Getting Acquainted: Old hands lead fresh crops of rookie students on two-day tours

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

"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."

UIUC -- Inside Illinois -- 1994/06-03-94