The first lectures at the University of St. Thomas this year weren't focused on traditional subjects like chemistry, literature or history. They were lessons on how to navigate college itself.

What should they focus on besides grades? What if there's an emergency and they need to skip class? Do they really need to study 48 hours per week?

"I think it's just giving an idea of what college is going to look like," said Bibireoluwa Roberts, a first-year student in the university's Dougherty Family College. She began orientation feeling nervous and shy but left with a clearer sense of what to expect in the next few months.

The majority of this year's new college students were freshmen or sophomores in high school when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted schools to switch to online learning. Many students spent more time at home and less time with other teenagers. Some experienced financial hardships as loved ones lost jobs. Now, colleges are adding new programs to help them navigate the next phase of life.

"That's a really formative time," Charlie Potts, dean of students at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, said of the high school years. "I think there are some ripple effects."

Some colleges added orientation sessions to help students improve their writing, after data showed high school students' test scores dipped during the pandemic. Others teach students how to manage their time, take effective notes, reach out to professors to schedule office time or write an email. And others emphasize the importance of reading instructions or hitting deadlines — things that might have been overlooked in the early days of the pandemic but could now result in failing grades.

"We think that 18-year-olds should be able to do that, but reality is, they're just not coming as prepared as they used to," said Tricia Dobrient, senior director of student success at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, which has campuses in Minneapolis, Rochester and Winona.

Recovering from pandemic years

One of the biggest changes college leaders are seeing is a difference in the types of services students are requesting. A 2022 Minnesota Department of Health survey of high school students — many of whom are now college-aged — found that they reported "greater struggles with mental health, such as depression and anxiety, than at any other time in the history of the survey, which began in 1989."

Gustavus Adolphus College scheduled time for breaks and setting up dorm rooms, after students said they felt overwhelmed by the fast pace of orientation. The University of Minnesota's Rochester campus includes well-being breaks and activities like bowling.

"Do they take advantage of that throughout the school year? I don't know, but we try to give it to them at the beginning," said Javier Gutierrez, the Rochester campus' associate vice chancellor for student success, engagement and equity.

Some schools are providing students with multiple ways to complete orientation so they can choose what works best for their learning style, work schedule and other needs. St. Cloud State University now offers multiple options: full day, half day, online, an overnight visit or a combination.

Many schools include social activities in hopes it will help students who experienced periods of isolation during the pandemic make friends and other activities aimed at helping them feel like they belong on campus. Concordia College in Moorhead, a predominantly white institution, added an optional club to help students of color connect with each other, after students asked for it.

"We really see that if they have a connection, their sense of belonging goes up. And that leads to all sorts of positive outcomes," said Chad Lystad, the college's assistant director of orientation and first-year transition. "They do better in the classroom. The rates of persistence increase. The rates of graduation go up."

'Make or break for students'

The Dougherty Family College has made its own tweaks to orientation over the years. The length of the program has changed from two weeks to one week, and back again. This year, most sessions were offered between 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. to leave time for students to work in the evenings.

"We recognize that this first experience can be make or break for students," said Brad Pulles, associate dean of students.

The college offers a two-year program that allows students to earn an associate's degree and aims to smooth their transition to a four-year college in hopes that they'll eventually earn a bachelor's degree. The majority of students are people of color, and the majority are the first in their family to go to college.

Carla Gonzalez, the college's literacy specialist, told students gathered in an auditorium last week about her own experiences as a first-generation college student.

"I didn't know what to do. I didn't have family to tell me," she said.

She told students about the requirements for scholarships and how many hours they'd likely need to study to earn those high grades. She asked them to think about how they define success and what types of things worry them. And she also sought to reassure them they could complete the program if they put in the work and ask for help when they need it: "If you already knew how to do these things, you wouldn't have to come to college, right?"

Shamarr Martin, a Columbia Heights high school graduate, began the week feeling nervous about starting college but also "excited for a new chapter in my life." Halfway through, orientation, he was beginning to feel better, confident that he could still be his calm self and also succeed.

That's exactly what Dean Buffy Smith hopes students will take away from orientation. She repeatedly tells them she wants them to "thrive in college and not just survive."