11 takeaways from an orientation conference

In October 2019, I attended the NODA conference in Houston, Texas to learn all about orientation and share some of our work at UVic. While the conference didn’t quite meet my expectations in terms of session quality, I managed to find a few learnings to pull out of almost every session I attended.

Because I attended 10+ sessions during the conference, this post is a little long. If you’re only interested in a certain topic, use the links below to skip down to that session. I’ve written about my favourite sessions off the top!

Incorporating storytelling into orientation: I am UVA

Imagine this. You’re with hundreds of other incoming students in an auditorium. The session is introduced by an orientation leader, and the lights go down. There are five students on the stage, and one steps forward to enter the spotlight. They start talking, sharing their story. They talk about how scared they were to come out when they arrived at university. What would people think, how would they react? They share how they found out about the campus’s LGBTQ+ student club and got involved. They share how supportive everyone was when they finally did come out. They share: I am gay. I am UVA.

This is followed by a story by someone who found their community by playing on an intramural team. They share the highs and lows of the season, the camaraderie, the inside jokes. I am an athlete. I am UVA.

Then the story of someone who struggled with homesickness after moving hours away from their family to attend university. They share how hard it was, the many phone calls home, the many tears. They talk about wanting to leave. They share the reasons they eventually decided to stay. I am at home here. I am UVA.

Five stories, each less than five minutes long. A powerful way to share the UVA experience, connect with incoming students, address fears and nerves, and build excitement, all at the same time.

This is I am UVA.

I am UVA is one of the cornerstone sessions of UVA’s orientation program, although it started out being optional. The program has 3 core purposes: discovery, development and diversity, and is framed by three questions:

  1. What can UVA be for me?  
  2. How can I be meaningfully engaged in community?
  3. What does it mean to belong to UVA?

Story development

The I am UVA session isn’t one that is pulled together in an instant. It’s created through a thorough and intentional process that begins long before orientation..

During orientation leader training in the spring, leaders are encouraged to think about who they are and who they can become. Essentially, they are led through a process of identity recognition and development. Throughout this process, staff work to make sure that students have a space to be heard and to practice vulnerability. They are then given homework: to write a one-page narrative. The narrative ends with “I am _____. I am UVA.”

All 52 leaders write an I am UVA story. These stories are shared with one another, which helps build connection on the team. Eleven stories total are then chosen to be shared on the stage, with 5 orientation leaders sharing their story during each session. Each story is 3-5 minutes.

This isn’t the end of the preparation though- the stories aren’t ready yet! Leaders will then sit down with staff and talk about their story, refining it even further; they also practice it on stage as a group and give feedback to one another. Then, finally, they’re ready to go.


This session isn’t powerful simply because of the stories being told, but also because of the debrief that happens afterward. Leaders have a lot of freedom and flexibility with how they want to conduct this debrief; they are given the purpose and desired outcomes of the small group discussions, and then they work with their partner to decide how to facilitate. The facilitation plan is turned in to professional staff to review prior to the first day of orientation.

Take forward:

  1. How are we incorporating storytelling into our orientation programming? How do we balance storytelling with facts and information? Where are we confusing storytelling with facts and information? What do we value more?
  2. How are we encouraging students to engage with what their university experience could be during our orientation programming?

It’s all about community building

We often talk about sense of belonging in our office, and building your community in a new place is a huge part of feeling as though you belong. The residence folks at the University of Alberta (U of A) are doing an amazing job of planning programming that is focused on community building, and also did an excellent job of explaining it to everyone in their session (shout-out to Caitlin)! I left rethinking the idea of community in a few ways, and with a good idea of how the U of A was putting these ideas into practice. 

My first reframe was this: Community happens person by person. We can’t simply throw a group of students together and expect that they will form a community. While ice-breaker games can certainly play a role in programming, they aren’t necessarily the path to community. How can we be intentional about helping students make one-to-one connections?

Caitlin also talked about community building vs. community engagement. Community building is about making meaningful connections, actively participating, and finding your place. There are a number of ways to help build community: provide time for reflection, create opportunities for shared experiences, introduce peer-to-peer learning, and identify who it is that students really need to connect with on campus- and keep the clutter out!

At the U of A, community building is the number one goal of orientation; every other goal is simply icing on the cake. Because of this, community building is a focus in every session and every activity throughout orientation, even if the topics might be as wide and varied as academic success, alcohol, and a dodgeball tournament (U of A sure likes their dodgeball).


