It’s 6 a.m. in Guam, and while the rest of his family is still sound asleep, Joey Cruz, one of UNLV’s student orientation leaders, is getting ready for a day of phone calls, meetings, orientations, and summer course work. Despite being thousands of miles away and 17 hours ahead of Las Vegas, Cruz is one of the student leaders helping to usher in the newest class of UNLV students.
This year, the usual emphasis on the importance of making connections as a student has a twist to it. UNLV admissions had to quickly shift the in-person orientation sessions to a virtual format. Leaders like Cruz are key to keeping the orientation experience personal and memorable in the lead up to a most unusual first semester of college.
“Normally, orientation is the highlight of the summer because it gets people on campus and they’re getting to know their fellow classmates and current students. You can't replace that, but we had to shift our mindset,” said Kristine Shay, UNLV’s executive director of admissions.
The admissions team now approaches orientation as an extensive outreach rather than a one-day event. “We’re embracing students all summer long,” Shay said. “The day of orientation is important, but every day is important. The anxieties and losses these students have experienced are immense, so we want them to feel embraced.”
[Meet UNLV's Orientation Leaders]
In Guam for the summer, Cruz drifts day-to-day between at least five different relatives’ houses in order to find a relatively quiet place to work. On some days, he stands in the bedroom of his niece and nephew — his laptop strategically placed so that his webcam faces the one angle of the room that doesn’t reveal a sea of toys or the smattering of Trolls stickers that cover the walls. Other days, he’s situated in whichever relative’s spare room was free that day, with the guarantee of minimal disruptions and a stable Wi-Fi connection.
Like his orientation leader counterparts, he shepherds about 200 incoming students through to orientation, placing calls to each of them to make personal introductions, answer questions, and make sure they’re prepared for the virtual orientation.
“There was a whole other level of energy with these students,” said Cruz, a communication studies senior. “I wanted to be extremely extra. They were so willing to collaborate — they actually created a TikTok together.”
On orientation days, student leaders break off into private groups on the WebEx platform as incoming students use the time to get to know one another. Cruz uses games like Kahoot or Quarantine Against Humanity to engage with his groups. Some sessions end up feeling like a virtual party among friends, he said.
Orientation leaders are also using their social media accounts as additional avenues of communication. According to Cruz, the new class of students have been remarkably active over the past few months, posting photos to introduce themselves, making jokes and engaging in conversations with the rest of the campus community.
In some ways, hosting orientations virtually has made the process feel more personal.
Orientation groups are kept small to ensure that every person has the chance to have all their questions answered. And students — and their families — have a lot of questions about the constantly evolving situation, Shay said. On top of questions about the university’s plans related to the pandemic, students want to know how to make the most of their college experience amid all the uncertainties.
“A benefit of virtual programming is that it has allowed us to tailor certain programs to certain populations of students,” Shay said. “We have two programs just for honor students, and then we have international and veteran programming. We always have parents and guests come with students to orientation, but because of this, we were able to have an entirely separate program for them.”
With all the difficulties of the transition to online, there have been some silver linings.
“I definitely did not sign up to work virtually, but I look at it this way: If it wasn't virtual, I wouldn't be able to be in Guam with my family and friends,” Cruz said. “The most rewarding thing is just engaging with the new students and being a part of their academic journey.”
A plan for the future
The shift to virtual support has changed the recruitment landscape beyond orientation. According to Shay, it's brought high school and college admission counselors across the country together to re-evaluate what they can do to support students and their families from here on out.
“On a broader note, this transition to virtual is not going to go away when students are back on campus," she said. "It's forever."
As a part of this process, admissions is developing virtual tours, which would create avenues to reach students that could not visit campus, or wouldn't have considered UNLV as an option before.
“I hope at the end of their orientations, they feel relieved, like they’ve learned things and that they know where to go to get answers to their questions. I want them to feel embraced and like they’re a part of a family,” Shay said.