DESIIGNER | Understanding Freshman Orientation through Design Thinking

If there’s one thing that I’ve really come to appreciate ever since integrating practices of design thinking into my everyday routine, it would be the shift from simply seeing the world to understanding it.

Because while the act of seeing displays the trajectory of one mind’s perception, understanding requires the reflection, metacognition and deep consideration for others.

In the sphere of user experience design, I have realized that while many of us go through similarly-designed experiences such as playing the same video game, eating the same food from the same store and going to the same school and taking the same classes, we often come out with a range of different reactions, emotions, and realizations.

And every time I ask myself, “Why?” I immediately realize that it’s “because we are different.”

So you’re telling me that we’re all unique?

But that doesn’t stop us from also being similar and arriving at the same conclusions about individual experiences. While we’re different because we are different, we’re also the same because we’re different. Our personal backgrounds and interactions with other experiences make us who we are. And it fascinates me that these slight or large differences have the ability to impact how we feel in ways that are still often unpredictable to me.

To feed this deep fascination, I’ve begun to expand my exploration outside of exclusively focusing on how people interact with digital products and into how people experience everything else we touch, feel, and come into contact with. From the physical to the psychological and beyond, I hope this series can serve as a way for me to apply and learn new approaches of design thinking to further my understanding of my surroundings.

Welcome to the series:
Understanding Surroundings Through Design Thinking


“What was O-Week like?”

As Cornell University’s annual orientation week quickly approaches, I’ve decided to interview five current students about their experiences during their first week on campus as freshmen.

While the following does not aim to form any type of biases or generalizations, it does attempt to truthfully capture what these students went through and would hopefully provide insight to incoming students, soon-to-be orientation leaders, and administration.

Heading into the interview,

It had been at least 1 or 2 years since my interviewees went through o-week. Revisiting this topic would require an ease-in-approach to help them recollect the past. While my mindset was not to look for “specific examples” to support any existing notions, I did think that asking about “real situations” would help get the memory jogging again.

While some gave predictable responses, others had me taken aback. Whenever I saw variation, it helped me understand more. And I really enjoyed that.

“What were some of the most memorable, interesting, or important experiences from orientation week that still stick out to you?”

Fang, Class of 2019, SHA

As freshmen, you all stick together. You’re going out with people who you don’t know and you’re just meeting more along the way. Everyone is super friendly in general and that’s a great vibe.

I remember this one night when a group of us walked to Collegetown together. It was the longest walk ever but we were able to talk and bond for a really long time.

I think that first time you get turnt in college is really your first taste at freedom.

Cathy, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

I remember going to this party that I don’t think freshmen were allowed at. This upperclassman took me there and it was totally different than the party scene I’d expected from watching movies about college.

Rather, it was really chill.

People were just playing beer pong and I ended up meeting a lot of people I still talk to now.

It’s a little strange because you form a different kind of bond with the people you meet during o-week. Even if it means only meeting up once, you might see each other later on and and talk about a shared experience. And for some, you might become even become closer friends.

I actually met my big at that party. We talked about design and she introduced me to a club called Hotel Ezra Design. Through this, I was able to connect with other people also interested in design. Looking back, it’s really cool how one person you meet can lead to others. That day was really more about meeting new people than just partying.

What was most surprising was that there wasn’t really a “barrier.” I didn’t feel like I had to “try” really hard to meet new people for some reason. I attribute a part of that to o-week. People are just naturally more open to meeting new people.

Jeeah, Class of 2018, Fine Arts

For me, I got to o-week a day late because I was an international student. I have a hard time even remembering if I even met my orientation leader or not. But after I met my friends from my major, we started to explore campus a lot more. That was really nice because I’d never fully visited campus during previous visits since I was always with family.

This was really the first time I went around and explored. O-week gives you that chance to have that free time before school really starts.

Kavin, Class of 2018, AEM

I met one of my closest friends during o-week but that was only because it was through a friend I already knew back home. I think finding each other and bonding was the best part of o-week.

I’m not best friends with the people I hung out with or went through all the activities with. But I’m still best friends with people I had a sh*tty time with. I hated o-week. Everyone just seemed so fake and tried to put on this personality of “I’m a confident college kid.” I think growing up in San Francisco just made me cynical about everything.

Charles, Class of 2019, Engineering

The most memorable experience was probably going to that waterfall that all Prepare students go to. We had several people playing soccer and throwing the frisbee. It was just simple and fun.

“What about the general reception? Did you feel welcomed, well taken care of, and included?”

Fang, Class of 2019, SHA

I definitely felt welcomed because I was in Mews and we had a very structured orientation with planned events that allowed us to meet everyone. I got to talk to a lot of RAs so I knew who I could to go to if things weren’t working out.

This sense of community made me feel supported from the very start. Also, because my peers and I were participating in the same activities, it felt like everyone really got to know each other.

Cathy, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

I didn’t really like the reception from the side of the administration. There were 2 groups: one that had to do with my college and another with my dorm. I think it was kind of disorganized because we only met up once and I never saw my orientation leader ever again.

