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Regionals include community in orientation

by Richard Veilleux - August 29, 2005

Andrew Fuchs is representative of many of the freshmen who come to UConn’s Waterbury campus: young, fresh-faced, mildly shy and, since he is not from Waterbury, uncertain what lies beyond the walls of the campus he is about to attend.

Businesses in the city of Waterbury, home to a number of recent renovation projects, including the new UConn campus, would like to reach within those walls, extend a welcome to the University’s more than 900 students, and turn them into customers.

Last Wednesday, a significant step was taken to merge the two during freshman orientation, when student affairs staff and student orientation leaders introduced a new component – a tour, and lunch, in their new city.

“I thought it was great,” Fuchs said, beaming. “I live in Bridgeport and I really don’t get up here much at all, so it was great to get out and see what was around us.”

Broken down into about 15 small groups, the about 220 freshmen left the cloistered comfort and safety of the campus courtyard shortly after noon, and took off across Waterbury in several directions. Group leaders introduced them to the park in the center of Waterbury, the Mattatuck Museum, and the bustling retail area only two blocks from campus. After the walking tour, each group was taken to one of the downtown’s restaurants, where new friends chatted happily while testing the local fare.

After lunch, the students were given a tour of the Palace Theatre, a meticulously renovated, 2,460-seat theatre located across the street from the main entrance to the campus.

“We’re a commuter school, and most of the students are going to have a lot of downtime between classes,” says Stuart Brown, assistant dean of students at the campus. “So why not introduce them to the city around them, let them see that it’s busy, it’s safe, and there’s a lot they can do here when they’re not in class or studying.”

Taking the students to lunch, he said, was a brainstorm.

“When we were planning orientation, talk drifted to feeding the students. Last year we had a barbecue on campus, but it didn’t really work well. We were tossing out ideas, then somebody mentioned bringing the students to the merchants. It was perfect,” says Brown.

The merchants leaped at the chance to participate, he said. Several of the restaurants allowed the students to choose from their menu, others offered the crowd a handful of items. All the meals, paid for through Brown’s orientation budget, were discounted. Everyone seemed satisfied.

The consultants who helped organize the activities at Waterbury on Wednesday morning traveled to UConn’s Hartford campus for an afternoon session.

Student activities staff at the other regionals also worked up programs for their new students, ranging from a low ropes course (a series of team-building outdoor problem solving structures) at Avery Point to a faculty version of What’s My Line at the Stamford campus.

“It was pretty funny,” says Sharon White, associate director of student life at Stamford. “We had professors from about a dozen disciplines, and the students had to decide who was the history professor. They missed – they thought the marketing professor was it. He did a very convincing job.”

Each campus also brought experts on community building to their campuses for icebreakers, and Stamford gave the students a catered dinner in the building’s atrium.

The Waterbury experiment, however, featured the largest divergence from the standard orientation program, a move made possible by its urban location.

“It’s important that we maintain close connections to the community,” says Veronica Makowsky, vice provost for undergraduate education and regional campus administration, “and it’s an excellent first step for the freshmen to get out there and start learning about the community.”

Makowsky says building relationships with area businesses will help students and staff set up internships and undergraduate research placements, as well as opportunities for service learning. The importance of community connections is gaining heightened importance, as more students enroll in four-year programs at the regional campuses. Four-year students at the Waterbury campus will have the time to build relationships with the area’s hospital, banks, and social service agencies, as well as with the Palace Theatre.

“Our mission is to offer programs that meet the needs of the community, and our strength is urban and community studies,” says William Pizzuto, interim director of the campus. “With the four-year programs, students are staying on campus longer, and building more relationships, and that will lead to more partnerships. It’s a great place to be.”

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