Published August 6, 2015
The parking lots on the North Campus are filled on a sunny July day, but the academic buildings are eerily quiet.
Suddenly, voices echo through the empty halls. A group led by two students in blue shirts enters an empty classroom.
“Is everybody happy to be out of the heat?” asks one of the leaders, Darshini Saikumar, a rising junior from the Bronx.
A unanimous “yes” resounds through the room as nervous incoming freshmen look around, taking in their first UB classroom.
“Let’s start with the alliteration game to remember each other’s names,” calls out Janet Austin, a rising sophomore from Brewster. “For example, my name is Janet, and I like jelly.”
The alliteration game is just one way for students to get to know one another at their first-year orientation. Austin and Saikumar are running their first small-group meeting during their last week as orientation leaders.
The transition from high school to college is nothing short of nerve-wracking for incoming students. Unease about a new school and new friends, and an uncertainty toward the future are common feelings at the beginning of four transformative years.
UB eases the apprehensive minds of new students through the orientation program, which introduces incoming students to all aspects of life at UB.
“Ultimately, as a university, we seek to accomplish student success at orientation” says Chrissy Daniel, assistant director of orientation programs. “That is our driving philosophy behind the program creation and execution. We view orientation as the foundation of student success and a great place to begin the transition to being a UB student.”
Orientation sessions are run by current students, like Austin and Saikumar, who were accepted for the positions after a competitive application process. The position is a commitment, but orientation leaders take pride in their role.
“I get to represent the school I attend,” says Saikumar, a business administration major. “I am just very blessed to be a part of that.”
Eight two-day orientation sessions focus on first-year students, each holding 385 students per session. Five one-day sessions holding 200 students per session take place for transfer students.
Austin, who just completed her first year as an intended exercise science major, says her own orientation experience influenced her time at UB from the start.
“I met some of my best friends at orientation,” she says. “They break you up by major, so my one calculus class had half of my orientation group in it. We became really good friends through that and we still have classes together.”
As soon as she returned home from orientation, Austin became set on being an orientation leader for the summer of 2015.
“I just love the school so much and I really liked being involved and meeting new people,” Austin says. “Seeing all of the orientation leaders interact and be really close friends made me really want that experience. I decided it would be the best fit.”
Austin has a passion for helping others and that passion is perfectly channeled in her role as an orientation leader. She connects with the incoming students especially because she was in their shoes not too long ago.
“They don’t know what to expect and they’re very, very nervous,” Austin says. “Orientation helps them get to know the campus.”
Austin’s desire to help others and her love of UB made the choice to dedicate her summer to UB orientation that much easier. Her hometown is six hours from Buffalo and she left spending time with her friends and family in order to share her passion for UB with new students.
“I didn’t mind leaving my friends and family because they knew it was something I really wanted to do,” she says. “Since I live so far away to begin with, it was easier for me to be acclimated this summer for that, too.”
Austin arrived in Buffalo mid-June and moved into Fargo Quad, a residence hall in the Ellicott Complex on the North Campus. She loves living on campus, even without air conditioning during the hot Buffalo summer.
“There are seven buildings in Fargo, and I’m in Fargo 6,” Austin says. “I got so lucky because Fargo 7 blocks any sunlight coming in, and the sun rises on the other side of the building so my room has not been hot at all.”
She immediately began two weeks of training after moving in. The first two days were dedicated to a retreat meant to help orientation leaders bond and form friendships with one another.
The rest of training is on campus and the orientation leaders work with various centers on campus to become well-informed about UB.
“We love when students ask us questions because we’re prepared for it,” says Austin. “We know so much from our training that we tell them to ask us whatever they want.”
Students attend seminars focused on academic and social transitions, where to locate and how to take advantage of essential campus resources. The seminars also give special attention to UB traditions and school pride.
UB includes a parent and family orientation as well. Each sessions sees about 200 parents and family members, but the orientation can accommodate many more. Austin also works with parent and family members during orientation. She speaks knowledgeably to anxious parents about financial aid, food and life on campus. Her spirited and friendly demeanor calms parents who are nervous about letting their child go, and she often receives compliments from parents about her public-speaking skills.
“Knowing we are here to help students navigate the transition, our staff is trained to be responsive and helpful in this,” says Daniel. “Our orientation leaders are current students who can share their stories with incoming students, as well as their parents and family members. Some of the most helpful pieces of the program are when orientation leaders provide insights and tips to being a successful UB student.”
Orientation has not always been the experience it is today. Twenty years ago, orientation was a three-day and two-night program centered on fall course registration. Today, students register for classes before orientation begins, making the experience student-centered.
Students today also meet with their advisers and have more options to choose from when it comes to the orientation program.
The program also has taken on more leaders as the university has accepted more students. With more leaders and options comes greater dedication.
Austin and her fellow orientation leaders start each week with an 8 p.m. meeting on Sunday where they prepare for that week’s sessions by stuffing envelopes and organizing room keys.
Austin begins the first day of each session with a 7:30 a.m. meeting, then she moves on to checking in students and giving them their room keys. Once everyone is checked in, orientation begins.
Austin and her fellow leaders guide students from a welcome session in the Center for the Arts to individual small-group meetings, and then on to lunch. Students then attend an academics seminar, an advising session and another group meeting.
Students eat dinner at Crossroad Culinary Center, or C3, and then watch skits starring Austin and her fellow leaders. The skits highlight student life and afterward the orientation groups meet to discuss them before heading to a clubs fair. The day ends with dancing and games in the Ellicott Complex.
Austin has another early start on Day Two. She begins with a 7 a.m. meeting, then on to check out for students. She and her group shuttle from breakfast to seminars, focusing on financial aid and living and dining on campus.
Austin’s favorite: “I am UB,” a seminar about UB pride. She considers herself an authority on this.
Austin is always sad to see her students go after the final group meeting. Before they leave, she instills one last bit of UB pride in her group members by teaching them the Buffalo chant sung at every game by the student body.
“Every session our jobs change; we all rotate between what needs to be done,” she says. “Every day you wake up and it’s different; it’s always a different major for each session. You never know what kind of students you’ll get because everyone has different personalities. It’s really fun to see everyone connect.”
Incoming students aren’t the only ones who connect during orientation. Over the past six weeks, Austin has formed friendships with her fellow orientation leaders over their shared passion.
“We all really wanted to do this,” Austin says. “We all have a common love for UB and helping students so the job definitely brought us together. Other than that, we are all very enthusiastic and outgoing people so it’s easy for us to just get up and talk to each other and connect really well.”
Orientation leaders treasure the connections they make with one another and with students, but what they treasure most is the experience of being a role model and leader.
“University at Buffalo is bursting with so much adventure, inspiration, diversity and pride,” says Saikumar. “Although this experience only lasted a summer, I feel like the things I gained and the people I’ve met through orientation are going to be a part of my future.”
Austin’s fervor for helping others and her love for UB make her an ideal orientation leader. All she wants is for all incoming students to love the school as much as she does.
As for her favorite part of UB, Austin can’t seem to choose just one.
“Everyone here is so nice,” she says. “You come to UB and everyone here is amazing. It’s so diverse, there are so many different cultures here that you see and it’s really amazing to see people interact with each other and be so accepting. I love all the clubs that are offered; everything is amazing when it comes to getting involved. The food is great, too!”
So glad to see they are not making them wear those dumb beanies like they did when I arrived as a freshman in 1965. LOL!