Live from UT freshman orientation

Jody Serrano

Editor's note: Jody Serrano is spending a few hours Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with new UT students attending the first orientation session. Check back for updates, and follow her on Twitter @jodyserrano. Updated at  5:19 p.m. on Saturday, June 8.

Friday, June 7

1 p.m. – Registering for a UT future

As the clock counted down to 11 a.m., the time UT registration would officially open, chemistry freshman Taylor Castillo could her feel her heart racing. She sat in her chair refreshing the page constantly until her screen finally changed and she was in the registration system. 

"You could hear all the crowd saying, 'I got in, I got in,'" Castillo said, referring to students who got into certain classes. 

More than 1,000 new UT students registered for classes Friday. Students could register from their personal computers or use UT computer labs at assigned locations. Academic advisors were on site to help students with last minute questions. The registration system was open from 11 a.m. to midnight Friday. Students who were not able to get into the classes they wanted will have another chance to add and drop courses the first few weeks of school. 

Castillo said she finished registration in about five minutes and got into all the classes she wanted. She said working with her academic advisor helped her get the schedule she wanted and is excited to come back to UT in the fall. 

"This is my home, I want to come here," Castillo said.

Classes begin August 28.


Thursday, June 6

9:30 p.m. – Saturn is in sight

UT student astronomers gave a new meaning to the word ‘party’ Thursday night and invited students from the Class of 2017 to look at Saturn through the telescope on the roof of the Robert Lee Moore Hall.

Astronomy junior Alex Robles is the co-president of the Astronomy Students Association, which will be holding star parties every session of freshman orientation. Robles said his favorite part of the parties was seeing students' faces when they looked into the telescope.

“They say, ‘What? This is not a planet,’” Robles said.

Allison Burns is an incoming aerospace engineering freshman and said she was delighted UT offered the star party. Burns said she has loved stars since she was 8 years old.

“It’s great to know that there’s a student organization that’s does what I’m interested in,” Burns said. “I really want to be a part of it.” 

7:30 p.m. – All students are longhorns

UT students put a spotlight on the school’s diverse student population and encouraged new students to be respectful of others’ differences on campus.

Orientation staff explored issues of student identity and acceptance in the “Longhorns: Who We Really Are” program Thursday evening. Student performers portrayed many identities on campus, including being a certain race or identifying with a certain religion, and urged acceptance.

“I shouldn’t be afraid to tell people what religion I am just because I’m afraid I’ll be misunderstood,” said a performer who portrayed being a Muslim on campus.

Eli Ortiz, an incoming math freshman, said the show was not something he would normally see or think of. Ortiz is from San Antonio and said his parents were very traditional.

“I think it’ll help me,” Ortiz said. “I won’t judge someone by what I see.” 

4 p.m. – It’s time for dodgeball

The courtyard in front of the Jester Residence Hall resembled a battleground Thursday afternoon. Students yelled, strategized and faced off against their friends in a game of dodgeball.

UT orientation advisors said about 100 students showed up for dodgeball games held Wednesday and Thursday. Many students braved the fight and signed up for multiple games, while others enjoyed watching from the sidelines.

Mario Duran, an orientation advisor supervising the game, said events like these are important for creating balance during orientation. Duran said students come to orientation to do serious work, such as registering for classes, but they also come to have fun.

“A lot of time when students play sports they get more comfortable with each other,” Duran said. “It builds friendships that could possibly be renewed when they come back to the University.”

3 p.m. – Don’t believe stereotypes

Representatives from UT’s Greek community had one message for new students attending orientation: Sorority and fraternity life is not like what’s in the movies.

About 30 UT students attended the Thursday information session about getting involved in Greek life at UT. Jazmine Hernandez, a representative of UT’s Multicultural Greek Council, said Greek life is not all about partying and focuses on leadership, networking and community service.

Greek organizations did a total of 82,569 community service hours on campus, according to UT’s Office of the Dean of Students. The average member GPA in fall 2011 was 3.2.

Hernandez, a transfer student, said getting involved in Greek life helped her feel connected to the UT community.

“I just hope that [new students] at least scratched the surface of Greek life,” Hernandez said. “See where they would fit.”

There are 5,888 members involved in Greek life at UT, according to the dean of students. If accepted, a new fall member can pay anywhere from $1,450 to $2,372 in membership fees. 

Wednesday, June 5

8 p.m. – Crime, sex and alcohol at UT

On Wednesday night, new students were reminded that they were not in high school and were warned that crimes do occur in college.

UT police officer Darrell Halstead spoke to hundreds of students who attended “The Longhorn Diaries,” a play meant to introduce students to campus safety issues, including theft, alcohol use and sexual assault.

Officials also spoke to students about staying healthy by knowing their alcohol limit, sleeping often and practicing safe sex.

Halstead said many students come to UT with the impression that nothing bad will happen to them.

“Unfortunately, it’s time for those rose-colored glasses to come off,” Halstead said.

Halstead encouraged students to sign up for the “Campus Watch,” a newsletter informing students of crimes reported on campus. Halstead also asked students to take advantage of safety resources on campus, such as the Rape Aggressive Defense program, a free self-defense class offered by the UT Police Department.

5 p.m. – A Texas-sized BBQ

Close to 2,000 new students and families braved long lines in the Texas heat for BBQ and conversation.

Students from the Class of 2017 took a small break from their busy orientation schedule, which consisted of an introduction to UT expectations and getting to know their academic colleges, for food and a student organization fair.

