On a typical summer day, campus is swarmed by new students and their families. They roam the residence halls, pose for photos on the promenade, and sit through sessions on financial aid and wellness resources.

New Student Orientation was as much of a rite of passage as starting school itself. Except for those who couldn’t attend.  

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Orientation and New Student Programs made historic pivots—Orientation’s guided tours and in-person information sessions have been replaced with an online attendance model. And, most importantly, Chico State became the first CSU to completely waive its Orientation fee—which, until this summer, was $95 for each person who attended, including parents.

As a result, more students than ever are participating, and they’re all doing it virtually.

It’s a win for Shawn Ryan, who made it one of his first priorities as the new program coordinator for Orientation and New Student Programs to increase the number of new enrolled students attending Orientation. Last fall, he began by identifying the most significant barriers.

Exploring the distance incoming students could potentially travel, the time and money spent traveling (perhaps even staying overnight), and the impact of a parent (or two) taking a day (or two) off work, Ryan nailed down the largest obstacle: cost.

Before this summer, each CSU charged a fee for first-time freshmen (FTF), transfer students, and their guests to attend their New Student Orientation. According to respondents in a recent CSU survey, most campuses still charge an average of $98 for each first-year student—with fees as high as $225 at one CSU. Additionally, transfer students pay an average of nearly $78.

A man stands and leans on a desk while he checks his cell phone
The hustle and bustle of Orientation has now moved online, as staffers work remotely to provide an informative and enjoyable virtual experience.

Since Chico State waived its Orientation fee, using a grant and University funding to offset the cost, Cal State LA and Fresno State have done the same. When Ryan announced the change to Orientation staff, he was met with applause.

“The peer advisors were ecstatic to see this change because it meant that Orientation would be more accessible to everyone,” said Shelby Jongsma (Psychology, ’20), a peer advisor who will begin her Master of Business Administration program in the fall. “With the price decrease, Orientation is displaying its values of wanting to be as equitable as possible.”

Orientation, while not mandatory, is new students’ best opportunity to be as prepared as possible, said Mary Wallmark, director of Student Life and Leadership. She added that research is unequivocal in showing increased retention and shortened time to graduation for those who take advantage of this opportunity.

“First-year students may not even know what questions to ask, and the Orientation program is set up to provide an introduction to the many different facets of the college experience,” Wallmark said. “It gives students the resources to know how to find out more about the services and opportunities available for them. For most students, it gives them significantly more confidence about starting their college career.”

According to University data from 2017–19, 21 percent of students that confirm enrollment did not attend Orientation—thus not being as prepared as they could. Additionally, FTF Latinx students were 5.9 percent less likely to attend, FTF African American students were 9.6 percent less likely to attend, and first-generation FTF were 7 percent less likely to attend.

And despite having at least some higher education experience, nearly 4 in 10 transfer students (38.2 percent) did not attend Orientation. Wallmark added that transfer students may mistakenly believe that attending a four-year school will be exactly the same as attending their two-year institution.

“Transfer students have to hit the ground running,” she said, “and everything, from the physical setup to the resources and services to how grading systems work, is likely different than it was at their previous institution.”

Because of COVID-19, Orientation’s own switch to virtual has also furthered access for students and their families. Additionally, Ryan said, moving Orientation online has unexpectedly cleared the path for deeper conversations between incoming students and peer advisors about what it’s like to be a college student.

A student sits on her couch at home while she talks with others on a Zoom call
Peer Advisor Emily Zarback leads a Summer Orientation session in her home—just another adjustment to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They don’t want to hear that from people like me—they want to hear it from the current students. Our goal is that they can identify someone right at the beginning and think, ‘Okay, this person looks like me, this person comes from my background. They’re doing it, they’re successful, and I can do it, too,’” Ryan said. “I encourage our peer advisors, ‘just talk to them, tell them about your path and your journey.’”

In Jongsma’s experience, incoming students have enjoyed the chance to chat with current student Peer Advisors, as they trust their experiences and advice.

“We want to set students up for success, and being real with them is a great start,” she said. “We also want to make connections with our students, so it is important to be genuine.”

Of the students she’s talked to, their most popular questions relate to housing, how to get involved once they’re on campus, and class courses, she said.

“They wonder if there will be in-person courses and what that will look like, as well as how they can be successful in a virtual environment including academics and involvement,” Jongsma said. “The students also ask if there will be in-person activities in the fall and if they are virtual, what would it look like.”

Once new students declare their intention to enroll at Chico State, they register for an online Orientation session. Students are required to complete a 45-minute pre-Orientation program before they attend the virtual session.

Also, Orientation has grown from one day to multiple touchpoints throughout the summer, including a webinar series—for both students and parents—on topics like financial aid, academics, how to buy books, student learning and wellness resources, and ways for students to get involved at Chico State. Webinars are also offered in Spanish.