"Online orientation"
Washington Post by John Schwartz
July 23, 2000, page W35


Remember college summer orientation? You had a week -- or maybe less -- to learn everything there was to know about your new school before starting in the fall. Most schools still depend on spring visits and summer orientation to introduce newcomers to the campus. But increasingly, schools are adding another way to visit, meet and greet -- via the Internet.

These aren't old-fashioned Web sites, with images and text thrown out into the ether as dull as a school's slick brochure. Instead, schools are creating places where their incoming students can go online to chat with other new students, current students and, in some cases, faculty as well:

* Michigan's Albion College held a groundbreaking "Virtual Open House" in February 1998, a three-hour online meeting with more than 70 chat rooms, each hosted by students, faculty or staff.

* Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is in its third year of a program that welcomes students with a combination of stored online discussions and live chats, according to Tom Krattenmaker, a spokesman for the school. "It's real active in the wee hours," he says. The school monitors the freewheeling discussions, but doesn't try to guide them. "It pretty much takes its own course," Krattenmaker says. The students "can be the best ambassadors for the school," so that when new students do start, "they already have a sense of community and connection with other people."

* Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania offers a password-protected "Accepted Student" Web site that gives out information about school and has virtual meetings between newly accepted students and current students, faculty and administrators. "It's a great asset to our admissions process," says Gail Sweezey, Gettysburg's director of admissions.

For the incoming freshmen -- many of whom have been using computers since they could toddle and sending America Online instant messages since middle school -- the virtual social club is second nature. Rebecca Hanifen, a Baltimore-raised incoming freshman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, is one such child of the computer age. WPI offers registration and orientation online -- but Hanifen says she found the message board, or the "Admissions Cafe," was the biggest help.

"On it, I have found student opinions on everything from housing choices to general social life," she said in an e-mail interview. The connections with current students went far beyond anything the school provided in official information packets.

Last spring, Hanifen started a discussion group titled "smart chiks" to bring together new female students, who are outnumbered three to one by men at WPI. "I just graduated from an all-girls Catholic school in Baltimore, and I have come to realize the importance of getting to know one's 'girlfriends,' and I personally wanted to get a head start on this." Predictably, WPI's men showed up in that discussion, looking to an outsider like they might be trolling for dates ahead of matriculation.

The idea underlying all these programs is to establish an early link to the campus, a sense of belonging. "Anything we can do to connect them to each other is good," says Connie J. Gores, vice president for enrollment at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va. The small women's college gets about 200 new students each year, and quickly distributes the e-mail addresses of new students to other new students, and matches up new students with current undergraduate volunteers, who answer questions and keep the discussion going. "It brings the college to life. It puts a face, a real-life human being who's living the experience and is able to answer every single question they have. Nothing is off limits -- 'Are there men around? Can you get dates? Will I have a social life or will I be studying all the time?' "

Some schools have decided that e-mail and Web contact isn't enough. Alan Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with a colleague to create an online discussion program that acts as an extension of the school. "A lot of universities are cutting the corners and creating a Web place to go and calling it an online community," he says. But any college site without the strong guiding hand of a moderator is "just junk" in his opinion.

Filreis's program is a moderated discussion that goes far beyond answering questions about the size of a dorm room -- though he will provide that kind of information as well. His school's program, he says, "is, in fact, an actual conversation" with faculty members online so that discussion is really tied to the university.

Still, the online connection schools are offering can have a downside. One Silver Spring mother says her 18-year-old son, who had been accepted at Swarthmore, and was inclined to go there, came upstairs from a long online bull session and told her, "Mom, I can't go there -- they're all vegans and write poetry!"

Swarthmore's Krattenmaker, when told of that family moment, noted that not all Swarthmore students are vegans who write poetry, although, he was quick to point out, there's absolutely nothing wrong with vegans who write poetry. Still, he said, there's not much you can do to alter the impression someone gets from an online encounter with the school. "They can get a really, really good impression or they might get an erroneous impression. It's a risk that you take."

In the case of the young man from Silver Spring, he decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

John Schwartz writes about technology for The Post's financial section.