President discusses revised orientation

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President William Powers Jr. drinks his Starbucks coffee on the morning of April 13 as he prepares for the day.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: Serrano is serving as a student orientation adviser for the Office of the Dean of Students’ New Students Services.

Wednesday is a day of firsts for many people on the UT campus. It is the first time the class of 2016 will step on campus and the first of six summer orientation sessions. Students will also get a personal welcome from UT President William Powers Jr.

But the biggest change this year is one that new students may not notice. In February, the University’s graduation task force made a series of recommendations to increase UT’s undergraduate four-year graduation rate, which stands at 51 percent, to 70 percent by 2016. One of those recommendations involved making freshman orientation mandatory and giving it a more academic focus.

The Daily Texan talked with Powers about his orientation welcome address in a phone interview last week. This is the first time Powers will personally speak at an orientation session in at least four years. He usually delivers the welcome to new students by video.

The Daily Texan: President Powers, you haven’t spoken at an orientation session in at least four years. Why did you choose to speak to this group of students?
Powers:
It will be brief, it’s a welcome. The main thing is we are thrilled to have them as new Longhorns and they will get a great personal experience living away from home. We want to get them ready for the first day of class and get their academic planning on track. [I will stress] four-year graduation as well as the notion that they need to acclimate to campus but also need to start their academic planning. I will also emphasize that we are very concerned with the cost of higher education to families and students and a good way to get control of that is to graduate in four years.

DT: What are some differences students will see this year at orientation that they haven’t seen in the past?
Powers:
Orientation is very important way of introducing students to the campus. There is a tendency to have it grow as there are more programs or students may want to learn about this or that at orientation. One thing they will notice is we are going to try to make it a bit more streamlined. There will be more focus on academic planning. There’s been some focus behind academic planning, but the idea behind revamping orientation was that we needed more emphasis on academic planning.

DT: What benchmarks will you be looking at between now and 2016 to evaluate the success of orientation?
Powers:
We’ll have to work this out but something like focus groups. Once students have been here for some time, we want to talk to students and families and ask them ‘What prepared you for that first semester and that first week of class?’ We always want that customer feedback if you will to continue to hone any program. We are interested in four-year graduation rates so our benchmark is to check how many students are on track.


We will be keeping track on some sort of numerical indicators but also on narrative feedback. There will be others involved. That is a big part of what [new senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management] David Laude and his team will do, keeping track of benchmarks in the aggregate. We’re not going to track individual students. We’re going to see in the aggregate if we are making progress on students’ passing rates. We anticipate getting students focused early in orientation on graduation rates will be a big help.

DT: Why did you choose to refocus orientation in late spring for this summer instead of waiting until summer 2013?
Powers:
The graduation rate task force came out in the spring. The next opportunity for orientation was this summer for this next fall’s entering class. We had discussions even independent of four-year graduation rate task force report with the President’s Student Advisory Council. They independently thought there were things we could do to make orientation more helpful. It is true that in a big university things sometimes do not move as quickly as we like but on the other hand we try to be as expeditious as we can. We also thought, ‘Why wait another year?’ when we had an opportunity to make changes this year. We’ll get feedback and we may make some fine tuning changes this year or take some advice.