  • Interaction: Every session has an interactive component of some sort that helps students to engage with one another.
  • Life maps: Students create a map of their past and desired future to help them identify their place and purpose at university.
  • Campus challenge: They switched their campus tours into a campus challenge. Students explore and get to know campus by working together to complete a number of challenges at a variety of different locations on campus.
  • Alcohol session: Instead of a talking head at the front of the room, the entire session is a facilitated discussion in small student groups, led by a student facilitator.
  • Block party: They turned their resource fair into a Block Party; every booth is required to have some sort of engaging aspect (not just pamphlets!). In order to attend the fair as a booth, people are required to submit a proposal about how the will engage students. In the past, their version of Campus Security has brought their special security cars for students to check out (security is a little different at Alberta institutions than I’m used to…), and the student finance unit brought cupcakes with their logo on them.  
  • Community arts programs: Students worked together to create an art piece. The end result was an art piece of a word that was displayed in the lobby of the residence building. Individual students worked on their own small piece; each floor then created one letter made up of all of the individual student contributions; and then the letters from each floor were combined to form a word.
  • Service learning opportunity: Students were able to work together on a project to give back to their community.

Take forward

  1. How can we be intentional about helping students make one-to-one connections?
  2. How can we intentionally build our orientation groups? How do we ensure people are in groups with people they will see again/want to be in community with?

Good mentoring requires work

We regularly ask our students to act as mentors to other students, and to new students in particular. Sometimes this is through an actual mentorship program, where students may have the title of mentor, but often it’s through other roles, including orientation leaders, residence community leaders or peer counsellors.

Mentorship is undoubtedly important; it’s a predictor of success, and can be a turning point for first-generation students and students from marginalized populations. But while we regularly ask students to act as mentors, we train students to act as mentors with much less regularity. Often, students in these roles are just basing their mentoring on what they have seen or experienced before. How do we help our mentors to be more than people who just answer questions and give resources, and instead be people who truly make a difference?

I really appreciated the approach that was taken in this session on mentorship. They really focused on two key things: how to train your mentors and set them up for success, and how to support your mentors throughout the process.


  • First of all, train your mentors on what it means to be a mentor, and spend a fair bit of time on this. Mentorship is not about solving problems for students; it’s about helping students come up with answers on their own.
    • Teach your mentors how to ask critical questions, active listening skills, the reflective process, and to have a development and growth focus.
  • Manage expectations with your mentors. Help them figure out what they can actually accomplish in this role, and what they can’t.
  • Provide your mentors with guidance as to how they spend their time with their mentees. What do they need to accomplish in these sessions? Consider creating a curriculum or a checklist, and base it on a model or theory for development.
  • Help your mentors develop a plan for their first meeting with their mentee. How will they interact, what will they talk about, what will they ask? In this first meeting, students will be deciding “are you worth my time or not”, so it matters!
  • Train your mentors on cultural, gender, racial and sexual orientation factors that could impact the experience of their mentee. Do your mentors understand the challenges these populations face? Do they know how to help? Do they know how to not make it worse?
  • Talk about how to build a relationship. It’s important that mentors engage consistently and on a regular basis with their mentee, and in a holistic way.
  • Share your expectations of your mentors. What does this role look like? What are the standards they are required to meet? What are they allowed to do via technology?


While it’s important that we train our mentors on how to support their mentees, it’s also important that we think about how we are going to support our mentors. How are they doing? What are they learning? What are they struggling with? Are they mentoring each other? This could take shape in a number of different ways

  • Hold regular meetings (or lunches!) for mentor support, where you talk about relevant topics.
  • Consider your professional development offerings. Send them articles regularly, hold a refresher training.
  • Provide feedback on mentorship. Have a mentor for your mentors. This could be some sort of senior mentor, or this could be you!

We can’t just label a student a mentor and think it’s going to be effective. Be intentional. Have a high standard.

Take forward:

  1. As we think more and more about developing a mentorship program, how can we set up the program and the mentor training in the most intentional way possible?
  2. What student roles at our institution are asking students to act as mentors (even if that’s not in the title of their position), and are students being properly trained and supported in that role?

Supporting the transition of off-cycle students

Since we run January and May orientation programs, I was interested in what this presentation had to say about supporting the transition of off-cycle students. For me, the big takeaway was that we need to be intentional about not only programming for this student group, but also about the structural systems they operate within.

Off-cycle students face a number of unique challenges: limited housing, fewer pathways to involvement, late course registration, need to integrate with fall entry students, and there is less energy and excitement welcoming them to campus. Programming can only solve so many of these challenges; we also need to advocate for these students and work with campus partners to ensure they have an experience that is equal to or greater than our fall-start students. The session offered a great framework for having those conversations and working with campus partners on solutions to problems you don’t have ownership of: advocate | engage | create | praise.

Several new initiatives were introduced: January Welcome Week programming with social programming every evening, replicating major first term programs, a modified New Student Checklist, collaborated with admissions on a pre-semester communications timeline, 1887 Fellows, a cohort-based program that pairs students with a staff coach.

Take forward:

  1. What are some of the structural challenges that our off-cycle students are facing and how can we push for change in those areas?
  2. When we think about programming for off-cycle start students: Instead of just making sure they have everything that fall students have, can they have something special of their own?

Supporting specific populations

The tweet basically says it all. Different student populations have different needs, and different, specific orientation programming is sometimes required in order to meet those needs. But at the same time, be careful not to over-orient your students. Are their needs SO different that they need an entirely different program? Would a specific session suffice? A simple meet-up?

