Orientation assistant alumni help welcome new Pirates

With in-person new student orientation back in full force at East Carolina University, chants of “purple and gold” and “no quarter” have been roaring through the Main Campus Student Center.

This year, orientation assistant alumni helped instill those traditions.

The alumni — who have been working as nurses, teachers, managers and in other professions since graduation — were invited by Karen Smith, director of ECU’s student transition office, who has wanted to bring former orientation assistants back for several years.

“They really wanted to come back and serve their alma mater,” Smith said to students and parents in introducing orientation assistants and alumni on June 13. “I think this is a clear example of what Pirate Nation really is. The fact that they’re willing to come back and volunteer really illustrates the community that is Pirate Nation — one that’s passionate, one that’s committed and one that’s supportive, and this is the community that you’re joining today.”

After two pandemic years of virtual or limited orientation sessions, this year’s return was even bigger, with 17 alumni who served as orientation assistants between 2005-20 paired with current orientation assistants to welcome incoming Pirates and their families.

ECU orientation assistant Aniah Atkinson welcomes incoming students and family members at the Main Campus Student Center.

ECU orientation assistant Aniah Atkinson welcomes incoming students and family members at the Main Campus Student Center.

Steven Such of Clayton took a day off from his job as a sales supervisor for an auto parts company to attend. “I think my biggest role is just mentoring the current orientation assistants to provide them guidance and be a spark and help them navigate some challenging situations — a shot of energy if you will,” said Such, who was an orientation assistant in the summers of 2005 and 2006 before graduating with a business management degree in 2007.

He joked with Xander Vick, a current orientation assistant and rising senior in communication, that Facebook had just started when he was at ECU. “We were telling students who were freshmen at the time ‘Hey, let me be your first Facebook friend,’ and you’ll have me as a contact to reach out to,” Such said.

Inspired by his experience, Such worked in admissions and recruitment for N.C. State University for a decade after graduating from ECU.

“I think Steven being here is really important, along with all of the other returners, because I feel like over COVID we lost some of the culture of orientation and ECU itself,” said Vick, his orientation assistant partner for the day. “I think it’s so integral with us being the first person that some of these freshmen see that we are able to keep that culture going, just pride and school spirit, because we lost so much of it.

“Walking through campus last year I could tell that a lot of freshmen were misinformed or didn’t really know what was going on on campus as much, and I think it’s our job to really convey that to them and build up what we once had.”

Vick is embracing his second summer as an orientation assistant. “Just being able to see people in person and making that connection between you and the freshmen, it gives them a chance to feel like they’re not so alone on campus. Currently I feel like a lot of people feel like they’re alone because of how much isolation we’ve been in. Just to be able to be face-to-face with them, you get them. That’s what I love … you see what makes them, them. That’s what’s important.”

His sister, Austin Vick, who was an orientation assistant in 2014 and 2015, returned to help. She graduated from ECU in 2016 with a degree in human development and family science and now teaches at Clayton High School. Vick’s orientation assistant experience led her to study higher education at Clemson University, where she earned a full scholarship and worked in student affairs. She later worked in events and admissions at Old Dominion University.

“The professional staff gave me mentorship and experiences that led me to pursue further education I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise,” Austin Vick said. “I want to do the same whether on a college campus or in the classroom. I want to be an educator that provides opportunity and experiences that will push educational careers as ECU did for me.”

The Vicks are second generation Pirates, and Austin told Xander to enjoy the moment.

“When it is 100 degrees outside and you’ve only slept a few hours, it can be easy to wish the days by, but when I reminisce with friends about college, those are always my favorite ones,” Austin said. “The friends I travel to see almost 10 years later are the ones I made as an OA. I know that working orientation at ECU molded me into who I am today. I see him growing as a leader and I hope he is able to appreciate the growth he is already experiencing. Sharing the stage with him at ECU orientation, and doing chants on the mall as a team, isn’t one I would have anticipated, but it has been such a gift for my very proud Pirate family.”

Austin said the experience that Smith and assistant director Corrinn Schwabrow create at ECU is unparalleled. “ECU orientation serves a dual purpose. Incoming students are making friends, learning about majors, becoming familiar with their new campus. Current student leaders are growing as professionals, creating memories on campus with their best friends and networking with prominent ECU staff. The magic is still there and will forever be there because that is what ECU does. When you walk on campus you feel that people care about you. Getting to be a part of that magic again has been a dream. Not many people get to return, but I got to dust off my bow and teach a crowd an ECU tradition with the friends I made at 18. That’s a true gift.”

Alumnus Rob Olewine, a first-generation student and orientation assistant from 2011 to 2014, said the experience changed his life. He had been accepted to nursing school, but after becoming an orientation assistant, he fell in love with working with students and helping in their transition from high school to college. He earned a master’s in higher education at UNC Wilmington and returned to ECU in 2017.

“I’m a huge advocate for student leadership development, and being able to work with these new young orientation assistants to help them grow and become future leaders on campus is really rewarding,” said Olewine, who works with student leaders as assistant director of campus visits at ECU. “It’s a great opportunity to connect with the current students and to share your experiences and what worked for you in the past and to make sure they have a positive experience.”

Olewine said orientation assistants play a vital role in helping new students adjust to campus life, providing a foundation for support. “It allows students to start building that network and having that one go-to student who they know is an upperclassman who they know they can go ask questions,” he said. “We want to make sure students have the support systems in place to help them not only during that first year, but making sure they matriculate all the way to graduation.”

People pick up orientation packets in the Main Campus Student Center.

People pick up orientation packets in the Main Campus Student Center.