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In August of 2015, I lost a week-and-a-half of my summer to one of the best decisions I’ve ever made: becoming a freshman orientation guide. It was a very busy week-and-a-half — undergoing days of training, preparing the campus for freshmen, yelling until I lost my voice — all to make sure that the transition for new students was as positively memorable as possible.

Now that I’ve been on both the receiving end and the preparing end of orientation, I’d like to share a few insights I’ve gained that may make your transition to college a little easier.

 


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1. About 90% of all people present at orientation events are somewhat nervous.

Yes. Ninety percent of people – not just freshmen. Orientation staff get nervous too.

Before meeting all our freshmen for the first time, my training group had a small pep talk (to calm our nerves) and promised to regroup if things got terribly out of hand. Some of us worried that our freshmen may not like us; others worried that they might freeze up and forget what to say. Everyone was a little anxious; the only difference was that some of us hid it better than others.

Because hey, we’re one of the first faces you see of the school, and most of us really, really want to do right by you. And we’re going to be meeting just as many new faces as you are. Screwing up in front of you guys in any way, shape, or form is just as scary for us as it is for you.

And of course, having been through orientation as a freshman, I can also guarantee you that most other freshmen are nervous too.

(Yeah – there are going to be the 10% of people who are already confident enough to walk around like they own the school. Which is great. Good for them.)

But for the rest of us, we’re all strangers in a strange land and we know nobody and we’re far away from home and oh God what if I say something really stupid and I get remembered as the person that said that dumb thing?

Yeah. Ninety percent of people are thinking those exact same thoughts.

 


 

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2. Orientation is a great time to talk to strangers.

Remember how 90% of people are nervous at orientation? Sometimes all it takes for them to calm down is a friendly “hey, how’s it going?” From my experience, most people are very relieved when they receive one.

Again – most of us come into college not knowing anyone, and we’re worried that we’ll always be that one person who doesn’t know anyone. Because of this, most people will be really open to being approached by strangers, and random conversations are totally kosher. So, if you see someone interesting and want to talk to them, why not give it a shot?

I’ve had interesting conversations with strangers both as a freshman and as an orientation leader. As a freshman I struck up a conversation with a physics major who was standing in front of me in line, and even though I was an English major at the time, we talked about astrophysics and his perception of the universe. I started another conversation with a girl in our dorm’s mail room, and we both found out we liked the same band.

And it’s not just other freshmen who are open to talking during orientation – most upperclassmen are too. If you’re humble and friendly, almost anybody is willing to talk. We’ve all been there; we were all freshmen once, so we get it. I’ve had freshmen approach me for directions, for advice on classes, for practicing their Mandarin, and these were all just curious strangers.

Plus, classes haven’t kicked in completely yet, so orientation is one of the (few) times in the school year when people are relaxed enough to be open to meeting strangers.

 


 

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3. It’s a lot less structured than you think – so go try things out!

First, a disclaimer – maybe this is exclusive to how my school runs orientation, but aside from three or four mandatory events, there’s very little that freshmen actually have to show up for.

There’s really nobody pushing you to do anything; you’re pretty much allowed to go free and explore the campus however you like, or not. You could stay in your dorm room all day too; there’s really nothing against that either.

This is mirrored in my training as an orientation guide: I wasn’t given some “master schedule” that you should follow. I can help you plan your own schedule based around your own likes, dislikes, and interests, but it’s still mostly up to you where you want to go. In fact – I actually couldn’t promote events hosted by student groups that I was a part of, as orientation guides at my school had to be neutral about all student organizations and let the freshmen figure out which ones they liked for themselves.

During orientation training, my training group was asked about our biggest regret from our personal freshman orientation. About eight of us (including me) said that we should have gone to more orientation events.

And it’s honestly one of the biggest pieces of advice I gave my orientation group; orientation is probably one of the largest school holidays, and it’s one that most universities put a lot of money towards. A lot of these events will have free food and giveaways and are centered around a specific interest or field of study. Which means not only do you get free stuff, you’ll also have a good chance of finding like minds if you go.

