For many, the month of August represents new beginnings, especially with international students preparing for short or long trips to the next stage of their educational journey. With change in the air, what are universities doing to welcome an incoming cohort? Prisha Dandwani writes.
An education goes well beyond a piece of paper; those years of hard work that culminate in a certificate. It is a significant and pivotal experience that helps shape the future of new students.
On a personal level, we all may be familiar with what it is like to send family members off to university or even able to reminisce about the anxiety and giddiness we felt when we first stepped on campus.
What appears to be more opaque is what goes on behind the scenes at universities before and during orientation. QS Insights Magazine sits down with a few universities to gain a clearer perspective on their experience.
Laying the foundation
Universities and colleges around the globe may have varied term start dates yet the depth of preparation for onboarding material and programmes is similar across the board.
Director of Communications at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in New Zealand, Alison Sykora, tells QS Insights Magazine that students’ first semester usually starts at the beginning of February. In 2022, AUT welcomed approximately 2,700 international students and reports that though final figures are not yet released, that number has increased this year.
“At AUT, orientation is considered the start of the university’s 8-week transition programme called ‘Getting Started’,” Sykora explains.
The programme has been designed to guide students across university services covering four major themes: study success, specialised student support, health and wellbeing, and study life. Preparation for orientation week begins five months prior.
“This encompasses review, feedback from orientation week the year before, event and logistics management, a 6-week communications plan to promote orientation events, design of new student webpages, and the craft and design of transition content to link to online and on-campus events,” adds Sykora.
At the University of Hong Kong (HKU), where they expect to onboard 3,500 students this month, preparation for orientation is similar to AUT.
“We started our preparation for new students a few months ago in May,” says Professor Samson Tse, Dean of Student Affairs. “In terms of preparing activities for orientation week, we looked at feedback data from the students who participated the previous year and we implemented new initiatives.
“For example, we are working hard on introducing the Future Readiness Initiative. The initiative consists of support in the fields of academic life, research methods, innovation and entrepreneurship, personal development and social skills, and career and networking.”
Tse explains that these introductory courses have been created especially for first year students to successfully integrate into university life. The intent is to build a strong foundation for today’s students in light of current developments in higher education and employability.
Creating home away from home
Professor Tse also points to a sense of identity and belonging as an essential pillar for integrating new students into life at HKU. “I think one of the most important things is to make the new students feel welcome as it is the beginning of a new journey,” he says.
“A lot of the time, new students are very concerned about new subjects and a new mode of study. A second major concern is to do with relationships, whether they are going to be able to build new friendships and networks.”
At the Centre of Development and Resources For Students of HKU (Cedars), introductory sessions consist of new students getting into small groups with a facilitator to share more about themselves and mingle. The university’s active role in assisting these discussions is important to ensure everyone feels included and supported as they build new connections.
AUT shares similar goals. The university is equally committed to ensuring students feel connected when beginning their studies at the university and works hard to ensure that.
“Peer advisors and current AUT students carry an outbound phone campaign calling all new students, assuring them they have made the right choice to study at AUT, welcoming them, as well as preparing them for the orientation event,” describes Sykora.
This “orientation event, or programme, is designed to include undergraduate, postgraduate and international cohorts. The structure of the day is split into ‘Pōwhiri, Faculty, and Support Services’.
Pōwhiri*, a Māori welcome ritual, is held at the beginning of each day and emphasises inclusion within the student community and staff. The Faculty section of the programme focuses on traditional faculty sessions where course leads, lecturers and key staff provide an overview of their programs. There is also a lead-in AUT 101 session wherein current students, called student ambassadors, present tips on how to get the most of the first year experience through an interactive session.
Support Services encompass engaging sessions with AUT’s support services like IT, library academic sessions, student services and specialised offerings from communities like Rainbow, Disability, Pacifica and Māori.
The result is a student-centred experience wherein throughout the first few weeks, student ambassadors, as well as current AUT students are connected.
“An important focus of the design of Orientation is to also allow us to embed the principles of Pōwhiri and a greater reflection of Matauranga Maori* within the orientation programme,” says Sykora.
“AUT also has a Student Readiness Survey, which is sent to new students a week after Orientation. Students assess themselves in terms of their confidence levels in stating university, time management, personal commitment, academic and technology skills.”
The survey also covers any personal needs in areas such as accommodation, financial advice and support to make friends. Based on their responses, students are given tailor made information and contacted by the appropriate student support teams.
*Powhiri: The pōwhiri recognises the coming together of two groups that are separated not only physically but also spiritually. It is a profound acknowledgement that we are all creatures of a spiritual realm.
*Matauranga Maori: The term mātauranga Māori literally means Māori knowledge and is closely aligned to the period of pre-European contact as it encompasses traditional concepts of knowledge and knowing that Māori ancestors brought with them to Aotearoa/New Zealand.