College officials know how critical freshman orientation is.
“For us, getting them comfortable and well-adjusted that first year increases their likelihood of their returning the second year,” said Katie Carpenter, associate dean of student life at Rocky Mountain College in Billings.
Orientation for incoming students this year is Aug. 21-24 on the Rocky campus, with classes starting on Aug. 25. It’s early to predict numbers, but the college has planned for and is expecting more than 300 new undergraduates to add to the 570 to 580 returning undergraduate students, said John Clayton, vice president of Enrollment Services.
On the master’s degree level, the small, private liberal arts college expects 26 students in the master’s of education program, 68 in the physician assistant program and up to 10 in the master of accountancy program.
Orientation at Rocky has changed from what it once was. For the decade preceding last fall, students were bused off-campus to such places as Camp on the Boulder.
It gave the students a chance to get to know each other, Carpenter said.
“But we didn’t necessarily feel we were connecting them to campus and to the community as well as we might be,” she said. “So that’s what brought about the change.”
The shift to campus also allowed for a focus on academic excellence, she said. Orientation organizers saw success last fall, so they’ll continue in the same direction this year, with a few tweaks in the schedule.
Orientation kicks off on a Thursday, with students checking in to the dorms, and then, along with their parents, getting a welcome to campus. That includes a talk by President Bob Wilmouth and the longtime tradition of the president’s dinner.
The second day focuses on academic success. Students are exposed to academic support programs, such as peer mentoring, tutoring and the writing center.
They meet faculty members and other students enrolled in their same course of study. Then the students take part in their first Campus Compass session, a first-year class that lasts 11 weeks.
“It’s a course that sets them up for success for the time they’re here,” Carpenter said. “It’s co-instructed by one staff member and two peer members in their sophomore, junior or senior year.”
Something new this year is a Rocky family night at ZooMontana. All the new students will gather with faculty and staff and their families to enjoy dinner and live music.
“This is a really good opportunity for us to give the students an example of what we mean when we say ‘Rocky family,’ ” Carpenter said. “We’re constantly talking during admissions that we’re a family, and this will show what that means.”
The third day focuses on their student experience and engaging in the community. With one of the school’s core themes shared responsibility and stewardship, students all take part in four hours of community service.
The second half of the day, they get a sneak peek of what it’s like to be a Rocky student, giving them opportunities to sign up for campus clubs and organizations. They also can try out activities, such as rock climbing or bike riding or going to Geyser Park.
On Sunday they might take a day trip to go hiking or white water rafting, or they may take the day to get settled in. It’s all about having down time for fun or relaxation, Carpenter said.
The final night also has something new this year, a welcome back family-style dinner for all Rocky students. It’s a way to fold new students into the larger student population, she said.
But orientation doesn’t end when school starts.
“We have a student panel planned one evening that first week of classes where they can go and ask returning students questions they have at that point,” she said. “That gives them more time to figure out questions.”
Campus Compass continues weekly for one hour a week. The focus will continue to be on succeeding in school academically and socially.
“We address their transition, homesickness, health and wellness and life skills,” Carpenter said.
Organizing orientation is a collaborative effort, she added, with many staff members hammering out the details. Then all the student leaders involved in the orientation take part in a two-day training retreat off campus to get ready for the new students.
With so many people involved in the planning and execution of orientation, Carpenter said, the new students “have a chance to see all the people that will be supportive of their experience” at Rocky.