For the last 165 years, MSU has supported and educated students through wars and economic crises, depressions and recessions, epidemics and pandemics. This summer, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing every university in the country to adapt to new limitations, and part of Michigan State University’s response is to substantially expand New Student Orientation, or NSO.
NSO’s goal is to make sure that a year from now this fall’s first-year students are a year closer to graduation. Portia Watkins, the recently appointed director of New Student Orientation, is leading a group of committed Spartans to ensure that new students have the tools and information they need to be successful at MSU.
Associate provost Mark Largent appointed Watkins director of NSO because of her background as assistant director of student life for student organizations and activities. Her goal is to make orientation more effective in welcoming, orienting and supporting students through a transition that can be challenging even in the best of circumstances. MSU had plans to expand orientation to be more personalized and less rushed pre-pandemic — the current situation has accelerated her efforts.
Largent recognizes the need to provide new students, particularly first-year students, with more individualized care and attention than in years past. “Their senior year, they didn’t get what high school seniors expect, and our goal is to help make it up to them, to help MSU make their transition everything it can be,” Largent said.
Previously, orientation consisted of large in-person meetings to schedule classes, become acclimated to campus resources and explore student organization opportunities during an overnight stay on campus. This 36-hour experience did not allow time for students to explore all of the college-specific and campus resources that would be available to them as a Spartan.
Senior Emma Gorman described the schedule-building portion of her orientation as rushed — lacking clarity and personalization. She said she didn’t enjoy her original major and wished she had gotten a more thorough introduction to it.
“I think an online resource platform and one-on-one advising will be really beneficial for new students,” Gorman said.
To meet the challenge of orienting students in fundamentally new ways, NSO will be delivered as a one-credit UGS 100 course through the D2L platform. This will spread the content out, offer a great deal more content than could be included at in-person orientation, and allow for a more comprehensive understanding of academic and campus life.
Meeting students’ needs right where they are is the main goal for an extended, online NSO. In the past, more than 20% of students changed their major during orientation; there was difficulty in supporting these changes on the spot and providing students with new resources to match their needs.
The online NSO experience will include modules ranging from how to have a positive roommate experience, to stress management resources, to career counseling.
The new platform will provide extensive information for career exploration so that students can take the time to make a decision and have all the resources they need available to them before making a schedule.
The online experience will be divided into three parts: Part one will introduce students to systems like D2L, Zoom, Teams and Stuinfo; part two will encompass the use of these platforms to connect with advisers and enroll in classes; and part three will include customizable modules about academics and campus culture. Students will learn through video tutorials from MSU IT and upper division students courtesy of the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative (NSSC).
Incoming students won’t have the same on-campus experience, but they will have an abundance of resources to make the transition as smooth as possible.
“I was really looking forward to getting my first feel of being an MSU college student at orientation,” said incoming freshman Ethan Price. “I feel that the transitional phase from high school to college will be a little more challenging due to the circumstances.”
To promote these student connections during an online NSO, there will be small group interactions via Zoom with peers and orientation leaders as well as opportunities to learn about programs, extracurriculars and opportunities for students. NSO administration will be able to revise this component as needed in order to adjust content to meet the needs and interests of students.
“I would tell students to continue to be open to all of the possibilities of how learning will take place,” said Watkins. “Flexibility and perseverance are necessary, and I know they possess these [traits] because of how they have gotten through their senior year.”
A solid introduction to campus and comprehensive knowledge of the resources available is more important than ever. Expanding NSO throughout the summer will provide incoming students with more time to engage with advisers and build relationships with staff, explore academic program options and collect the necessary tools for a successful first year at MSU.
“Transitions take time, so remember to give yourself some grace and utilize the resources to assist you,” said Watkins.