Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

NIU orientation leaders will escort 10,000 visitors, including new freshmen, transfer students and their family and friends, through campus this summer.
NIU orientation leaders will escort 10,000 visitors, including new freshmen, transfer students and their family and friends, through campus this summer.

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News Release

Contact: Orientation and First-Year Experience
(815) 753-1535

June 1, 2009

Walking backward, looking ahead:
NIU orientation gears up for another busy summer

DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University is never a ghost town, not even in the summer.

Amidst all the construction projects and the youth camps are daily orientation parades of new students and their families. By early August, an expected 10,000 visitors will have explored campus by following closely behind the red-shirted backward walkers.

In its 35th year, NIU’s orientation is a well-oiled – and always evolving – machine.

More than 300 people are needed each day to guarantee orientation success. Buildings including Altgeld Hall, the Campus Life Building, Founders Memorial Library, Neptune Central, Wirtz Hall and, of course, the Holmes Student Center generously open their doors.

The Northern Pact, and its value of NIU being a caring community, provides an underlying theme for the day.

“It really does take a village. It takes a university to do this. The day is really about helping new students understand how they can be successful at NIU, both academically and beyond the classroom,” said Denise Rode, director of Orientation and First-Year Experience.

“We all feel we can really make an impact on new students and their family members at a very important time. A lot of research points to the fact that the entry point is very important to how they encounter the university,” Rode added. “At the end of each day, when you see how much more comfortable and excited students and family are after this experience, it’s so rewarding.”

Orientation begins Wednesday, June 10, and runs Monday through Thursday through the middle of July. After a short hiatus, it resumes for three days during the first week of August to accommodate those families unable to attend the earlier dates.

Days alternate between new freshmen and transfer students. Nearly all of the fall’s new crop bring at least one family member or friend along for the day.

Families park on the top three levels of the parking deck and then make the short walk to the student center’s Carl Sandburg Auditorium, where the day starts at 8:45 a.m. Either Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver or Brian Hemphill, vice president for Student Affairs, welcomes the crowd.

Ten orientation leaders – those typically extroverted and effervescent students in the red shirts and khaki shorts – quickly take over and whip up enthusiasm for the day.

The orientation leaders were hired through a rigorous selection process in January. They spent the spring meeting once a week in preparation. They’ve also attended a week-long seminar and a weekend retreat. Their room in Stevenson Towers is free.

By summer’s end, they’ll have gained confidence, sharpened their communication skills and become backward-walking-and-talking encyclopedias of NIU knowledge.

“I loved working with the new students. It’s fun to joke around with them,” said Ben Thanepohn, a 2008 leader who now helps to coordinate the team with Caley Lanahan and three others.

“The second I was done with my orientation, I wanted to be an orientation leader,” said Lanahan, a junior psychology major. “It’s something right up my alley – the interactions with people, getting to help people.”

“My orientation leader was really funny, a really cool guy,” added Thanepohn, a senior accountancy major. “When I saw the flier looking for orientation leaders, I thought it would be fun to share my NIU experience with others.”

For new students, the morning is occupied with presentations on requirements for the baccalaureate degree. They also have time to talk with their leaders about life at NIU and to meet the others in their group to launch possible friendships for the fall.

They take a short campus tour to gather their bearings. They glimpse typical first-year schedules. They receive translations of higher education jargon. They hear about academic advising and all of the other valuable resources provided by Academic Affairs and Student Affairs.

“They’re also learning the MyNIU system,” Rode said, “so that later they can log on with their Z-ID and register.”

A relatively new component is Northern Neighborhood, a small expo where representatives from about 25 departments and organizations such as Housing and Dining, Student Financial Aid and the Student Association distribute information and answer questions.

After lunch with their families at Neptune Central, freshmen spend the afternoon in meetings with their colleges. Those who are undecided about their majors gather in the Academic Advising Center.

Registration for fall semester courses is available. So is placement testing. Freshmen receive their OneCards and can set up banking accounts if they wish. They also complete the freshmen survey, which provides a snapshot of the group’s characteristics and demographics.

“We pack a lot into that one day,” Rode said. “Usually by the end of the day they’re very tired but they’ve accomplished a great deal. They are prepared for life at Northern when they return in August.”

“Students are so overwhelmed coming in. They have so many questions,” Lanahan said. “The whole orientation process helps them acclimate to campus. It gets them really excited about coming to campus.”

“I see a lot of people leave orientation,” Thanepohn said, “and they can’t wait to come back in the fall.”

Family members are kept nearly as busy.

In the morning, they hear from a dean or another representative of their students’ colleges. They meet with leaders from Student Affairs who teach them how to support their children. They also converse with faculty who share NIU’s academic expectations of students.

“In the afternoon, they meet with the orientation leader their student had in the morning. That’s the best part of the day for the family members. It’s a great time for them to ask questions about student life and to hear about it from the student’s perspective,” Rode said.

“We take the family program pretty seriously. We know they’re such an important part of their students’ success at NIU,” she added. “Parents want to be more involved with their children’s college experiences, and we want to provide them with the information and the strategies they can use to help.”

Their short tours of the central campus area bring them to the ballroom of Altgeld Hall, where they engage in a lively contest called “The Huskie Throwdown.”

“Our student leaders prepare them for this. It’s like an NIU version of ‘Jeopardy’ that really reinforces what they’ve learned throughout the day about the university,” Rode said. “For example, we show a picture of John Peters; the team that responds quickest with the right answer gets the points. The teams become very competitive and have a lot of fun. It’s a very enjoyable way to end their day.”

Students and families are reunited by 3:30 p.m. but their day is not truly over.

A reception awaits them at the student center that will feature campus leaders and celebrities, including Victor E. Huskie, as well as representatives from various resource centers such as the Asian-American Center, the Center for Access-Ability Resources, Commuter and Non-Traditional Student Services and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center.

They also can tour the Student Recreation Center and the residence halls. Transfer students are welcome to visit the Northern View Community.

It starts all over the next morning.

“I get to be the first person who officially welcomes them, and it gives me such a thrill to do that every day,” Rode said. “It’s such an upbeat time.”

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