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Sustainability at Student Orientation

I might have also titled this “Is passive but omnipresent promotion the key to successful sustainability education at orientation”, but quite frankly, that seemed to be a little too long for a title.

Orientation for new college & university students is almost here. Whether your orientation is a weekend or an entire week, it can be an important but tricky opportunity. At many schools you have every member of the incoming class concentrated into a handful of events or even a single event. If you can get into that event, or events, it provides a tremendous opportunity to access and convey information to the entire incoming student body.

But inherent in that, there are a couple of important facets to success. The first is that you have to convince an administrator to grant you access to the orientation events. Secondly, you have to convey information in a way that students will absorb and retain that information. I suggest to you that a passive but ambitious education program is the key to success on both fronts.

First, look objectively at the access issue. Yes, I know that if you are reading this, chances are that you think that sustainability and recycling is a critically important facet of campus life and that every new student should have conveyed to them how important this issue is. But step back for a second. So too does every group, cause, program, and department on campus. Every one of them is vying for that same small window of opportunity. As a result, administrators in charge of orientation guard that time preciously. They are deluged by requests from a wide range of passionate people, many of whom are well-connected on campus. Even with a week-long orientation, there is not enough time to give everyone the time they think they are due.

Then there is the issue of retention. With so many programs trying to convey “critically important” information to new students in such a short time period, new students end up on information overload. Orientation events can run from the early morning (by college student standards) until 9 or 10 o’clock at night. New students start to overload. I’ve done the 9pm slots after students have been bombarded by information all day. I’ve had audiences that look like extras from the Walking Dead set, so checked out and glazed over and desperate to get this last event over with so they can socialize with their new classmates that there was very little point in either party being there. It’s hard to say that it is critical to be part of orientation if that is all you get.

But what if you approached orientation differently? What if you didn’t need an active slot? What if you were more passive, but more omnipresent? On nature trails, there is a type of education called interpretive programs – led by signs in key locations on a trail, which convey important information that visitors might otherwise overlook. That piece of swampy pond you almost walked past is vital turtle habitat. Pause for a moment and look around and you’ll see some pretty cool stuff. That pine tree you hardly noticed was once essential to 19th century shipbuilding and a critical part of the worldwide economy. What if you brought those same kinds of interpretive programs to orientation?

Instead of a rushed 9pm session, what if you were everywhere? What if each main room used for orientation had a sign above the light switch by the exit briefly conveying important energy conservation information? What if at check in (whether that is at each residence hall or done centrally on campus), there was a small display explaining where to get energy efficient desk lamp and/or an energy star dorm fridge when you go out shopping to furnish the room? What if at every orientation function the trash, recycling, and composting bins were accompanied by a poster conveying a couple important facts about recycling, composting, and/or waste reduction on campus? What if the orientation BBQ was accompanied by signs that briefly discussed the campuses local foods effort and/or composting effort? What if all of those were accompanied by a website address and/or QR code that gave everyone a pathway to more information?

For the administrator overseeing orientation, you have just become one less session he or she has to schedule, which makes it easier for them to say yes. And as long as they have some say over the aesthetics and/or content of your interpretive materials, to ensure it aligns with the impression the campus is trying to convey, they may be pleased by the added gravitas that your interpretive programs give some of their events. Imagine the possibilities if you were suddenly everywhere instead of being relegated to one single late night session.

And think how much more you could do in terms of impact and retention. By parsing your information into many tiny bits, instead of trying to cram it into a single session, imagine how much more digestible that information could become. When you were relegated to a single session, someone who missed your session missed everything. By being everywhere, it makes it much more likely that someone sees your information even if they miss a specific session. And because your information is conveyed in context (e.g. a sign about energy conservation by a light switch) it is likely to be retained in context (next time they see the light switch).

When it comes to your campus orientation what could a passive but aggressive approach do for you? Tells us by leaving a comment!

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Roger Guzowski

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