As new students arrive on campus in August, it is vital that they are able to integrate into and augment the existing student community. Recent undergraduate orientation trends have hindered new student integration into the MIT family. Official "ice breaking" events and mandatory lectures have replaced the previously free-form "explore the Institute" environment. As a result of reducing choice at such an early stage in their MIT experience, students complain that current Institute orientation is both patronizing and ineffective. Oftentimes, disinterested students choose to skip these seemingly over-manufactured activities, detracting from the overall spirit of Orientation. Thus, many undergraduates view Orientation to be the one aspect of student life that is most in need of improvement.
Particularly frustrating for current undergraduates has been the increased “professionalization” of planning for Orientation and the perceived dismissal in recent years of student involvement in the planning process. Given the historically active role that students have played in Orientation planning, and the cultural value of this participation, the administration must more actively and transparently engage the undergraduate student body in order to create a more valuable orientation experience for incoming students.
The Graduate Orientation program at MIT is particularly noteworthy in that it is planned and implemented entirely by graduate students through the Graduate Student Council (GSC). This centralized orientation program has been greatly expanded over the past five years and the effect is clearly visible in the graduate student body. Graduate students who arrived within the last few years feel much more connected to the MIT community, and report having had a more enjoyable and fulfilling first-year experience, than do those who arrived before graduate orientation was made a significant priority. In addition, the fact that the orientation is run by current grads encourages the incoming students to engage themselves in student governance and help plan future community-building events.
As the central graduate orientation has grown, the value placed on it by the Institute has not increased at the same rate. Undergraduate orientation is allotted every single available space on campus for the entire orientation period (the majority of which are not even used) while graduate orientation struggles to find space to hold its events. Such actions foster concern among many graduate students that, as an Institute, MIT places far greater value on orienting its undergraduates than it does on orienting its graduates (many of whom come from other countries). MIT must evaluate its institutional principles regarding the importance of graduate orientation and act in a manner consistent with these principles.
In addition to the central orientation program, departments and programs often have their own distinct orientation programs. Historically, the decentralized nature of MIT’s graduate programs has been cause for the lack of an Institute-run central graduate orientation as each department was responsible for their own students. Given the concentration of time spent in one’s own department, departmental orientation programs still remain important. While some departments perform excellent orientation programs, many of which are partially or fully run by departmental student groups, others have little or no orientation for their students, leaving students confused about the resources and expectations of their department or program. It is important that all departments recognize the value of solid and well thought-out departmental orientation programs which are well-coordinated with and woven into the Institute-wide orientation.
The Sloan School, for instance, has a very strong orientation program, but it runs during the Institute-wide graduate orientation, so that Sloan students have little opportunity to interact with the broader MIT community. Many of the relationships that students establish with their peers begin during orientation, and thus Sloan students, while appreciating the quality of their own orientation program, regret not having the opportunity to build links with the rest of campus during this time. The Institute should recognize the importance of orientation in community building among all segments of the student population, even those in traditionally separate programs areas such as Sloan.