This session was a lot of “these are the programs that I run and here is exactly what they look like,” which wasn’t all that helpful, but a couple other useful learnings:

  • Timing of the program can make a huge difference. They were able to double the number of students attending transfer orientation by putting it at the end of the summer- many transfer students make their transfer decision over the summer. We’ve also seen this with our program- where Labour Day falls relative to September 1st can make a huge difference!
  • For some populations, even within that population, there are lots of differing needs to meet. Offering interest sessions, where students can choose what they will learn about, can help.
  • One of the interest sessions Purdue offers their transfer students focuses on technology at the institution. In light of what we’ve heard from some of our mature students, perhaps something to consider!

Take forward:

  1. As we think more about creating more targeted content for specific populations in our online pre-arrival program, how do we ensure we are meeting needs without over-orienting?

Moving from orientation to student transitions

A unit that used to be primarily focused on orientation shifted to looking at the overall first-year transition. This was the premise of the presentation, and since this is exactly the same situation my office is in, I was super interested to hear what they had to say.

Unfortunately, they didn’t really say anything… the entire presentation was them asking the audience questions, group discussions, and group sharing. Not useful.

At one point in the presentation, they quickly showed us a screenshot of a strategic planning timeline they had (which I wanted to hear so much more about). But I found their set-up interesting. They planned by semester, and had four different categories: operational effectiveness, professional development, first-year programs, and first-year assessment. So often, we focus our planning solely on our programs, so it was interesting to see that they had a more holistic approach.

Take forward:

  1. How can we build our strategic planning process so that it’s not solely focused on programming?

Sense of belonging in transfer students

A session about sense of belonging, something we talk about all the time, that was based on an actual research study? This was a session that sounded like it was right up my alley; however, so many of the insights were so specific to the institution at which the research was conducted that it ended up being not-all-that-useful. A few take-aways I managed to pull out:

  • How do transfer students develop a sense of belonging? Do they do so in different ways than other student populations (i.e. those coming directly from high school)?
  • If you know why students have chosen your institution (and you should know!), play up those things in orientation in order to validate their decision.
  • Many things students like or want when it comes to their orientation are institution-specific, and have to do with both the programming, and institutional systems and structures. You won’t know for your campus unless you ask!
  • Unsurprisingly, students prefer resources and services that are just-in-time, and want the orientation process to be as easy and seamless as possible.

One thing in particular really stood out to me in this session. At one point, the presenters said, “We all know orientation is just one giant brain dump.” If we all know this, why do we keep letting it be this way? We control orientation programming, which means we, individually and collectively, have the power and ability to change this. Let’s do it!

Take forward

  1. What elements of our orientation programming do students find overwhelming, and what can we do to ease that overwhelm?

Online orientation

Since most of my job revolves around online orientation, I highlighted all of the online orientation sessions at the conference and planned to attend.

That was a mistake.

I learned a few things, and none of them were really what I was looking for:

  • Companies whose business is helping you develop an online orientation program are unnecessary. You don’t need them. You can create the same outcomes on your own, for wayyy less money. I mean, I knew that before the conference, but attending a session co-facilitated by Advantage Design was a quick reminder. (You can expect a much more detailed post about this in the future).
  • Particularly with American schools, their online programs are often transactional; they’re geared towards helping students navigate course selection, financial aid, parking, and other campus processes. They’re not so much geared towards a holistic approach to student success.

Our program seems to be leading the way in terms of approach, engagement, and quality.

Overall impressions

I enjoyed attending the NODA conference, but I have to say, it wasn’t as educational as I had hoped- or expected.

As a field of educators, it seem like we’re not always that good at educating. This is… concerning. When so many orientation programs are made up of a string of presentations, it’s especially concerning to sit through a conference presentation by an orientation professional and leave disgruntled. But some presentations were just… not good. They didn’t meet the description, they didn’t deliver content, and they sure didn’t meet any kind of learning outcomes. I’m not even talking engagement or interactivity here… substance was often lacking.

Every time I interact with American orientation professionals, I’m reminded of just how different most American orientation programs are from what most Canadian institutions do. Their programs are often so transactional, and so focused on academic advising. It can often make it difficult to find the pieces of their programs that will fit into the puzzle I’m trying to solve.

Attending the NODA Conference was also a reminder that I’m not exactly a new professional anymore. Some of the sessions I attended, such as the session on mentorship, delivered good information- it just wasn’t new for me anymore. NODA, it seems, isn’t always great at providing as much value later in your career as it is at providing value at the beginning.

The best part of the conference, by far, was the other Canadian attendees that I met. We were a small group, but somehow we all managed to find each other (you’re from Canada too!?), and spent lunches and dinners and breaks together. These were the people I was able to have conversations with about my work, and they understood the context and environment. Many of them I still talk to regularly, and remain connected to. 

While I was able to pull a number of things out of the sessions I attended, I expected a lot more. NODA, you’ve got some work to do!

Featured image by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

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