Stefanie Burke, director of first-year experiences, converses with her colleague Carolina Hernandez. (Nahjiah Miller/B&W Staff)

Welcome to Lehigh: Behind the scenes of the first-year experience


The first-year experience at Lehigh starts with a first impression of student life during four days of out-of-class activities known as orientation week.

Stefanie Burke, assistant dean and director of first-year experience, said the Office of First-Year Experience’s goal is to provide first-year students with the tools they need to succeed not only for their first year at Lehigh, but for their entire undergraduate experience. 

Stefanie Burke said the office’s work is cyclical. The office collects feedback as soon as a program concludes and begins to plan for the following year. 

She said the office aims to help students feel prepared and ease the transition of what can be an overwhelming time. 

“For orientation, we think about what students need in those first four days that are crucial and critical,” Stefanie Burke said. “They need to have a friend and have to know how to use the dining hall before learning about tutoring.”  

Stefanie Burke said it can be a challenge to design programs for 1,600 people, but the office attempts to find a balance of workshops for the whole freshman class.

Another major focus of orientation is well-being. Stefanie Burke said a large part of building community is making sure students know how to take care of themselves and others in new scenarios.

Stefanie Burke said the office identified two major priorities for their programming.

“We want first-years to think about building a community and feeling welcomed,” Stefanie Burke said. “We also want students to feel like they can participate in the community that already exists and bring themselves into that.” 

Stefanie Burke said the office fielded feedback from professors, administrators and staff who they work with and they thought the office’s programming could benefit from a theme.

As a result of these conversations and identifying priorities for the 2022-2023 academic year, the office structured the year around the theme, “Crafting Our Communities with Care.”

After orientation, first-years must complete 5×10 programming, which requires they attend five workshops of their choice, each with a different focus, in their first ten weeks at Lehigh. 

Stefanie Burke said the office emphasizes learning in the five foundations for student success: collaborative connections, creative curiosity, identity development, inclusive leadership, and professional growth and success.

The office also requires students to select a mentor in the NavigateLU program, which is the program that hosts the mentor meetings, orientation meetings and 5×10 programming. Stefanie Burke said first-year students choose their mentor based on shared interests. 

“We all need at least one person that we can just go and talk to,” Stefanie Burke said. “The NavigateLU program allows students to pause and think about how their semester is going and their goals as a Lehigh student.”

In an effort to adapt to students’ needs and interests, the office sends out annual surveys to gather qualitative data and feedback to improve future programming. 

Stefanie Burke said the office usually receives a 50% response rate for their post-orientation survey from both students and orientation staff. 

“If there’s a problem that they’re saying exists, we look at how to solve that problem,” Stefanie Burke said. “That’s how we move forward.” 

Nicole Burke, associate director of the office, said feedback is crucial to the success of incoming and current first-year students. 

She said both students who attend the workshops and the faculty and professors who run them are able to give their thoughts in the form of surveys, as well as sitting down with her to discuss successes and improvements.

According to Lehigh’s Path to Prominence Plan, the university intends to increase undergraduate enrollment by 1,000 students by 2027, admitting more first-years than ever before.

“Those students are also coming from more diverse backgrounds, having a lot of different varied experiences,” Nicole Burke said. “We want to make sure that when they get there, they succeed and feel prepared and not give them this one size fits all experience during orientation. It’s challenging.”

Overall, she said the office aims to help students feel welcomed and acclimated to the community during their first year at Lehigh. 

Luca Mandiya, ‘26, said he credits his sense of belonging on campus to the orientation program, where he began to feel at ease and met one of his closest friends at Lehigh. 

Mandiya said he appreciated the office reaching out to him, especially being from England and attending college abroad. 

“It was a culture shock, but it was nice being thought of,” Mandiya said. “I appreciated how much effort they put into wanting me to feel welcome. Not only as an international student but as a first-year in orientation.”

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