The Course of Reason

Building a Home for Freshmen

May 25, 2011

Trevor Boeckmann examines the importance of building a community for new students.

I was flipping through the old Campus Freethought Alliance handbook yesterday, when I came across a section entitled "Targeting Freshmen":

Members who have a social investment in a group are far more likely to stay involved, as well as to become more deeply involved…There is a way, however, to get people involved in such a way that they are quite likely to incorporate your group into their social lives and stick around for a long time. The secret is targeting freshmen…Freshmen usually arrive without any social network to plug into; they have not yet made friends, and are actively looking to do so. For this reason, they are much more likely to join organizations than they will be in a year or two, after they have assembled their social network. If new students come to your meetings and enjoy themselves, it’s probable that the people they meet will become one of their primary social groups.

I’d be interested to see the actual numbers on freshmen versus upperclassmen involvement. As students get closer to graduation and the real world, they may be more likely to join student organizations to pad their resumes. Of course, it may be another story when working with the most distrusted minority in America. I’ll keep you posted if I come across any numbers.

Regardless of the pragmatic reasons, I believe secular organizations have a far more compelling moral reason to target freshmen.

For the past two years, I served as the President of the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI). The group has only been around for about four years, and when we started, my campus of 13,000 had 23 religious organizations. Unsurprisingly, there were no secular groups.

The religious groups were good, too. They were, and are, huge and active. Every fall, they kick off the school year with a giant party on the lawn. There’s free food, live music, games, and booths. They have sign-up sheets for all the groups, and surveys about your belief in God (complete with an opportunity to learn more, of course). There’s even a blow-up slide! It’s a carnival on our campus.

The events don’t end there. Group leaders knock on the doors of freshmen, provide rides to church on Sunday, and host freshmen-only bonfires. Joining one of these groups isn’t just a chance to practice your religion, it’s not even just a social activity: it’s a group of friends, mentors, and your social life.

Meanwhile, secular students are left with nothing; students from the most hated and distrusted minority in America are left with nothing. How can we sit back and let that happen?

UNIFI hosts its start of the year party

At UNI, we didn’t. We held our own start of the year party. We knocked on doors. We bused people to Sunday brunch. We targeted freshmen and shamelessly borrowed the techniques from religious groups. We held three events per week, most of them social (and with food, unsurprisingly). Like the guide suggests, UNIFI became a social network for many of our freshmen recruits. Many started hanging out with us outside of UNIFI events, and predictably, those are the students who are active members and leaders two years later.

I realize that my campus may not be like everyone else’s, but I’d be shocked if religious groups haven’t adopted these techniques across the country. They’ve had decades to perfect it while secular groups are just starting to become a permanent fixture on college campuses.

In the next few months, the high school class of 2011 will be making their transition to college. Most will visit your campus for an orientation, and most will have an opportunity to learn about student organizations on campus. I hope you take advantage of that. We’ve all been there, and know that making the transition to a new city and life isn’t easy. Let’s give secular students the welcome they deserve. We know religious groups will.

 

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