Rethinking orientation in the COVID-19 era

How the MIT graduate orientation is reforming itself this year
July 2020
Shashank
A.
Mechanical Engineering

Orientation is the stepping stone of the graduate student life experience at MIT. Every year, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) Orientation Committee (OC) organizes a series of orientation events for incoming graduate students. Unlike many other American universities, the MIT graduate orientation is not a one-day or one-week event. For instance, orientation lasted over four months (July-October) last year at MIT. A long and engaging series of events provides incoming students with ample opportunities to connect with the MIT community at large. 

A combination of chance and interest has led me to become involved in all orientations ever since I came to MIT in 2016. While I benefited from orientation in my first year, I have contributed to it in later years by joining the GSC Orientation Committee. Last year, I was one of its three main organizers. We divided the orientation into two parts: a pre-orientation and an on-campus orientation. The pre-orientation, which consisted of a series of online webinars, aimed to help incoming students with a variety of pre-arrival formalities. The on-campus orientation aimed to provide them opportunities to connect with the MIT community. The latter had a long list of informational and social events, which lasted from the mid of August to the last week of October.

The arrival of COVID-19 has completely changed the expectations for orientation this year. The cancelation of visiting week, evolution funding opportunities, and changes in travel policies together have created a confusing environment. Among incoming students, incertitude exists about the mode of teaching, the return on investment for paid programs, the signing of housing leases, and many other issues. Thus, the responsibility of the orientation team towards incoming students is higher than ever. It becomes our responsibility to make them feel welcome despite such an environment. Unlike in previous years, a regular approach of organizing in-person events is of no use this year. We need to completely rethink the orientation to fulfill the needs of students taking online, as well as in-person classes. Feeling that my experience could be useful in dealing with these challenges, I decided to join the orientation leadership again this year. I was fortunate enough that my lab mate Maytee also decided to join as the other orientation chair. His excellent leadership skills have been an invaluable asset to the GSC Orientation Committee in the past few years.

This year, we have been keeping the changing needs of the students as the sole driver of our events. We started the orientation right after students accepted their admission offers. We have organized many need-based webinars on housing, MIT medical, and international students’ matters (ISO), as well as on the GSC. We have tailored each of these webinars to address their queries in the context of recent events. For example, in the housing webinar, we invited current residents from various  residence halls to share their living experiences, to compensate for the visit week cancellation. Similarly, in the webinar on medical requirements, we invited officers from the medical and the insurance offices at MIT. We have also been recording and posting these sessions on YouTube for those unable to attend live. The need for alternative ways of social connections in this era of social distancing is higher than ever. Thus, we have created a few social groups (like on Facebook) to help them mingle with each other from wherever they are; and develop a sense of community. We have also organized a few online ice-breaking sessions during the first week of July, with the help of current student volunteers. Events received great response and students across the world joined to meet their fellow incomings and the current students. We plan to organize similar online-events in the future with various fun components like online-games etc. Planning for online welcome/informational sessions by various MIT organizations like MIT Libraries, CAPD, E&I is also underway. 

The uncertainty of the situation has led us to keep the orientation quite organic so far. We hope to continually adapt our plans to the ever-evolving situation.

I feel this is one of the toughest years for anyone across the world starting a new career or position. For the same reason, in the MIT community, the incoming students are going to be the worst-hit section. This feeling, coupled with my close association with the orientation over the past 4 years, has kept me motivated towards Orientation so far. I also feel the orientation gives me an opportunity to partially give back the support the MIT community has provided me over the years. Everyone on the orientation committee shares a similar feeling.

And thus, the orientation team is committed to giving its best efforts in welcoming incoming grad students and making them feel like a part of the MIT community.