But don’t push yourself if you don’t want to. Last year I got to take home a lot of free food from events I was working because people didn’t show up, so I can’t really complain.

 


 

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4. Ask and you shall receive.

As orientation guides, we’re trained in listening skills and are great with fielding questions.

We’re pretty trash at mind-reading though, or at least I am. I don’t think I’ve been right a single time in my life.

College orientation is designed to be a lot more laissez-faire than high school orientation. In our training, we’re taught to conduct our sessions more like a discussion or a conversation – not a lecture. We do go over some basics that the orientation committee thinks every student should know, but unfortunately, we did not get a standardized sheet of school life questions that we should address.

Not to say that we’re not allowed to talk about the social aspects of college or our own experiences, but it’s very hard to create a uniform list of things that every incoming freshman should know about the non-academic aspects of college because every student will live out a different school life.

Because of this, it might seem like all orientation guides are interested in are classes, but that actually isn’t true. We just don’t know which aspects of non-academic life you’re interested in hearing about.

If you don’t have any extra questions for your orientation people, that’s great! But if you do have questions about something – anything, please ask your orientation guide. That’s what they’ve been trained for, and I can bet you that most of them will be grateful that someone’s finally given them a chance to use the skills that they’ve practiced in training.

If you’re not comfortable asking in front of a group, pull them aside and ask one-on-one. We’ve practiced with all sorts of embarrassing and awkward questions, so don’t be afraid of fazing us. Chances are, we’ve seen much worse.

We’re always here if you need anything, really – some of my friends have taken their orientation freshmen out to have coffee chats, and some have even become good friends.

 


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5. This too shall pass. And people don’t remember it as much as you’d think.

As an orientation guide I want to say that everyone enjoys orientation, but I know that isn’t the case. Every school does things a little differently, and perhaps you’ll get to campus and find out orientation just isn’t your thing. And that’s perfectly fine.

You might hear stories of people finding their best friends in their orientation groups (I know two people like this) and enjoying every single minute of orientation, but that isn’t everyone. And that’s okay. You don’t have to love orientation to death in order to succeed in college.

I actually found my closest friends in my classes, and back when I was still a freshman I thought orientation was just too much. I will be very honest: as a junior now, I don’t remember any of the people who were in my freshman orientation group when I first came to college.

I mean, I don’t remember names or faces – there was one kid who was from Kansas and made fun of me when I didn’t know the state capital (Topeka), and there was another kid from Las Vegas who really didn’t like to talk. But I couldn’t pick these people out of a lineup if I tried.

Here’s another confession: I have a lot of people’s phone numbers that I’ve collected during orientation freshman year…and I don’t talk to them anymore. In fact, I stopped talking to some of these people before classes even began my freshman year. Again – even though they’re in my phone contacts, I have no idea who they are anymore.

I think that because it’s so easy to talk people up during orientation, a lot of us end up talking to more people than we can actually handle becoming close friends with. So if you make a mistake, or don’t end up meshing with someone you thought you would, it’s okay.

People do end up forgetting a lot, and that in itself is very forgiving. College isn’t like high school, and if you go to a bigger college – your minor screw-up will be like a tear in the ocean. There’s probably two other people making the same verbal flub as you, at the same time. Nobody has the time to keep track of everything.

 


In conclusion?

Orientation, like college, is what you choose to make of it. If it is your thing – that’s wonderful. And if it’s not, don’t worry about it.

I’ve said a lot, but if you were to ask me to sum up this entire post in one bullet point, I’d say that the key thing to enjoying your orientation and your transition to college is to keep in mind that you’re here to grow and develop yourself, not anyone else. Do what you think is best for you, and let other people do the same for themselves. Go to the events you think are best for you, ask the questions that are right for you, and talk to the people that seem nice to you; you’re only a freshman once, after all.

Because now that I’ve been on both sides of orientation, I’ve found that it’s always the people who do just that who have no regrets.

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is part of the class of 2018 at Cornell University, double majoring in Information Science and China Studies. She hails from a public high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and enjoys geocaching, skiing, and gaming in her spare time. Admissions season has given her humility, resilience, and the ability to answer ten different prompts with one personal statement.