More than 100 student organizations set up recruitment tables at the dinner. Andrew Clark, president of UT’s Senate of College Councils, said the fair is an opportunity to expose students to diverse opportunities on campus.

“It was definitely impactful for me. I actually went to the Senate table,” Clark said. “They threw a t-shirt at me.”

Parent Lola Windisch traveled from Lubbock and attended family orientation, a program for parents and guardians aimed at educating them about the student experience. Windisch said she was happy to see students excited about representing their organizations.

“That’s the nice thing with UT, there’s something for everybody,” Windisch said. “It’s a big and small school if you want it to be.”

12 p.m. – Let UT help you graduate in four years

UT graduation rate champion David Laude encouraged new students from the Class of 2017 to see UT as a partner to help them graduate in four years Wednesday.

Laude spoke at the mandatory program at UT’s freshman orientation. At the session, students were shown a video that outlined specific steps they could take to graduate in four years. 

Steps included taking an average 15 hours per semester for four years, taking summer and online classes, transferring credits from other institutions and using a new online tool that allows students to check their progress to degree.

“Most of you think, ‘I’m going to graduate in four, maybe even three years,’” Laude said. “The thing is, that doesn’t just happen. You don’t just roll the ball out and there it is. It actually takes a lot of planning and a lot of work.”

UT is on a campaign to increase its four-year graduation rates from 52 percent to 70 percent by 2016. Efforts the past few years have included reworking freshman orientation to give students more time with their academic advisors and giving students scholarships to encourage them to graduate in four years.

The video also explained possible consequences if students do not graduate in four years and cited it could cost an extra $60,000 on average to spend an extra year at UT. Costs included lost income, additional tuition and student loans. 

11 a.m. – The student workers behind orientation

Orientation advisor Christina Ramirez woke up at 6 a.m. for parking duty, where she welcomed people parking in the Brazos Garage with a smile.

“When students hear that first, ‘Welcome to UT-Austin,’ you can see it on their faces, they’re so excited,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez has spent all semester getting ready for summer orientation. Orientation advisors are required to take a preparation class at UT and attend weekly meetings to help create the programs the new students will see, including programs on campus safety and diversity.

Tuesday night was day zero, but Ramirez’s work had already begun. She said she went to the store to buy candy for the group of students she would mentor, reviewed her orientation duties and laid out her clothes to get ready for Wednesday.

Ramirez said UT has tried to include orientation advisors in its effort to increase four-year graduation rates by connecting them to campus administrators and campus resources.

UT’s current four-year graduation rate is 52 percent. Officials hope to increase it to 70 percent by 2016.

“We get to be like the cheerleaders,” Ramirez said.

10 a.m. – Finding community on campus

A group of about 15 students in bright blue shirts stood out from the sea of burnt orange outside Jester Residence Hall Wednesday. Their task: to welcome students and help them make sense of the campus maps.

The students are part of the Christian Students on Campus, a Christian faith organization. Staffer Cary Ard said the group had been their since 7:30 a.m. Wednesday to welcome students and inspire them to find community at UT.

“Sometimes a lot of kids come here without knowing anyone and they’re looking for community here, we provide that,” Ard said. “It may not be as institutional or stark, but it is a real personal feeling.”

Ard said he had seen students and families from Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Cristi and even Colorado on Wednesday.

Morgan May, an advertising junior in the organization, said she hopes new students will make finding a community on campus their priority.

“Be very open with people,” May said. “You get a couple months to meet a lot of people where no one thinks you’re weird.”

9 a.m. – It’s time for your close-up

Standing in a long line at the Flawn Academic Center to get a student ID is an experience all UT students know well.

Fine arts freshman Alex Waters said she had been waiting in line for about twenty minutes Wednesday morning. Waters did not wait alone, but with a group of four other students from Dallas, Lubbock and Topeka, Kans.

Waters said she met the others at Hardin House, a private dormitory on Rio Grande Street. Waters and all new students are required to stay on-campus for orientation.

For the group of new students coming next week, Waters had one piece of advice: “Be friendly, bring a lot of tennis shoes and dress according to the weather.”

Wednesday’s high is 97 degrees.

8 a.m. – More than 1,000 in Jester for Orientation

Carrying suitcases, blankets and pillows, about 1,110 new students took their first steps on campus at the Jester Residence Hall Wednesday morning.

Orientation officials said students and their families began showing up at 6:30 a.m. for the 7:30 a.m. check-in, where they receive a run-down of their schedule for the next three days. During orientation, students will meet their academic advisors, learn more about their college and register for classes.

Cristi Biggs, the assistant dean of students who oversees orientation, said there was a certain excitement in the air with the crowd of students Wednesday.

Biggs said her biggest piece of advice for students is to take advantage of the opportunities they have at orientation, such as going to the optional programs about campus traditions and improving their first-year experience.

“You can go out to eat with your family and friends at any time,” Biggs said. “This is dedicated to your preparation for college. Focus on the opportunities you have at orientation and get to know your classmates.”

Disclosure: Serrano worked as an orientation advisor for the Office of New Student Services from 2011-2012. 

Correction, June 8: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Jazmine Hernandez as a representative of the UT Latino Pan-Hellenic Council. Hernandez is a representative of the Multicultural Greek Council. 

Photos by Emily Ng and Guillermo Hernandez.