because of the time they would spend commuting, 28% said they did not know about Orientation Week, and 17% said they had to work. For first generation students, 42% said they did not attend because of the time they would spend commuting, 33% did not know about Orientation Week, and 17% said they had to work. As for racialized students, 18% said that they did not attend because of the time they would spend commuting and 55% said they they did not know about Orientation Week.
I share this data because it is a very clear indication that we have been missing out on engaging specific populations of students at Orientation. Connecting back to myself, I identify as all three of these populations and as I was going through the data, it really hit me that I was failing incoming student “Akeisha”.
Thinking about why these three particular groups were not showing up—commuting long distances, working, and not knowing about Orientation Week—made me reflect on what we need to do to create a support system for students to excel, while also understanding that students need to be educated on the importance of supporting their own transition.
Aspirations for the Future: What Can We Do?
For us in Student Life Programs, this means that we need to do a few specific things to address the above mentioned failures.
We need to increase our outreach to students from the moment they get their admissions letter welcoming them to Ryerson and letting them know about Orientation Week from the start of their university experience. Recently, at the Indigenizing the RyersonSA Pillars talking circle on the personal development pillar, we spoke about the importance of rites of passage. This made me think about how we can frame postsecondary moments as rites of passages for students, so that they understand the significance of each step of their journey. As well, so that they know we are here to support them through their passage of their first few days on campus via our orientation programming. This is specifically important for our first generation incoming students, as they are the first in their family to attend postsecondary and may be wondering where they can turn to for support.
Provide Something For Everyone
Once students know we are here to support them, we need to ensure that we have a variety of activities that will be of interest to our diverse student population at Ryerson. We need incoming students to see themselves reflected in our programming and feel connected to our offerings; this need is of particular importance to racialized students, who may not connect to traditional programming. Listening to the experts—students—and creating programming with them that is for them is our best way to ensure we are meeting their needs and providing them with the opportunity to empower themselves as individuals aware of their own transition experience.
Meet Them Where They Are
Finally, we need to meet students where they are at. Literally. For commuter students, we need to go to wherever they are commuting from and support them on their way to campus. Ryerson to the Core, Ryerson’s commuter program for Orientation 2017 (and beyond into the school year for all years of students), will do this through student ambassadors—as well as interested staff and faculty—who will be riding along with incoming students and chatting with them about what to expect at Ryerson as they make their way to campus.
We know the importance of students knowing about all the supports we offer for them—even if they don’t need/are not ready to know about all of them on their very first day on campus. As students consistently say in our feedback surveys, the top reasons they attend orientation programming are to meet/get to know new people; to integrate into the university or Ryerson environment; to feel a sense of belonging; to be part of the community; and, finally, to have fun! This means our role during Orientation Week, as SA supports, should be to create a space where students can do all of those things that are listed as the top reasons they attend orientation programming while also knowing that we are setting them up to build skills and connections needed to support their own transition.
Student Affairs matters to a new student because we all provide spaces and services that support the needs of the whole student. Our collective support of Orientation Week will let students know that together we are an open “hand” of the school, one that will warmly welcome them onto campus at Orientation, place trampolines to help them bounce back in moments where they fall in their first few weeks, and when they are ready to thrive in their incoming year and beyond, we are there to provide scaffolding to support their climb to new heights throughout their postsecondary journey.
I believe this is incredibly important, so I’m going to say it again: together, we are here to offer a warm welcome; help students bounce back from moments where they fall; and provide scaffolding to support their climb to new heights throughout their postsecondary journey.
Truths & Aspirations: RyersonSA’s Critical Reflection on Past Failures and Future Growth is a week long series for #Canada150 in which RyersonSA members reflect on a way we may have let students down, what we learned from it, and how it will affect what we aspire to be in the future.