Hundreds of campus volunteers fueling On Iowa!

Check in for On Iowa volunteers at the IMU.

On Iowa! volunteers check in at the Iowa Memorial Union, where they receive a shirt for each of the five days of the immersion program. Photo by Tim Schoon.

It’s almost zero hour for On Iowa!, a new initiative that’ll greet The University of Iowa’s first-year class and launch the academic year like never before.

Come Friday, up to 4,500 first-year students will take the field at Kinnick Stadium for an On Iowa! kickoff that’s been more than a year in the making. Come next week, organizers will take a brief breather—then start planning the fall 2012 program.

“Hundreds of people across campus built this program, putting in thousands of hours on top of all their other responsibilities,” says Emil Rinderspacher, senior associate director in the Office of Admissions and an On Iowa! co-chair. “It’s been a huge project, but it promises a pretty amazing experience.”

Welcoming new Hawkeyes
On Iowa! is designed to welcome new students, introduce campus traditions and culture, and emphasize the transition to college life. It begins with the Friday night gathering at Kinnick, continues through Saturday sessions on IOWA Challenge goals, and wraps up with the President’s Block Party Sunday evening. Fall classes open the next day.

Beyond the required program, dozens of UI units and groups are hosting optional On Iowa! activities starting Wednesday—walk/run/bike tours, a coffeehouse crawl, movies and games, downtown shopping, a Saturday-night DJ concert at Hubbard Park, and much more.

Combined with established initiatives like summer Orientation and Welcome Back Week, On Iowa! ensures that the UI Class of 2015 hits the ground running.

“On Iowa! is about building both skills and community,” says Kate Sojka, director of retention with University College, the administrative home for many first-year programs. She’s eager to see how students assess their own college preparedness before and after the program.

“We want students to develop in the areas where they say they feel least confident—time management, for example,” she says. “We also want them to know a lot of people care about their success.”

Looking for results
On Iowa! started with the University’s Student Success Team (SST), which proposed a pre-semester immersion program for first-year students. Purdue University, the University of Minnesota, and other schools host similar programs.

“SST initiatives are driven by research and results,” says Sarah Hansen, director of assessment and strategic initiatives for the Division of Student Life, SST coordinator, and an On Iowa! co-chair. “We bring together some of our best people to brainstorm ideas, but we also look at the literature and at our peers to see what’s working.”

Other SST-originated projects include fall Convocation and the IOWA Challenge. Each began with a particular problem—how to introduce new campus traditions, for example, or how to articulate the University’s expectations for students.

SST has become an incubator for solutions. Those that show results—survey data, participation, links to retention stats, etc.—have won funding, staffing, and a place in the campus culture. They’ve also been endorsed in the University’s strategic plan, which aims to create the best student-centered experience in the Big Ten.

Putting it all together
Which brings us to On Iowa! In fact, nearly every recent UI student-success initiative has provided a building block for the new program’s foundation.

On Iowa! Saturday sessions emphasize the IOWA Challenge charge to excel, engage, and choose, while highlighting ways to stretch and serve. Participants explore opportunities that satisfy the Pick One! program goal of connecting every first-year student with a campus organization or activity. Convocation becomes part of the official On Iowa! agenda.

Previous projects built a cadre of people familiar with the University’s student-focused priorities. Once Beth Ingram, associate provost for undergraduate education, and Tom Rocklin, vice president for student life, decided the time was right for a large-scale program like On Iowa!, dozens of staff, faculty, and students joined committees that could tackle different elements of the new program.

Their task wasn’t easy. Behind every question of goals, schedules, curriculum, and collaboration loomed the logistical hurdles of guiding, housing, feeding, and transporting more than 4,500 young people.

Step one: enlist current students to help. On Iowa! organizers recruited nearly 200 student leaders who’ll assume responsibility for small groups, getting them where they need to go, but also providing real-world perspective on the UI experience.

University Housing and Dining established early move-in dates and meal service for first-year students. Cambus extended regular service to cover late-night activities and will provide additional shuttles. University units and local businesses signed on as participants and sponsors.

“Developing this program required all of us to think differently about our work,” Hansen says. “The collaboration and creativity that generated is really inspiring.”

In just a few days, all the preparation will pay off. On Iowa! organizers knew developing the program would be a challenge, but they also knew they could count on strong support.

“Over the last several years, people have invested in student success in a new way,” Rinderspacher says. “The fact that so many have rallied around this project shows that our campus is eager to show students we mean what we say.”