Dannah VanPraagh, ‘23, top right corner, and her orientation group. As a result of COVID-19 regulations, first-year orientation was held over Zoom, but VanPraagh was still able to engage her first-year students through breakout rooms. (Courtesy of Dannah VanPraagh)

First-year students Zoom into orientation

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When Lehigh announced that orientation would be conducted virtually over Zoom, the Office of First-Year Experience knew its job was going to look a little different this year. 

The OFYE staff had to take on a seemingly impossible task of moving orientation to an entirely online format, and first-year students had to adapt their expectations of what their first experience on campus would look like. 

Returning Orientation Leader Devyn Riddle, ‘22, said she was disappointed when she first learned that orientation would be virtual because she had a positive in-person experience last year. 

“I was also nervous it would be more difficult to facilitate connections between my first-years through a computer screen,” Riddle said. 

First-time Orientation Leader Dannah VanPraagh, ‘23, said she was initially disappointed that orientation was conducted over Zoom and also thought it would be harder to engage with the first-years. In-person orientation has many benefits for leaders, which include free food, Lehigh apparel and forming friendships with a diverse group of orientation leaders. 

Both VanPraagh and Riddle found ways to adjust their in-person activities into effective Zoom communication. 

“Right from the beginning, I was very open with my first years,” Riddle said.  “I told them that this year’s orientation was going to be different, but that as a group we were going to make the best of it and still have an amazing experience. I encouraged them to keep their cameras on so that we could all see each other.” 

Riddle said her group engaged in innovative Zoom icebreakers that brought everyone closer together. These activities included a name game called, “What are you bringing to the picnic?” as well as the “five finger activity,” where each finger represents something different about yourself. 

Riddle said the self-disclosure activities ended up working well for her over Zoom because it allowed her first-years to learn more about each other. 

VanPraagh said she thought it would be difficult getting her first-years to participate but found success in utilizing Zoom’s breakout room feature. 

VanPraagh was able to meet some of her first-years on campus outside of orientation training. She said she showed some where their classes are and plans to have a socially distanced dinner with some others near campus.

While orientation leaders gathered course material and icebreakers, first-years had to focus to make the most of their orientation. 

Kelsey Thompson, ‘24, a member of the women’s swim team, said it was hard to stay attentive to a screen for so long, but the majority of the group was talkative and participated in group activities. 

She said she was disappointed with the university in failing to plan more socially distant in-person gatherings for orientation. 

Hien Thi, ‘24, said she also found orientation informative but found herself primarily listening to others in her group instead of participating. 

“There were a lot of long sessions that provided important information, but it was very long and uninteresting,” Thi said. “We could’ve either read or watched a video instead of attending the Zooms.” 

Thi did find some aspects of orientation that interested her. She said her favorite activities were the symposiums and interacting with people in group meetings. 

Both Thompson and Thi found their orientation leaders helpful and communicative. Thompson said her orientation leader was well-spoken and made the entire group feel comfortable right away.  

“My [orientation leader]did well giving us all the important information, and she was very helpful and nice,” Thi said. “She made everyone feel welcome.”

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