All Aboard Purdue: How Orientation has evolved to meet the needs of a larger, more diverse incoming class

Updated: Jan. 4, 2023

pictured: students jump over the railroad tracks at purdue during a bcr initiation ceremony

At Purdue University, the pursuit of excellence at scale is a collective endeavor that relies heavily on the efforts of its dedicated and talented staff. From supporting faculty in their groundbreaking research to fostering student success to ensuring the seamless operation of the university's many functions, staff members play a pivotal role across campus.

Purdue Today is recognizing these efforts with a new “Staff Excellence” series, which continues with the following feature on Orientation Programs.

Purdue University's Orientation Programs are a cornerstone of the university’s commitment to student success, providing an excellent and inclusive welcome to jumpstart students’ educational experience.

Craig Johnson, director of Orientation Programs, said there are a few key building blocks that have built up the success of these programs over the past several years. As Purdue’s incoming class has grown, so has the importance of developing innovative approaches to meet students’ evolving needs.

One example is Boiler Cold Rush (BCR), a welcome weekend orientation program for new undergraduate students admitted to Purdue for the spring semester. Established in 2021, this program originally aimed to provide an on-campus orientation to students who were unable to attend Purdue in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Having just concluded its fourth year, however, the BCR program is now an integral component of the university’s four-part “All Aboard Purdue” welcome experience for all students.

“Even before the fall of 2020, we knew that a welcome program for our spring beginners would be impactful,” Craig Johnson shared. “According to our BCR program data, 100 percent of BCR participants were retained from the spring semester to the fall semester in 2023. That is wild success for a program we weren’t doing before 2021; this number indicates the program is contributing to students’ sense of belonging, connectedness and community, which serve as the foundation for what we hope will be a successful Purdue experience, ultimately leading to graduation.”

Scale and Adaptation: Meeting Diverse Student Needs

Craig Johnson also emphasized the significance of scale when considering the orientation process. With thousands of students completing various programs, the challenge lies in tailoring experiences for groups of different sizes. Whether it's Boiler Cold Rush with 100 students, Boiler Gold Rush International with over 600 participants or Boiler Gold Rush with more than 8,000 participants, the Orientation team is constantly piloting innovative approaches to meet evolving needs and changing demographics.

To keep pace with these changes, Orientation staff also continually undergo critical self-reflection. By incrementally adjusting programs to align with the diverse backgrounds and experiences of incoming students, Purdue ensures a more tailored and effective welcome for all Boilermakers.

Pictured: Students sit together in large groups during a Boiler Cold Rush info session

Pictured: Students sit together in large groups during a Boiler Cold Rush info session

While orientation may not be the sole reason students stay at Purdue, effective programs set students up for success on their first day in the classroom. By gradually introducing them to academic aspects and then expanding to campus resources, the Orientation team ensures a smooth transition for students.

Inclusive Practices: Meeting Students Where They Are

A significant aspect of Purdue's Orientation Programs is their commitment to inclusivity. Maggie Smith, senior assistant director of Orientation Programs, highlighted efforts to make orientation more accessible. For example, new and transfer students used to be required to participate in a single-day, on-campus visit to take care of important business such as meeting with an academic advisor and registering for courses.

Today, however, all students complete these tasks virtually through steps one through three of the “All Aboard Purdue” orientation experience (Purdue 101, Purdue Advising and Purdue 102). These steps have been intentionally cultivated to better introduce students to content that is relevant to them at different points in the orientation experience.

Pictured: student walks alone in the snow on purdue university campus

Pictured: Student rides a hoverboard through a snowy walkway on the Purdue West Lafayette campus

Additionally, students still have the option to visit campus with their families before classes begin with Summer Visit Days. Beyond considering the varied needs of students, this change also addresses issues like financial constraints and time commitments, resulting in more inclusive and successful programs.

