Blazer Beginnings welcomes students in new ways

Written by  Karen Templeton

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College orientation is a time for new students to meet each other and build connections, get familiar with campus, meet faculty and advisors and more, and UAB worked to keep it that way even as the pandemic unfolded.

 Blazer Beginnings, the new student orientation program, is required for all new students (freshmen, transfer and non-traditional). Freshmen complete a two-day program during which they meet with faculty and academic advisors, register for classes, discuss academic expectations, discover resources designed to help them succeed, build a network of campus contacts, become familiar with campus organizations and meet other students. Just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the orientation program formerly known as Goin’ Green re-branded as Blazer Beginnings and redesigned some of its offerings.

“We launched the new program not long before we had to move virtual. The new branding and materials really helped the students feel like Blazers immediately, even though they couldn’t be on campus,” said Elizabeth Burns, director of New Student Orientation.

After running the first virtual orientation program in 2020, Burns and her team refined the experience for 2021, and 151 new students completed the first freshman Blazer Beginnings virtual orientation May 20-21.

Get to know each other

The orientation leaders, a group of enthusiastic students who lived in Rast Hall for the summer, trained online and in person to welcome new students.

“We looked to them for the creativity they developed during the pandemic, and they truly embraced the online environment to help make these sessions effective,” Burns said.

“We found the online format to be helpful in a lot of ways, specifically in helping introverted students feel more comfortable,” Burns said. More reserved students liked the chat feature of Zoom for submitting questions, and the team found ways to incorporate small-group discussions using the breakout room feature.

BBOL on ZoomThe orientation leaders, a group of enthusiastic students who lived in Rast Hall for the summer, trained online and in person to welcome new students. Use the technology, get the face time

After completing a specially designed course in Canvas, freshmen were comfortable interacting with the orientation leaders and faculty representatives on Zoom.

“We really honed in on the technology and resources that work best for particular activities,” Burns said. “Going forward we know what is going to work best for certain training and interactions.”

Students met with their advisors virtually to discuss class schedules and expectations, and Joe March, Ph.D., chemistry professor and associate director for the Science and Technology Honors Program, led a “Professor Q&A” session. This session explained everything from a syllabus to understanding and responding to faculty expectations.

Students also explored the Birmingham community as a classroom and learned about campus life from current students.

Every session is carefully crafted with the needs of new students in mind “to provide a relevant and helpful orientation experience so that our new students can fully flourish as they move from prospective student to enrolled student to successful alumni,” said DeeDee Barnes Bruns, executive director of UAB’s Community Recruitment Partnerships. “We look to best-practice models from our professional organizations and other outstanding research universities, and we incorporate our special brand of UAB community-building and an affinity for the learning environment of a vibrant city.”


Beginnings to come

As the pandemic wanes, the Blazer Beginnings team soon will welcome students on campus for orientation.

“There are so many benefits to having students together on campus,” Burns said, but some options may stay online — content that may be better delivered through a recorded message. It’s also beneficial to test their knowledge of some information using the Canvas quiz feature and reserve more time for engaging, interactive content during in-person orientation sessions.

The pandemic created multiple challenges in student recruitment and orientation, but the creativity of UAB staff and students helped ensure all new student needs were met as they started their educational experience, Burns says. “If anything, we’ve improved what we can provide and have never had to sideline any of our enthusiasm about welcoming Blazers to campus.”


Karen Templeton, director of communications for the Office of the Provost, wrote this for UAB Reporter.