“How many of you are nervous?”

Nearly every hand in the room goes up.

“It’s normal to be nervous.” Charles Ferguson, PhD, the first speaker of the day, has seen this before.

It’s 9:30 a.m. and you can see it on the faces of the 180 incoming CU Denver freshmen at today’s session of New Student Orientation– that nervous mixture of fear and excitement that characterizes every new beginning. Fifteen minutes before orientation officially starts, every seat in North Classroom Room1130 is already full. New students and parents mix together in each row, waiting quietly for the stream of information about their new school. Peer Advocate Leaders (PALs), students who mentor other students, weave in and out of rows handing out paperwork, giving high-fives, and trying to make friends of strangers.

“Today is a day of transition,” Ferguson continues. “Today you start figuring out what you were born to do.”

Connecting with new friends …

In the five hours of new student orientation, the Class of 2018 will start figuring out all kinds of other things too: whether or not they want to take a freshmen seminar course, how to apply for financial aid, where the various campus buildings are, what services are available to them as students, and how to thrive during their first semester as a college student. But even though so much of orientation is about conveying the nuts and bolts of the beginning of college, the day is also about something else: connection.

By 11:20 a.m. the morning session is over and it’s time for lunch. The parents are ushered away to a meeting down the hall while the students are divided into small groups and assigned a PAL mentor to share lunch with. Peer Leader Nick Beers leads his group of five to the lawn outside and immediately launches the group into a “speed-dating” exercise, an icebreaker to quickly get the group acquainted.

“If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?” Nick begins. “Ready, set, go!”

Nick sets a timer for the first question, and the group bursts into conversation, talking between bites of food.

“All I want in life is to be shot out of a cannon,” Nick says.

“If I could do anything, I would start an orphanage,” one student says from the other side of the circle.

“I really want to open a movie studio,” another adds.

Within minutes the group is laughing at the ridiculous responses emerging in the game, and their voices grow louder and louder to keep up with the growing noise of the surrounding groups playing their own ice-breakers on the lawns. By the time the group moves back into North Classroom 40 minutes later, the students seem genuinely sorry to leave their group.

Getting down to business …

Inside, the day continues with the first step towards official enrollment: academic advising. For the next few hours the students receive information about required courses, compatible minors, and scheduling strategies for their first semester juggling college course work, jobs, social lives, and sleep. Finally, it’s time to register for their first classes.

There are murmurs of “what classes are you taking?” and “want to take this class with me?” as the students slowly start warming to each other. Advisors pace the computer lab answering questions about prerequisites and core requirements while the PALs stand at the edges of the room and watch excitement grow on the students’ faces.

PAL Leo Harman remembers his freshmen orientation four years ago, remembers this moment of registering for classes, but says the advising and information is not what makes his orientation memorable. Four years ago, Leo was assigned to various groups to meet and talk to fellow freshmen, and that’s how he met his now best friend (and cannon enthusiast), Nick Beers. Two nervous strangers just like the ones filling the room now, the pair bonded over a round of karaoke featuring “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun” during freshmen welcome week. Nick says he was that student who didn’t have anyone to talk to, and if it hadn’t been for his orientation, it would have been impossible to make friends.

“Freshmen are scared,” Nick shrugs. “But if we make the intention of orientation to be to meet people and start making friends, if we give them the environment to connect, they’ll do it.”

Both Leo and Nick became members of the PAL program to help give to freshmen what was given to them when they came to CU Denver; they want to help students quickly and easily build community, and it’s working.

The after-party …

Milo and a new studentAs students gradually finish registering for classes, they make their way to the North Classroom atrium for the final event of the day, the “after-party.” Unlike the tense silence and nervous whispers of the morning, the after-party brings groups of new friends talking loudly about their new schedules and even singing along to the pop music playing in the atrium. For the first time all day, the faces registering for parking passes or posing with Milo look truly relaxed and comfortable.

Nick and Leo both say this moment, watching how much the students bond and form connections in just a few short hours, is why they keep coming back to lead groups for orientation. It’s important, they say, to come to campus, get out of your comfort zone, and take this first step towards becoming a member of the CU Denver community.

“You could meet your future roommate, your business partner, or your best friend,” Leo says, waving at a pair of freshmen exchanging phone numbers. “You just never know.”

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