First-year experience programming has been a staple at many institutions – to kickstart student engagement, keep students happy within their first few weeks, and provide students with a smooth transition.
The key to having successful first-year experience programming is in keeping students’ diverse needs, wants, and expectations in mind. Call upon past and upcoming students leaders to help you brainstorm even more ideas and get feedback on the best way to engage your new students.
Have you seen the new Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for college students? It’s very telling of what your new students may be expecting: Increased social media engagement, access to awesome WiFi all over campus, and accessible outlets in their residence hall room or common student spaces.
Maslow’s hierarchy encourages student affairs professionals to reflect on how to get first-year students up-and-running while still having fun.
Remember, it starts from the top: If you can’t get your staff members engaged, then you’ll have a hard time creating excitement and building strong student relationships. You can make your first-year student initiatives both fun and informative. It’s time to implement new ideas and discover what your incoming students value most.
Below is a list of 75 first-year programming ideas that you can easily implement with your department, orientation staff, or across various departments.
A lot of the ideas here we utilized ourselves during our time as student affairs professionals and have seen the benefits of first-hand.
Nutrition & Physical Health
1. Invite a nutritionist to campus
Ask alumni who majored in nutrition to come back to campus in order to test out their skills and share knowledge with students. It’s a great way to engage both new students and alumni.
2. Ask students to share their favorite healthy microwavable recipes
Compile the best recipes into a collection, Pinterest board, and/or ask a marketing student or student employee to create a downloadable (free) PDF for new students. Students love tangible giveaways, especially those that are community-curated!
3. Bring a chef in to teach cooking recipes
Hire a chef who makes healthy and delicious food, whether in a residence hall setting or by giving students tips and tricks on how to make a week’s menu on a budget.
4. Offer food alternatives
Pizza is always the go-to. But what happens to students who are gluten-intolerant or dairy-intolerant? Let’s think outside of the pizza box and bring some new, healthy food to programs this year. Be mindful of vegetarian, vegan, kosher, and Halal options too!
5. Bring a farmers market to campus and offer to pay a minimum amount
Offer to pay $5 or $10 for all first-year students, especially if they’re coming from far away. This will help students stock their fridges a few days before classes start.
6. Host yoga classes
Open the gym up to let students give downward dog and other relaxing poses a try. Namaste.
7. Hold a 5k run/walk/stroll around campus
Raise awareness for an organization or bring awareness to a specific event. It’s a great way to get students active and get to know the campus.
8. Giveaway or subsidize wearable technology that helps students track their activity
Create a fitness or wellness competition for a welcome week event by providing incentives at the end.
9. Incentivize smoking cessation
Many colleges are trying to help curb smoking by going smoke-free. It’s easier said than done, so it’s important to have support programs and incentive programs through your health resource center to remind students that they aren’t alone.
10. Host campus happy hours
Provide mocktails, board games, and other fun group activities so students can come and learn about healthy alcohol decisions while making new connections.
11. Encourage STD/STI testing
Here’s a great example of how to promote the discussion around sexual health — “STDs Over Smoothies”
12. Show students how to convert their desks into standing desks
Offer creative ways students for students to convert their desks. Better yet, work with your residence hall association and see how you can offer alternatives for studying and adjusting desk/study areas for various body types.
Relaxation & Rejuvenation
13. Make or give away potting plants
There are so many health benefits to having plants around – like fresher air, improved emotional state, and reduction of illness – especially in stuffy residence halls. Succulents are popular and hard to kill. Here are some other plants that help filter indoor air.
14. Hire a massage therapist for a few hours
It’s a great way to help students relax.
15. Set up naptime
Set up inflatables or hammocks outside or pop-up cots indoors to encourage naptime. This will especially be helpful for off-campus students who don’t have a space to retreat, as well as for homeless students.
16. Create a long-term paint-by-number activity
After every on-campus activity they complete, have students paint in what they’ve completed. By the time they graduate, they’ll have an awesome painting. This can be tailored for transfer students as well!
17. Bring therapy dogs (or cats) to campus
These programs are adorable, fun, and relaxing! At the very least, these programs help reduce stress.
Campus Resources & Academics
18. Teach FYE 101
Student affairs professionals have the opportunity to partner with faculty or teach on their own, helping first-year students navigate campus and campus resources.
Consider having academic advisors or living-learning community hall directors as FYE instructors, so they can help students choose classes at the end of the semester.
19. Offer a course on race, class, and ethnicity
We think there should be common core classes around diverse issues in society and what students can expect coming to campus. Providing a brief history of campus race relations, for example, would be a great way to start conversations about the incoming students’ values and how to continue sustained dialogue throughout the year.
20. Pay for first-year students’ books
Pay for students’ first semester of books and have them ready at their doorsteps or set-up on their residence hall desks when they arrive at campus.
