CORVALLIS - More freshmen are staying in school at Oregon State University thanks to Odyssey and Connect, two programs instituted at the beginning of the last academic year.

Odyssey, a fall term class designed to familiarize new students with the university, and Connect, a week of orientation activities that precede the first day of classes on Sept. 28, are aimed at making students more comfortable with their new surroundings.

OSU tracked the 1,050 students who enrolled in Odyssey classes last fall. Only 2.7 percent dropped out of school between fall and winter term, compared with 5.6 percent of freshman students in general.

While the ultimate goal is to keep students in school, Odyssey and Connect are about much more than that, said Leslie Davis Burns, director of undergraduate academic programs.

"We want to create well-oriented students," she said. "We want confident students who have a good relationship with the faculty and their peers, who utilize the university's resources and have pride in the university. If retention numbers show they are staying in the university that's wonderful but it's much, much more than retention numbers."

Davis Burns said studies show that student success in college is often determined in the first year, and sometimes as quickly as the first term, which is why it is important to make them feel comfortable from the first day they arrive on campus.

The program is also growing. This fall, 1,374 students have enrolled in Odyssey classes and class sizes have been reduced from 25 to 23 students. OSU is also offering to students the option of meeting twice a week for five weeks rather than once a week for seven weeks.

Students say they are excited about the opportunities OSU orientation programs provide.

When Melissa Moss arrived as a new freshman at OSU last fall, she didn't know quite what to expect from university life, she said. OSU Odyssey helped her adjust to campus life.

"I think it's very helpful in many respects," said Moss, who came to OSU from Albany. "The course gives you new perspectives on what is happening on campus. The smaller classes are better for learning and I've found it a good introduction to campus."

A session on study skills was particularly helpful.

"I thought I had pretty good study skills, but the class gave me some great tips," she said.

To help students bond, the university is hoping to build on the successful Fall Odyssey Orientation Trip (FOOTsteps). Odyssey students will go backpacking, canoeing or rafting with an experienced outdoor leader, a peer leader and the faculty instructor for that Odyssey class.

Susan Longerbeam, director of student health services, is taking a class on an overnight backpacking trip and then co-teaching those same students in an Odyssey class this fall.

"This is really a positive program," she said. "These overnight trips will help students bond with each other, peers and faculty and staff and feel better about their university experience."

Longerbeam, who co-taught an Odyssey class last year, said the program also helps faculty and staff understand the problems freshmen face.

"We understood how difficult it is to reach some of them," she said. "They don't know what to do because they don't know what they need in order to succeed in that first term."

New Odyssey classes have been developed for transfer students and students 25 years and older. "They face different issues," Davis Burns said. "The class is designed to address those issues."

Jennifer Kuzeppa, associate director for new student programs, said it is hard to estimate exactly how many new students participate in Connect activities before classes start but she said most do something. Last year, there were 2,600 people at a welcome barbecue, 1,000 at the convocation, and up to 500 new students attended the midnight movies held in the Memorial Union quad.

Connect activities begin Sunday, Sept. 20. They include orientation sessions, recreational activities, an OSU-Corvallis vendor fair, an inspirational speaker, community service projects, comedians and programs for students of color.

Kuzeppa said Connect not only helps new students but it lifts the morale of the entire campus.

"We have about 200 volunteers on campus who help organize the Connect activities," Kuzeppa said. "The whole campus gets involved because these events are fun. It's fun to participate."

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Leslie Davis Burns, 541-737-0983