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A day in the life of SOAR

August 3, 2009 By Kiera Wiatrak

Every day since early June, hundreds of students and parents have participated in Student Orientation, Advising and Registration (SOAR).

SOAR is a two-day event packed with sessions for students and their parents or guests — some combined, mostly separate — that bring in a multitude of speakers from all over campus to introduce new students and parents to what awaits them in the fall.

In addition to meeting each other and getting an overview of all the campus has to offer, new students meet one-on-one with university advisors from their college and sign up for their first semester classes.

And the parents don’t just drop them at the double doors of the Social Sciences building and drive off. SOAR programming includes sessions for parents to learn about resources on campus and how to complete a successful transition into parents of college students.

The Center for the First-Year Experience sponsors SOAR, using staff, interns and current students to accurately convey campus life to newcomers.

As the program closes its main period for 2009, here is a collection of wisdom captured during a day in the life of SOAR.

Day One

12:30 p.m. Check-in and Resource Fair

Even though some students take their placement testing immediately beforehand, it’s probably safe to say the fun started at the check-in and Resource Fair. The excitement in the room was almost tangible as students began to understand that in many ways, college starts right now.

Photo of SOAR check-in

Student worker Rachael Nichols hands out tote bags to incoming students as they check in for a SOAR session at the Welcome Center on June 30, 2009.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Several students emphasized they always wanted to be Badgers.

“I’ve wanted to come here since I knew what college was,” said incoming freshman Ashley Curnett, of Oconto Falls.

Her mother, Michelle Curnett, is just as enthusiastic. “It was her dream, and I just want what’s best for her and for her to be happy,” she said.

Although Randie Swanson, of Baxter, Minn., was disappointed that she didn’t get football tickets, she hasn’t found anything else negative about UW–Madison.

“Everything I’ve heard has been positive,” she said. “The first time after being here, I knew this was where I wanted to go.”

Tamie Swanson, Randie’s mom, agreed that Madison is “a great fit for her” and during SOAR, hoped to “find out ways for parents to stay connected since we are six and a half hours away,” she said.

For Long Islanders Billy Wasserman and his dad, David Wasserman, SOAR was their first time on campus.

“It’s awesome. We’re blown away,” David said.

Billy agreed. “It’s everything, just all around great school.”

Tony Unbehaun, of Dodgeville, Wis., hoped “to get more prepared for college, an idea of what it’s going to be like.”

His dad, Todd Unbehaun, was looking forward to the opportunities UW–Madison will offer his son. “I think it’ll provide him the challenges he’s hoping to get, and I think there’s a lot of options, a lot of good things up here,” he said.

3:30-4:15 p.m. Welcome to UW–Madison!

Chancellor Biddy Martin addressed the new students.

“I love getting to know the students, and I really think it’s important to make sure they know they’re welcome and that we’re here to try to help them have the best possible experience,” Martin said.

“I love getting to know the students, and I really think it’s important to make sure they know they’re welcome and that we’re here to try to help them have the best possible experience.”

Chancellor Biddy Martin

She began her address by commending the students on being admitted to one of the top universities in the world. She also emphasized the vast knowledge and accomplishments of UW–Madison faculty and staff, and encouraged students to form relationships with their instructors.

“You’re going to have to claim an education on your own behalves,” she said.

She challenged them to attend the office hours of two new faculty members each semester.

“You don’t need to have a problem; you don’t need to have a terrible grade on a midterm or an exam or a paper,” she said. “All you need is the desire to get to know faculty well enough so that you’re actually learning from them directly.”

7-9 p.m. MADE: I am a Badger

The for-the-students, by-the-students session was led by Center for the First-Year Experience interns Sarah Lederman and Sarah Meagher and the New Student Leaders (NSLs).

Lederman and Meagher are 2009 UW–Madison graduates and veteran NSLs. In addition to training the NSLs, Lederman and Meagher created the session MADE: I Am a Badger, borrowing the title from a popular MTV show where teens are “made” into something they’ve always wanted to be.

Lederman, who switches off leading MADE with Meagher, said she and her counterpart designed the program to give “an idea of what to expect, a little taste of what college could be for them and how everyone’s experience is different,” she said.

“I’ve always been worried about grades and balancing everything, but now that other people I know have those same feelings, it’s comforting.”

Jesse Leung

At the beginning of the session, the NSLs passed out clickers to poll the students and display the results on a screen in the front of the classroom.

Questions included biggest concerns for college, where students expect to make friends and how much they studied in high school. The point of which, Lederman said, was to demonstrate how diverse expectations and anticipations are.

“I’ve always been worried about grades and balancing everything, but now that other people I know have those same feelings, it’s comforting,” incoming freshman Jesse Leung said after the session.

7-8 p.m. Family Transitions and Transformations

Associate dean of student academic affairs Ann Groves Lloyd addressed the parents about the upcoming changes they will find in their relationship with their student.

Infused with quite a bit of humor, Lloyd’s presentation encouraged parents to communicate with their students before the fall about everything from finances to move-in day to personal choices to changes at home.

Andy Kreil (center), a student worker with the Parent Program, hands out calendars to incoming students and their parents.

Photo: Bryce Richter

She assured parents that their students would be taken care of and provided with ample resources to meet all of their needs.

“I guarantee you there’s nothing your student is going to go through that we haven’t seen before,” she said.

But she warned that it would be an adjustment for everyone. Students may start to distance themselves at the end of the summer, she said, in preparation for the separation. They will also assert their independence.