“To me, the idea of ‘excellence at scale’ means taking the intentions, ideas and goals of our work and making sure they’re translating to a variety of lenses, because we know that every Boilermaker is unique,” Smith shared. “Our job is to help guide students through this huge transition in their lives, so we have intentionality behind that. A big piece is teaching students early on how to ask for help and navigate the information and resources that we know can make a powerful difference in their ability to meet their goals while at Purdue.”

Of course, the collaborative nature of orientation efforts depends upon partnerships across various campus departments. That’s why the Orientation team actively engages with academic advising, student affairs, admissions and other units, ensuring that accurate and updated information is shared with incoming students. The "It Takes a Village" model is crucial to each program’s success.

Smith also discussed another collaborative initiative tied to Purdue 101, where students’ completion of the online module by an early deadline results in a donation to the ACE Campus Food Pantry. This altruistic tie-in has resulted in more than 6,600 Purdue 101 completions each of the last two years in the month of May, more than two thirds of the incoming class of students. Beyond supporting the food pantry, the initiative also encourages students to engage early in the orientation process, facilitating a smoother transition and reducing backlog for advising appointments.

“My favorite thing about my job is getting to collaborate with so many of the different offices and programs across campus,” Smith said. “We have so much to offer Boilermakers, and being able to help facilitate connections that are going to change students’ journey for the better while they're here with us and beyond — I think that's really special.”

Team Growth: Strength in Numbers

Over the years, Purdue's Orientation team has expanded to support the overall growth of the incoming class, as well as the increasing proportion of new students who engage in orientation. For example, in 2013, 77% of incoming students attended Boiler Gold Rush (BGR), which resulted in 5,400 attendees. In 2023, 79% of incoming students attended BGR, resulting in more than 8,000 attendees.

 Purdue Orientation Programs Sr. Assistant Director, Maggie Smith, stands at a podium during Boiler Cold Rush

Pictured: Purdue Orientation Programs Sr. Assistant Director, Maggie Smith, stands at a podium during Boiler Cold Rush

The team has also expanded its services to further support orientation efforts at Purdue University in Indianapolis. This growth allows for more intentional relationships, broader outreach and the capacity to provide better experiences for incoming students.

Notable successes because of this growth include increased participation among transfer students and the highest number of team supervisors and team leaders hired (more than 650 students, all of whom are volunteers), indicating positive trends for the future.

Inclusivity in Action: Navigating Sensory Information and Representation

Highlighting Purdue's commitment to inclusion, senior assistant director Virginia Johnson discussed the success of the Sensory Guide for Boiler Gold Rush. This guide, which has earned national accolades as well as Purdue’s Focus Award, provides essential information for students with sensory needs, contributing to a more inclusive experience.

“I’m really proud of the impact we’ve seen with the Sensory Guide, and we’re continuing to build on those efforts,” Virginia Johnson shared. “While it’s been helpful to provide students with information and alternative activities, we’re also exploring ways to bring students together so they can engage with their peers about their experiences and build community with other students who have neurodiverse identities.”

Virginia Johnson said the team has also worked intentionally to improve the experience of transfer students by creating transfer student-specific activities and swag to support and acknowledge their unique experiences. These efforts have also led to growth in transfer student participation; 205 transfer students registered for Boiler Gold Rush in 2023, the highest number since 2015.

“It’s more than just bringing new students together,” she added. “We are creating a custom welcome that is tailored to transfer students’ unique journey. They’re meeting with key administrators here to support them, for example, and engaging in small groups with upperclassmen who have similar backgrounds and experiences and being empowered to be proud of their journey as a transfer student.”

Purdue University's Orientation Programs stand as a testament to the institution's dedication to providing an exceptional and inclusive education. The commitment to adapting to changing demographics, building partnerships and fostering an environment of inclusivity positions Purdue as a leader in the realm of student orientation and success. As the university continues to evolve, so too will its Orientation Programs, ensuring that every student has the foundation they need for a successful academic journey.

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Andrea Mattingly

Director of Communication for Teaching and Learning,

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