KENNESAW, Ga. | Aug 16, 2023
As music thumped and students mingled on the Campus Green on Sunday, Kennesaw State University freshman Weilly Cabrera of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, surveyed the scene at SplashBash.
Lines formed for the waterslide and rides on an inflatable shark, while a football and multiple frisbees flew nearby. It was just what 8,000 new students needed to kick off their college careers.
“School starts tomorrow so having all these activities makes us feel more welcome and at home,” Cabrera said. “Whoever came up with this idea definitely knew what they were doing.”
Cabrera’s words reflect the purpose behind events like SplashBash, which followed First-Year Convocation and preceded the annual First Day of School Cake events on Monday. Getting and keeping students engaged in the campus community through activities improves their chances of success inside and outside the classroom.
The freshman class this year includes the second cohort of the FLIGHT program, which began in 2022 as a way of building a community of students throughout their time at KSU. The FLIGHT27 students – named by their year of potential graduation – began their collective journey during orientation sessions this summer and will have opportunities during the next four years to come together in special events on campus.
Early in her tenure as Kennesaw State president, Kathy Schwaig emphasized building campus community and culture as one of the pillars of the University’s approach to education. From that foundation came strategies to build a culture of support for students.
“At KSU, we all have the opportunity to be a part of the process of helping students shape and build their lives,” Schwaig said. “We must be sure we have an integrated student success network that helps us address student progression as well as student experience. We must be more deliberate in our work to engage and support students and ensure that they are on a path to graduate in four years.”
KSU’s Division of Student Affairs launched the FLIGHT program as an effort to nurture a community of incoming freshmen by providing a system of connection and support at the beginning and lasting throughout their college experience.
“This is a long-term strategy to create an identity where every student in that class knows they’re part of a team, of a family,” said Eric Arneson, vice president of student affairs. “Our university is committed to student retention and graduation, and we know that students who are engaged with their school tend to stay; students who are not, too often fade away.”
The program brings several units on campus together – orientation, student leadership, Counseling and Psychological Services, and Residence Life and Housing – to ensure that students can connect with the resources they need. The inaugural FLIGHT cohort included more than 8,000 students who had multiple opportunities to engage with the University during the first year.
New students this year received a special FLIGHT27 jersey during orientation. Each FLIGHT cohort has a class dean – this year’s FLIGHT27 dean is Ronald Briggs, associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students – to help keep the group connected to resources they need.
Members of FLIGHT26, KSU’s first class under the initiative, said they enjoy their connections to their classmates.
Psychology major Grace Soto benefited from communications from Student Affairs that helped her connect with activities that interested her. She joined KSU Brand Ambassadors, a group of students who promote the University. She also got involved with undergraduate research in psychology, as well as with a campus ministry.
“The home that I created in the 10 months that I lived on campus, every little experience that I had, whether it was with FLIGHT26 or it was through Kennesaw State, or even the people that I met, made my first year a positive and welcoming experience,” Soto said.
Sunday’s events were the first opportunities for FLIGHT27 to gather as a class.
At First-Year Convocation, students were welcomed by Schwaig, Provost Ivan Pulinkala, Arneson, Briggs and all of the University’s deans. They heard from students like Student Government Association president Zae Brewer and senior media and entertainment major Gabrielle Jones about their experiences. They learned the school fight song and met Owls head football coach Brian Bohannon.
Freshman Alexa Owen of Cumming, Georgia, said she liked hearing from fellow students about what’s possible for those who immerse themselves in college life.
“There’s so much happening,” she said. “All this stuff to get us to know other people is great, and I just started talking to a couple of people outside the Convocation Center. So we exchanged phone numbers and made plans to hang out later this week.”
Another tradition to foster community among all students happened on the first day of classes on Monday. Hundreds thronged the Campus Green in Kennesaw and the student center on the Marietta Campus for their turn to stuff a plush owl and grab a slice of KSU’s traditional First Day of School Cake.
Jennifer Ordonez, a new graduate student in electrical and computer engineering, stopped in the student center to visit the bookstore, but heard about the cake and the Stuff-an-Owl event and joined the festivities.
“We found out about the cake and the owls, and it’s so nice,” she said. “What a welcome for everybody, especially for those of us who might not be used to the environment or the campus. I just moved from Wisconsin, so everything is new.”
In Kennesaw, first-year students Makayla Culpepper and Arianna O’Neal enjoyed relief from the August heat in the shade and said they had enjoyed exploring campus and attended community building events since moving in last week.
“I went to SplashBash , convocation and the Silent Disco in the Austin Residence Complex,” said Culpepper, a criminal justice major from Savannah. “With our class being so big — over 8,000 people — it can be a little scary to meet people.”
She added that her resident advisors and others have encouraged her to get out and try to meet people. Since taking that advice, Culpepper said she has found everyone kind and inviting, made friends and built confidence.
Across the Campus Green, senior public health education major Olivia Blackston of Tucker, Georgia looked back on her time at KSU and eagerly awaited what could be her last Stuff-An-Owl event.
Blackston has lived on campus her whole college career and attends campus events year-round. She said she loves the sense of community she gets from attending the events and making friends. She said she especially enjoyed the opportunities to interact with her peers as the world emerged from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We went from being isolated to being able to go out and find like-minded individuals, who you might have just walked past before, because of these events that KSU provides every year to try to get people to build connections,” she said.
– By Dave Shelles, Thomas Hartwell and Amanda Cook
Photos by Judith Pishnery, Darnell Wilburn and Matt Yung
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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 43,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.