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August 31, 2006


Pitt once again has met the challenge of managing the arrival of 6,800 students and their families amidst the parking and traffic nightmares so familiar in Oakland.

For new students, the frustrations and anxiety of move-in day gave way to a whirlwind of ice cream socials, student monologues, fitness activities, safety seminars, commuter socials and much, much more.

So who cares? Orientation was last week. Well, anyone who works with students should care. Pitt, like most colleges and universities, goes to great lengths to ensure a smooth and successful transition of new students and families into the University community. The purpose is more common sense than scholarly, yet the scholarly guides all that we do. Fortunately, the theory within student development has been nailed down and thus serves as a valid and reliable guide for faculty and staff understanding of students.

Why is orientation important?

Student development theorist Nancy Schlossberg’s theory of “mattering and marginality” explains that students who feel like they matter are more likely to persist and develop than those who feel they are on the margins and not connected.

In practical applications, what appears to be the fun and games of orientation is at the core an intentional “out of the classroom” curriculum designed to move students from a state of marginality. In other words, a student goes from being one of several thousand new students that no one notices, to a state of mattering, and ultimately joins the ranks of several thousand students who feel important, needed, appreciated and noticed.

Why is this important to faculty and staff? In addition to being custodians of the classroom experience, faculty play an invaluable role as ambassadors for the out-of-the-classroom experience. If our goal is to retain the best and brightest future scholars and leaders of tomorrow, we should make sure students feel that they matter. Otherwise, they’re less likely to stay at Pitt and more likely to take their time and talent elsewhere.

But mattering alone isn’t enough. Another fundamental component to orientation programs is connecting students to the myriad opportunities to get involved. Student development theorist Alexander Astin’s “theory of involvement” states that students learn more when they are involved in both the curricular and co-curricular aspects of the collegiate experience. Astin developed five postulates that serve as buoys for student affairs professionals as they continue to navigate the choppy waters of college student development. Astin postulated that:

• “Involvement refers to an investment of physical and psychological energy in various objects.” An object could be the entire student experience or a single activity.

• “Involvement occurs along a continuum.” Some students will invest more energy than others.

• “Involvement has both qualitative, [i.e. the investment of psychological energy or commitment], and quantitative, [i.e. time devoted to an activity] features.”

• “The level of student learning and personal development associated with any educational program is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of students’ involvement in that program.”

• “The effectiveness of any educational policy or practice is directly related to the capacity of that policy or practice to increase student involvement.”

Whether you are a faculty member eagerly awaiting another opportunity to enrich the minds of our new students or a staff member assisting with the education of the whole student, a firm understanding of some of the basic principles of student development theory can help you better understand, serve and enrich our students’ collegiate experience.

What can you do to make sure students feel that they matter at Pitt? I offer you five common sense, yet powerful suggestions that could make a big difference in students’ Pitt experience:

• Strike up a casual conversation with your students. You don’t always have to talk about class material.

• Attend some of the campus programs and events. You might run into that student who owes you a paper.

• Invite a student or two over for dinner. There’s nothing like a home-cooked meal.

• Advise a student organization. Good advisers are hard to find.

• Tell a student you missed them in class. They’ll know that you were paying attention.

Kenyon R. Bonner is director of Student Life in the Division of Student Affairs.

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