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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ultimate collaboration: nearly 800 employees power orientation

After speaking to 600 parents and students at orientation’s “Professor’s Perspective,” Sherry Salyer, teaching professor and undergraduate advising director in exercise and sport science, takes time to address individual questions about academic expectations.

At a University that prizes collaboration, Carolina’s orientation for first-year and transfer students may be the ultimate collaboration.

Nearly 800 faculty, staff and student employees from diverse offices across Carolina’s campus work together each year to make the massive, sustained program that is orientation run smoothly and successfully. Most of the employees work other jobs but spend time throughout the year preparing for and contributing to the 17 orientation sessions that occupy 31 days from June to August.

“Orientation lays the groundwork for a successful time at Carolina for new students and their families,” said Alison Spannaus, associate director in New Student and Family Programs. The office includes eight professional staff, 26 student Orientation Leaders and three summer graduate interns.

Planning and preparation go year-round, shifting into higher gear at the first of each calendar year, to make orientation meaningful for 5,000 incoming students and nearly 4,000 family members. On some spring days, up to four trainings for OLs, Transfer Student Ambassadors and others might be in process.

Start in January

At one of orientation’s 50 information fair tables, Adrianne Gibilisco from the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion shares information and brochures with some of each session’s 600 participants.

“We started in January with training and getting to know the other Orientation Leaders, and it ends with an intense two weeks leading up to orientation,” said Banks Grubbs, an OL from Matthews. OLs serve as resources and role models for new students.

Orientation staff meet regularly to plan each session’s major components, such as the service project that first-year students complete. Spannaus said that the staff also brings campus partners together to share each year’s changes and provide training.

As June approaches, the nearly 800 people with orientation duties coalesce around the central office. It all comes together in a series of mostly two-day sessions that begin each day with a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting. The first day’s activities end at 10 p.m. and the second day’s around 5 p.m.

While OLs provide a constant personal touch during each session, approximately 50 campus offices, departments and schools send representatives to provide information about campus life and family participation opportunities. 

Alison Spannaus and central staff help new students and their parents navigate orientation small-group sessions on June 6 at Frank Porter Graham Student Union.

Sessions include a one-night stay in a residence hall, exposure to faculty expectations and concepts such as office hours and a syllabus, an introduction to academic majors, research opportunities, the Honor Code, and how to use everything from the class registration system to the Chapel Hill Transit bus system. Orientation ends with a lively closing ceremony full of Carolina fight songs and traditions.

“We want to help them understand and to keep the values of Carolina,” Spannaus said. “We also want them to connect with their peers and make at least one new friend.”

Sharad Prabhu of Cary attended a session with a daughter. “I told my wife that it’s like a well-oiled machine,” he said. “Everything has gone like clockwork, from the signs leading to parking to the Orientation Leaders taking us around campus. I’ve had just the right amount of space with my daughter and me doing different things, then intersecting at other sessions. It’s been a really great experience.”

Parents and their students meet in small-group “More than a Major” sessions with faculty, academic advisers and OLs. The sessions are for students who are interested in specific majors or who have not decided what to study. Ranging from fine arts and humanities to business to pre-healthcare, discussions also include advice on extracurricular activities, jobs, public service, research and more. Participants’ questions vary, but panel members address them all with inspirational and informational responses.

A professor’s perspective

“Professor’s Perspective,” a larger session for all parents and students, brings on stage faculty from departments such as art, psychology and chemistry throughout the summer. A recent session featured Sherry Salyer, teaching professor and undergraduate advising director in exercise and sport science, who informed and entertained the audience with advice on academic success. One key to college success, she said, is “priority management, not time management.” 

Other campus partners include:

Each year, the campus-wide collaboration changes here and there, but the result is the same: new students will arrive in fall semester ready for a fulfilling and positive Carolina experience.