New orientation programs begin where PittStart stopped

By Vaibhav Gupta, Staff Writer

PittStart — Pitt’s signature two-day orientation program — has come to a stop this summer after 19 years of introducing first-years to life in Oakland.

The program, where first-years were able to get a taste of college life by meeting with their academic advisors and staying overnight in residence halls, will now largely take place online in an effort to alleviate the stress of travelling to Pittsburgh for only a few days. In addition, the long-standing “Orientation Week” for first-years, colloquially known as “O-Week,” is also receiving an overhaul and has been rebranded “Welcome Week” for the class of 2023.

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick wrote in an email that the redesigned programming is meant to provide the same critical orientation information while removing the constraints of having to be physically present.

“Instead of the required two-day Pitt Start session over the summer, new students will complete an online orientation on academic information, financial resources, student engagement opportunities, campus safety information and community expectations,” Zwick wrote.

According to Melissa Warthen, director of new student programs for Student Affairs, PittStart has remained a staple of first-year orientation for nearly two decades. In that time, as more students from outside the Pittsburgh area began attending the University, the burden of traveling to campus for just a few days became more apparent. Instead of forcing students to travel, administrators decided to utilize online modules to relieve the financial strain of PittStart, while still communicating the same information.

“We had a task force that had representation from all of the academic units across the University,” Warthen said. “That’s where we zero-in on the major changes of not doing PittStart but instead doing an online orientation and having Welcome Week.”

The new online modules allow for incoming students to learn about Pitt essentials such as academics, student resources and paying for college. According to Warthen, the ease of access, as well as the customization of each module, allows for a more accessible model for communicating information to incoming students in the future.

“Our hope that this model is the one that we work for the next years,” Warthen said. “The online orientations that we have, we can grow it, we can add to it and we can edit the content to make it more user-friendly and personalized to Pitt.”

Another change is the advising appointment, which previously was a one-on-one or group meeting with an academic advisor. Students will now meet with their advisors virtually, with the option of talking with their advisor by phone or Skype appointment.

The hope is that even if the conversations have to occur in a virtual way, the conversations and the contents of discussion will all be at the level that can meet the needs of the students,” Warthen said.

But the in-person component of first-year orientation isn’t completely disappearing.

The University is offering Panther Connect, a new optional program which closely parallels PittStart, for students who would like to meet with fellow new students, connect with campus leaders and learn about transitioning to life at Pitt. Students can pick between six Panther Connect sessions to attend over the summer. The overnight programs provide activities to get to know the campus better, explore Pittsburgh and have fun with other incoming students.

“It is all about experiences, ice breakers, team building exercises, personalized interaction with upperclassmen, doing service over the summer,” Warthen said.

The new slate of orientation programs is designed to meet the shortcomings of their predecessors. According to Nina Duong, a sophomore majoring in biological sciences, PittStart represented a challenge for her due to the logistics of traveling to Pittsburgh.

“I picked the latest date, it coincided with Orientation Week because it would otherwise have been a hassle for my parents,” Duong said. “We were five hours away, and it was stressful to do this in the beginning of summer.”

She said the new changes might help to reduce travel stress, but she doubts whether students are truly going to learn from the modules.

“Most people are going to open the modules but not necessarily watch it, or they might watch Netflix while learning the modules,” Duong said. “How many students are going to look at those modules and retain that information there?”

Though Pitt is taking a risk in overhauling its orientation programming, Warthen said multiple University departments worked hard to try make it a success.

“With every change there is a risk and a reward,” Warthen said. “All the staff members that sat in on this, they have the interest of the Pitt students; they want them prepared, engaged and ready to be here.”