Michael Byrd and Collyn Smith may never have met if it wasn’t for their first-year orientation.
They were in the same group as first-year students, became orientation leaders in summer 2019 and have been friends since.
“I came out of (orientation) sitting here with my best friend now, not knowing that that was what was going to come from it,” Smith, a UNC class of 2022 graduate, said.
This summer marks the first in-person new student orientation UNC New Student & Family Programs has hosted since 2019. The class of 2026 will experience orientation programming and the campus community that the two previous classes had to have virtually due to COVID-19.
Byrd, a rising senior at UNC, said the best thing about in-person orientation was the strong connection they built with other students in their group.
“I am still friends with some of the people, like the people I really connected with, in my orientation group,” Byrd said. “I genuinely consider them my friends and it is enjoyable and great. We see each other on campus or we catch up, go out to dinner.”
As queer first-generation college students from rural hometowns, Byrd and Smith said they both found a home at UNC and felt welcomed by the NSFP staff at orientation.
“I felt very included, and this was one of the first times where people introduced pronouns to me,” Byrd said. “I had never really thought about or engaged in a lot of discourse about pronouns or gender identity.”
Byrd explained that their experience at orientation influenced their decision to later become an orientation leader.
“I came in and had a great experience at orientation and knew I wanted to give that experience to other people, specifically other first-generation college students like I am,” Byrd said.
Smith, who was also an orientation leader and a project coordinator, now serves as the family programming fellow for NSFP.
He said he is excited orientation is in-person this year but recognized that there are some disadvantages that come with it.
“Coming back in person, I think there has to be the recognition that there is some inequity baked into that — it is not a fair experience for all people,” Smith said. “As we are slowly shifting back to these in-person things, it makes our community building more effective, it makes you have more of that sense of belonging on campus as opposed to learning the things virtually.”
For the classes of 2024 and 2025, orientation was moved online due to the pandemic.
“It is very difficult to build virtual community,” Smith said. “Especially with orientation, that is the biggest thing we want to do — to make sure that people feel comfortable in a space that they are going to spend so much time in.”
Stone Watson, a rising senior and orientation fellow with NSFP, was an orientation leader in 2020 and 2021, when the programming was virtual.
Watson said that having orientation on Zoom had many disadvantages, including the lack of personal connection and the technical difficulties that came with being online.
He added that the incoming students who had virtual orientation did not have the same opportunity to build strong relationships that he had as a first-year in 2019.
“I created some friends in my orientation coming in as a first-year student, so they didn’t really get that experience,” Watson said.
UNC rising sophomore Shivalee Patel’s orientation was on Zoom last summer.
She said that, although she enjoyed being able to attend orientation from her bed, it was harder to connect with other students in her group.
Her advice to incoming first-years is to be ready to make friends and pay attention to the information about registration.
“Make the most out of that experience because I feel like I personally didn’t make the most out of mine because it was on Zoom," Patel said. "I was just on my phone for part of it.”
Byrd emphasized that orientation is where new students’ community at the University begins.
“I would tell an incoming first-year to come in with an open mind and excitement,” Watson said, echoing Byrd.
According to Jenn Mallen, director of NSFP, the orientation team is excited to see new students and their families on campus this summer.
“While we were incredibly proud of the virtual programming we provided to students and families, nothing beats the in-person experience,” Mallen said in an email statement. “Attending New Student Orientation in person provides our students and families the opportunity to gain a more concrete feel for the campus and to better connect with faculty, staff and current students.”
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