21. Popularize hashtags
Answer questions, list resources, and see where it takes off. Examples are institutional hashtags or something specifically for first-year students, such as #FYFriday, #FirstYearFriday, #[yourcampus]FYE. If you’re looking to implement a peer-to-peer tutoring program, think of #TutorTuesday from the academic side.
22. “Scoot” around campus
Provide scooters before the first day of classes and have a peer mentor lead the team in a scooter ride. When was the last time you saw someone ride a scooter without a smile?!
23. Set up “Lost?” stations
You’ve all seen it: The look on a first-year student’s face when you know they are lost on campus.
So, set-up lost stations across campus in high-traffic and low-traffic areas where student leaders can direct newcomers and answer questions.
24. Hold a “Meet the Majors” fair
Host a laidback time wherein first-year students can chat with graduating students, alumni, or students from specific majors. They can get a glimpse of the possibilities of what they can choose for majors.
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25. Departmental passport
Have students get a unique stamp from each department that wants to participate. Think of a creative incentive once they complete it. (Maybe a one-on-one coaching session with a career services counselor?) Think of something they can tangibly take away with them that will help them in their careers.
26. Team scavenger hunt
Always a classic.
27. Volunteering in the community
Have them choose and sign-up in advance for different service sites. Encourage them to get out of their comfort zones. #ServiceSaturday
28. Clothing and canned food drive
Help publicize your campus’ food pantry or a place where students can pick up clothes they may have not packed for new weather conditions.
29. Clothing exchange program
Consider a clothing exchange program for first-year students who can’t get off campus to buy new clothes. It encourages recycling/upcycling and connecting with peers.
30. TED Talks from fourth-year students
Have third- or fourth-year students reflect on what they’ve learned most from their college experience or a situation in their life that was profound. Help inspire new students!
31. Orientation leader skit
During orientation, it’s helpful to act out what the first day or first semester may be like for first-year students. Think of on-campus scenarios, off-campus scenarios, and things that students have experienced IRL (in real life).
It will help first-year students prepare for any challenges, surprises, or successes they may experience within their first few weeks. Campus resources can be woven in strategically here.
32. Free legal counsel meetings
Often, students need access to their institution’s free or low-priced legal counsel. They may need to use them for contracts, leases, and other legal paperwork.
33. Offering comprehensive roommate contracts
Do you have an effective roommate contract you can offer to both on- and off-campus students? Is it outdated? Ask your RAs, residential life staff, and off-campus support team to review the effectiveness and utilization of it this summer. You may want to consider upgrading to an electronic contract you can easily view and share.
34. How to do laundry
Have student leaders show other students how to do their own laundry. In the same vein…
35. Adulting 101
Offer workshops on “the basics” that aren’t always so basic to all students. Introduce budgeting, partner with financial aid to talk about loans, and talk openly about mental health. #Adulting101
37. Inclusivity trainings
Institutions are now trying to Safe Zone train entire classes, as well as full-time faculty and administrators in academic affairs. Check out more inclusivity and diversity trainings here.
Increasing Sense of Belonging
38. An official welcome
Have administrators, faculty, and student affairs staff welcome students by visiting residence halls, a few classes, or setting up shop in hallways to ask questions and offer a friendly face.
39. Build or rent out a ball pit on campus
SoulPancake’s site is full of great ideas! This ball pit idea can also be adapted to be a beach ball in order to play with groups larger than two.
40. “Before I Graduate…” mural
Have you ever seen the Before I Die mural? Consider having local or student artists creating a mural somewhere on campus where students can participate in a “Before I Graduate” mural.
41. Peer-to-peer #selfcare package program
Students can give #selfcare packages to other students who may not be feeling so connected in the beginning of the year. Provide self-care gifts (a note of gratitude, bubbles) — something that can take their minds off of any beginning-of-the-year anxiety woes.
42. Creative morning spin-off event
Ask a local Creative Morning chapter to hold an on-campus event during welcome week. Or, you can create your own CM spin-off.
43. Involvement fair
New students are looking at organizations to get involved with before they get to campus. Make sure to update your Twitter/Facebook or student activities Instagram long before they arrive to get them interested!
44. Create more student loyalty
Build student loyalty with these personalization ideas.
45. Outdoor retreat
Retreats — whether camping or heading somewhere off- or on-campus that is somewhat remote — can help build relationships within the first few weeks. They are a great way to get students’ minds off the first day of classes.
46. Instagram picture station with your institution’s mascot
47. Increase campus spirit
Start a new tradition or just start off the year strong! Invite the entire campus to dress up for a sporting event. Even if your athletic team doesn’t have a great track record, it’s more about the experience than if your team wins or loses.
48. Mental health resources #WellnessWednesday
Implement regular mental health meetings or “anxiety parties” during which students can vent or get out any emotions about things they are nervous about.