Lloyd used the example of a student declaring, “In three months you’re not going to know what I’m doing at one in the morning, so what do you care what I’m doing now?”

Lloyd’s strongest message to parents was to provide students with unconditional love and support to allow them to grow on a campus that provides a myriad opportunities.

“If they’re not feeling uncomfortable every once in awhile, they’re not taking advantage of everything here,” she said.

It can’t be an easy job to address a room of parents about to send their kids away from home, but, she said, mostly the parents are grateful.

“I have a lot of parents say it’s good to hear someone lay it out on the line and know that they’re going to get through it just fine,” she said. “The learning comes just as much from the stumbles as it does from the things that go beautifully.”

9-10 p.m. Student Late Night

Afterward, students let loose after an extremely busy day. The NSLs brought the students to College Library for games, karaoke and stress-free mingling.

“I feel like now [college is] not going to be as scary as I thought it was going to be,” said Anna Jankus of Appleton. “I think the small-group thing in the rooms really helped to be able to answer questions you’ve been thinking of during the day.”

Nick Goggin of River Forest, Ill., feels reassured “knowing that everyone’s in the same boat.”

Tahiya Alam, of Kenosha, said the new social aspects of college were occupying her thoughts.

“I think getting thrown into a group of people I didn’t know was more helpful,” she said. “It kind of gives me an idea of how I’m going to have to remake myself from being that high school senior who had my group of friends.”

“I think getting thrown into a group of people I didn’t know was more helpful. It kind of gives me an idea of how I’m going to have to remake myself from being that high school senior who had my group of friends”

Tahiya Alam

But the most prevalent anticipation at College Library was registering for classes the next day while parents are busy in sessions of their own.

Carren Martin, assistant director of the Center for the First Year Experience, pointed out that students are kept separate from their parents during registration for a reason.

“It gives the students a chance to try out some things, try to make decisions on their own in a place that’s really safe for them to do that,” she said. “At the end of the program they get back with their parents, and it creates some things to talk about, some experiences to share. They have an initial success right under their belt, they pulled together a successful schedule for the fall.”

Day Two

10:15-10:45 a.m. Health and Safety: Your Student and the UW Community

Parents and guests of new students spent their second morning on campus becoming acquainted with other university resources while their students met with advisors and register for classes.

Arnold Jennerman, the University Health Services director of administrative services, spoke to parents about University Health Services and encouraged parents to teach their students to be “stewards of their own health.”

Understanding health insurance and knowing when and how to make appointments is key to a healthy freshman year.

Jennerman also suggested that parents talk to their students about alcohol before move-in and form a plan for how much and how often they will drink. He emphasized that September and October are detox’s busiest months.

Jennerman handed the spotlight over to UW Police Detective Cheryl Radzinski, who spoke on personal safety. She reminded parents to tell their students that it’s OK to call the police when something isn’t right. She also assured the audience that the UWPD works closely with numerous departments on campus to make for a safe and comfortable environment.

1:10-1:45 p.m. The Parent Program: Staying Connected after SOAR, New Student Leader Panel

Patti Lux-Weber, Parent Program administrative specialist, spoke to guests about the Parent Program, a service dedicated to keeping parents informed of events and happenings on campus and to serving as a gateway for questions and conversations.

Lux-Weber encouraged parents to discuss upcoming campus events with their students, and promised that the Parent Program will return calls and e-mails the same day they’re received.

She reminded parents that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits parents from accessing their students’ grades without students’ permission, and instructed parents to discuss with their students how grade sharing will be handled.

After the overview of the Parent Program, a few of the New Student Leaders took the stage to answer questions, because no one can answer questions about student life better than the students themselves.

The three UW–Madison students began by stating one thing they wished they had known when they started college.

NSL Gail Gutman said freshman year would’ve been much easier if she hadn’t pressured herself to choose her new best friends the first week of school.

“It’s OK to not make your best friends right away. It’s easy to be under pressure to have ‘the best freshman year ever’ and the ‘typical’ freshman year, but that doesn’t actually exist.”

Gail Gutman, New Student Leader

“It’s OK to not make your best friends right away,” she said in a later interview. “It’s easy to be under pressure to have ‘the best freshman year ever’ and the ‘typical’ freshman year, but that doesn’t actually exist.”

The students answered parent questions on bikes, bank accounts, the Greek system and peer pressure.

“I will honestly tell you that I’ve never felt pressured to drink,” said NSL Roz Koff. “I think that any event students go to, there are students that will choose to drink, and there are students that will choose not to.”

Gutman agreed. “The reality is that there are always people staying in on any given night, there are always people going out and not drinking on any given night, and in my experience, when students do choose to drink, it’s out of their personal desire and not because of the other people around them.”

2 p.m. Move-in: Reunited

At 1:45 p.m. on the second day, all required SOAR sessions are over, and students and parents regroup at Engineering Hall to discuss their distinct experiences during the past day and a half.

“We’re looking forward to having a nice dinner, quiet time together to kind of discuss everything and plan,” said Fritzi Leighton, of Ocean City, Md.

It seems like she and her son, Jimmy Leighton, have a lot to talk about.

“They were talking this morning at one of the parent things about how parents struggle with not having their kid at home anymore,” she said. “I could feel my eyes welling up, but I feel that this will be a great, safe place for him to be, so that makes us feel more confident.”

Jimmy seemed relieved after getting to know the university a little bit better. “I feel settled and prepared,” he said.