Rolling out the welcome mat



September 10, 2019

For a new college student, the experience of arriving to campus can quickly become a whirlwind of introductory icebreakers, building tours and information sessions.

During a crowded welcome week, many Hillels aren’t waiting for move-in day to initiate connections with first-year students; instead, they are establishing them away from the noise, in their communities, during the quieter days of summer.

Whether through a casual get-together or a more formal dinner event, meeting freshmen before they even arrive to campus is serving as a crucial first step in jumpstarting first-year engagement numbers and donor support.

At Michigan State Hillel, staff and student leaders welcome first-year students through an annual summer ice cream mixer. The mixer, which is held at a central location in West Bloomfield, Michigan, has helped to create an informal environment for incoming students to learn more about Hillel programs. By identifying a date that avoids overlap with summer camp schedules, the mixer has attracted groups of 30-40 freshmen each year.  

“Knowing a staff member or student leader prior to arriving on campus can often ease the anxiety of walking into our building or attending a first-ever Hillel event,” said Robyn Hughey, associate director at Michigan State Hillel. “It is especially beneficial for students who are more introverted and feel overwhelmed by the welcome week madness.”

For Hillel at Miami University and USC Hillel, hosting summer events at a local location has become a reliable strategy to engage with first-year students. Working with the Jewish Community Centers in Chicago and Cleveland, Miami hosts a structured evening program that pairs freshmen with upperclassmen facilitators and parents with Hillel staff members. Through questions and conversations, the night offers a chance to build familiarity and introduce upcoming welcome week events in a stress-free atmosphere.

At USC Hillel, summer off-campus engagement has resulted in both large social events and more intimate gatherings. Current and incoming students have the option to attend a bonfire get-together at a near-by beach before classes start, as well as attend a home-cooked dinner hosted by a current Hillel staff member. This past summer, USC Hillel’s assistant director, Andrew Max, invited a group of first year and current students to his home for a Shabbat meal. While the event was small in numbers, the dinner invitation made a profound impact.

“We had a new student originally from the East Coast who moved to Los Angeles for a summer internship. She was nervous about being far away from her tight-knit family,” said Eitan Snyder, USC Hillel’s engagement associate. “When we sent an invitation to Shabbat dinner, she was impressed we remembered and reached out. Those small actions go a long way in building relationships with students, especially when they are new to college or new to your campus.”

Hosting pre-campus welcome events has also become an opportunity for collaboration. Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan, Illinois Hillel, Iowa Hillel, Kansas Hillel, Metro Chicago Hillel, Michigan State Hillel, Missouri Hillel, Purdue Hillel and Wisconsin – Madison Hillel came together to determine a central location to interact with first-year students. The event, called Midwest Hillel Freshman Rush 2019, served as a way to greet families at a local coffee shop outside of Chicago.

For many Hillels, summer events have also formed into a traveling welcome tour across the country. By working with student leaders, board members and university offices, professionals have identified communities nationwide that have become hubs for incoming Jewish students. Along the east coast in Boston, Washington, D.C. and New York City, Columbia/Barnard Hillel hosted events this summer for freshmen to interact with current students and local alumni.

“Attending a small welcome event before I settled onto campus was a low-key way to meet other students and become familiar with the Hillel community,” said Emily London, an alumna of Columbia University. “I even ran into some of the people I met at my welcome event on campus, which immediately helped me feel comfortable in a new environment.”

“Our summer welcome events have helped to position our Hillel staff as the lead source of trusted information for all things Jewish life on campus and campus life in general. It has skyrocketed our engagement numbers, as well as increased our fundraising during Q1,” said Stacy Carroll, director of advancement at Michigan Hillel. “Parents are extraordinarily grateful to have a staff face, name and contact number to bounce their questions and concerns off of, including asking to take their student out for coffee without knowing their mom requested!”

For Elon and Michigan Hillel, summer welcome events have facilitated more than just face-to-face interaction with students; these programs have sparked newfound relationships with incoming parents. Held in family homes along the East and West Coast, families have an opportunity to learn more about Hillel, ask questions to a panel of student leaders and collect Hillel-themed apparel before they even step foot on campus.

Hilary Zaken, Elon Hillel’s assistant director for development and strategic communications, has found that hosting off-campus welcome events over the summer, and emphasizing the value of community, has directly translated into new donor support.   

“The events help incoming students form relationships with older students so that when they arrive on campus, they have not only heard the voice of their engagement intern welcoming them, but they can recognize the faces of those they met over the summer. “Many parents who attend those welcome events self-identify as potential donors, and often make gifts earlier in the year because they already feel familiar and are committed to our community.”