49. Destination trip to a nearby city
Is it easily accessible by public transportation? It’s a great way to show students how to use public transportation and start to build strong relationships with peers at the beginning of the year.
50. Tea for two
Speed-friending with tea! Leave a series of questions on tables with two chairs and have people meet to make new friends in this awesome space.
51. Institute a mentoring program
Have students and admins take a quiz based on their traits, career paths, and what they are looking for in a mentor. Then, connect them with someone who can serve as a resource for them. #MentorMondays
52. Hold a first-gen student dinner
You can host this at the president or chancellor’s house, or with administrators on campus who identify as first-generation. Even if students don’t self-identify as first-gen, they may have a first-gen mindset.
53. Hold sessions around digital identity and social media
And make it fun! Chat about all of the unique opportunities students can take advantage of via social media. Make sure all of your institutional social media accounts are current and represent the institution’s or department’s identity. Follow Dr. Josie Alhquist’s blog for more ideas on conversations around digital identity and social media.
54. Welcoming international students
Don’t assume anything. International students aren’t always completely aware of how U.S. laws are different, such as the legal drinking age. It’s important to communicate common laws and campus policies that may be new to new students. Check out our blog listing more ways you can welcome international students!
55. Create a vision board
Vision boards can help college students communicate what they want to achieve in the next month or semester. It can also help to build connections by starting conversations with peers about similarities and new ideas. Here are some reasons why visions board are super effective.
56. Host lunch-and-learns
Have each department hold lunch-and-learns in the campus dining hall. Have a room blocked off for catering or invite students to bring in their own lunches. Think resume-building, off-campus employers, how to land an off-campus internship… or have organizations host open getting-to-know you lunches and answer questions from students.
57. Have students share their personal goals for their first semester
On a common whiteboard or wall, have students share goals that can be either academic- or involvement-related. For example: “Make three new friends by the end of the first month” or “go to the gym three times a week.”
58. Incentivize ridesharing
Florida International University implemented RideFlag, which is a software solution that helps with carpooling on campus.
59. Encourage public transportation, walking, and biking
Bring a bike-share program to campus, encourage rewards for students who walk to campus, and see if your bus system has a stop at multiple points on campus. Urban campuses often offer discounts for taking the train and utilize discount programs in general so students can get to class despite any imposing weather conditions.
60. Work with local or on-campus coffee shops to host homework hours
Have chats about productivity and provide free coffee. This is also a great way to get students off campus for new connection opportunities and take a break from the bustle of campus life.
61. Discuss morning routines with students
And give them examples. Check out this awesome resource at mymorningroutine.com.
Just for fun
62. Take a picture of all first-year students on the quad
63. Celebrate a unique “holiday”
National Popcorn Day, National Pizza Day… Check out Hootsuite’s long list of “weird” holidays, which can help you brainstorm more.
64. Cool freebies for involvement
A Netflix subscription, free Lyft rides, free umbrella, convenient laundry service.
65. Swag bags
Hide swag bags around campus and have students go find them. Better yet, surprise students at random campus events just because.
66. Movie on the lawn
Play a movie on the quad or outside so students can relax and enjoy a fan favorite.
67. Encourage laughter
Hire a comedian, watch stand-up shows, or create a program wherein students fake laugh (and actually end up laughing).
68. Organize a book club
69. Utilize a dry erase prize wheel
Bring in these wheels to a few campus offices on campus. Are students nervous to go to the dean of student’s office? Maybe a Wheel of Fortune-type activity will quell their fears.
70. Bring a fake rock wall to campus
Encourage students to try something new, especially if they’re afraid of heights.
71. Create homemade shower fizzes
Aromatherapy can helps with stress or with shifting moods in general. Check out this recipe to hold your own program.
72. Make your own…
Have you ever had an extreme PB&J? A banana boat? Or a DIY grilled cheese bar? Waffle bar? Yum. Think of your favorite food and expand on your idea!
73. “Take What You Need” wall
74. Paint swatch icebreaker
Go to your local hardware store where they sell or provide paint strips. Ask each student to write down things about themselves in each box and trade with another student. For example, in the first box, write “name.” And the second box could say “What are you most looking forward to?”
75. Classic board game or video game night
Did you know you can buy a Nintendo 64 online still? Hey, retro is always in.
76. Have students fill out a quick form so you can understand what is working and what is not
…With Presence software, of course! You can implement forms or quick polls at each event on campus, so you can receive feedback immediately.
What ideas would you add to the list?
How are you planning to inspire new students this fall? We’d love to hear from you! Tweet us @HelloPresence.
And if you’re looking for more inspiration for your student organizations, check out this blog post we wrote about 30 of the most wonderfully unique student organizations in the country!
Editor’s Note: Hey reader! We recently released a podcast that you might enjoy. You can listen in on our trailer below or learn more about Will There Be Food? here.