By Melissa Mitchell In the next few weeks, thousands of incoming freshmen and transfer students will be converging upon the UI from all points for the annual ritual known as summer orientation. And when they get here, Rhonda Kirts will be ready for them. Throughout the year, Kirts - the UI's assistant dean of students for orientation programs - is responsible for a variety of activities and programs aimed at making new students feel at home at the university. Among them is a relatively new program that provides continuing orientation programs for a limited number of freshmen through their first semester at the UI. However, when the temperature outside begins to rise in the late spring, Kirts' job really begins to heat up as well. Last month, when UI students were packing up and moving out of the Illinois Street Residence Halls, Kirts and her staff were moving in. Each year, the orientation office sets up temporary camp at ISR, where students participating in the two-day orientation programs are housed. This year, the first crop of arrivals began checking in Wednesday, and the last group will finish up July 8. "We run 21 two-day orientation programs," Kirts said. "We typically see between 5,000 and 5,400 freshmen and about 4,500 parents. "We also have separate programs for about 1,100 to 1,200 transfer students, who have very different needs." Many of Kirts' summer orientation duties actually take place well in advance of the students' arrival on campus. Countless details must be coordinated, checked and double-checked with various cooperating campus units such as the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, the Office of Admissions and Records, and the Mothers and Dads associations. Room assignments for orientation programs must be coordinated with the Office of Facility Planning and Management, and food-service arrangements must be hashed out with the residence hall staff - among other things. In addition, Kirts is responsible for training 38 orientation student leaders. "They are selected in the fall and receive 100 hours of training in the spring, as well as a week of training right before summer orientation," Kirts said, adding that the student leaders include all levels, from freshmen to graduating seniors. Training the orientation leaders is a job that comes naturally for Kirts, since she worked as an orientation leader herself when she was an undergraduate at the UI. After earning her master's degree in higher education administration from Iowa State University, Kirts worked at the College of William and Mary for two years. She returned to the UI to work as program manager at the Illini Union, then moved to orientation programs. Kirts said she considers her current position to be her "dream job" at this stage of her career. At this time of year, however, there's not much time in Kirts' schedule for dreaming - or sleeping, even. When summer orientation is in full swing, Kirts is often on the job at 7 a.m. and doesn't check out until after 9 p.m. Much of her time is spent making sure everything is running smoothly. Most of the time it does, but occasionally a mini-crisis occurs, and when that happens, Kirts is prepared to respond. Spontaneous problems in the past have included "everything from a tornado warning to someone getting sick on the Quad, to a 'lost' student." As it turned out, the student wasn't really lost; she had stayed late at a session to talk to a professor, then a sudden rainstorm kept her from getting across campus to meet her parents for the dinner break. Another difficult situation that required intervention by the orientation staff involved a family dispute: "The parents were going to disown a student and take her car back home." However, when everything ticks along according to schedule - which is about 99.9 percent of the time - Kirts' main job is to stand back and let the well-orchestrated series of activities proceed. Those activities begin around noon on the first day when incoming students check into their rooms at ISR and receive a packet of orientation materials. From there, the students attend an opening session, which includes a welcome address by the chancellor or a vice chancellor, then the students are divided into small groups, each guided by an orientation student leader. Throughout their campus visit, the students meet for various sessions with faculty and staff representatives from a number of student services, and periodically they reconvene in small groups. Given the structure of the program, Kirts said, orientation student leaders play a lead role in helping the incoming students become familiar with the campus. "The student leaders give them that personal touch. The new students are going to relate well to students, as do the parents. And, in selecting orientation leaders, we try to present the wide range of students with different backgrounds." Kirts said the student leaders take on "everything from doing the training to answering general questions, to writing and performing skits, to parking cars." They also live in the residence halls during orientation, so they can be available if unexpected problems occur. During orientation, students and parents are split up, with students receiving information about topics such as academic expectations and student services. Students also meet with a college representative to begin the academic advising process; attend two academic presentations led by professors; and may select sessions on areas of special interest such as financial assistance, campus safety and study-abroad opportunities. During the second afternoon, time is set aside for advance enrollment, campus bus tours and photo-taking for student I.D. cards. Meanwhile, parents receive orientation on topics such as family relationships and college life, and student conduct and discipline, and also may choose to attend sessions on other topics of interest. They also are informed about important time lines and deadlines, and have the opportunity to meet with the faculty members who facilitated their son or daughter's academic session the previous day. Students and parents are reunited for lunch and dinner, and on the first day of orientation, the dinner session includes an information fair, followed by a presentation at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on campus issues. The session includes skits by the orientation student leaders, who address such topics as personal safety, security, roommate selection and appreciation of differences. Kirts said that even though her job comes with heavy built-in responsibilities, she appreciates the opportunity to affect the lives of so many individuals. "It's exciting - the fact that the program you're preparing is going to impact thousands of people and make a first impression for the university," she said. "And I want people to have a positive image of the UI." Kirts added that she also takes seriously her role in training the orientation student leaders with whom she works so closely. "I like being able to have an impact on 38 students who work with me. We place high expectations on them, and the feedback I get is that they're grateful for that because it prepares them for the work world."