It was also kind of awkward just being bunched together. For some people, I think it’s a good way to connect with others if it works out, but for me, it didn’t work out. This might partly be due to me living in Balch, a dorm that can be a bit anti-social. I expected to be able to open my door and welcome others to come in to say “hi,” but that wasn’t the case. The people who lived on my floor weren’t that open. There were also more doubles than singles so people were sort of grouped together already. I think other dorms are probably different.

On the other hand, I had the best time meeting people that I actually had to go out of my way to connect with. I needed to get out of my comfort zone.

There were even events like bracelet making sessions where I met a really close friend. That’s actually how I met a lot of people: The CSA [Chinese Student Association] bubble tea event, happenings around north campus, and ones that I saw on flyers and would usually ignore but took a chance on. I knew everyone else also wanted to meet new people. So if I didn’t take advantage of that, it would have been harder to develop relationships after people already have their friend groups.

Jeeah, Class of 2018, Fine Arts

Because of my flight schedule, it took me a while to get to campus. When I arrived, it was super late, around 9:00 PM.

I didn’t really know what to do at the time. All I remember was feeling super tired from being jet-lagged and had hopped into the shower. Then someone yelled, “Is Jeeah here?!” And I thought “no one should be able to know me!” But that was really funny and basically my welcome, haha.

You read things online to try to prepare yourself but I wished there would have been students who came to help me with luggages, greet me and just showing me where to go.

That would have been really nice because when I got to Clara Dickson, my dorm, I was told to go to Appel to get my keys. But at the time, I didn’t know if I could just leave my stuff there. So I think it would have been nice to be shown the way.

Kavin, Class of 2018, AEM

No, I didn’t feel that. And that was both my fault and their fault. Even though my RA was very nice (he and I are still friends), part of the issue was that I had an uninteresting floor. It was 5 suites of boys and 1 suite of girls. That gender dynamic was just really weird to me. Growing up in San Francisco, boys are taught to be more nuanced with their masculinity. Being on a floor with so many guys, I was like “are you guys real?” I was very pessimistic.

I thought it was fine though, just not a life changing & all-inclusive experience. I think I also set the bar super high because my friends from home at the time were having all these great experiences.

Charles, Class of 2019, Engineering

I felt welcomed but not close. And looking back, I wasn’t able to really make friends with anyone because all everyone did was introduce themselves and greet each other.

“What was your initial reaction with the food in dining halls & local restaurants? Was it better or worse than expected? What about the variety?”

Fang, Class of 2019, SHA

There’s just a sh*t ton of options. Wait, and it’s all you can eat? Wow. Dude, this must be heaven.

I’m not even joking. I’ve shown pre-freshmen our dining halls and the look on their face is exactly that.

There was this one time when I swiped a kid in and he just stood there looking at all the food. I was like “yo, you’re blocking the entire line.”

I remember eating RPCC sushi and pancakes. It was a mind-blowing experience. I said to myself, “this feels like a cruise.” And I’ve been on a cruise 3 times so I know what I’m talking about.

Cathy, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

I thought it was really good. I remember having Appel’s pho and RPCC’s Mongolian noodles and thinking to myself, “I’m gonna have this every day.”

But after o-week, I think my excitement for north campus food died down significantly. The dining halls probably also intentionally spent more during that first week to give the students a welcoming.

Looking back, it would have been better to diversify beyond just RPCC and Appel so I wouldn’t have gotten sick of the food so fast. Maybe try west campus and even the smaller dining areas like Risley.

Kavin, Class of 2018, AEM

I live in San Francisco, so don’t tell me it’s good. I also don’t get the whole hype around RPCC brunch. And I still think collegetown is a little bit of a let down.

And even being a San Fran kid, Collegetown Bagel sucks. I came all the way here thinking I was going to get a real, New York bagel. It wasn’t a real New York bagel. But don’t get me wrong, they’ve taken a lot of my money and I’ve spent a lot of time there.

Charles, Class of 2019, Engineering

It’s definitely better than what I’d expected because I expected absolute trash. As an international student who experienced Columbia & Princeton’s cafeteria food, I thought Cornell’s was going to be the same. Just average chicken fingers, fried rice, hamburgers, and pizza.

But when I got here, I realized our dining halls are much better. Also, Plum Tree in Collegetown is great.

“What was it like going to student-led events, parties, get togethers, or meet ups?”

Fang, Class of 2019, SHA

I really enjoyed them because I somehow ended up in a group chat before even coming onto campus. It felt like we were old friends hanging out with each other. Even though we didn’t actually know each other that well, we didn’t have to scramble around to try to find friends.

I think that would have been hard for me.

Cathy, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

I went out to Collegetown with some new friends to drop by parties. It was a pretty cool experience. It was also all everyone talked about. Parties. I think it’s an experience you should not miss out as a freshmen.

Especially the people who you go out with. I definitely remember the people I met and experienced things with during o-week more than other events that are just sporadically held throughout the year.

Jeeah, Class of 2018, Fine Arts

I think going to parties with my new friends was fun. But to be honest, I don’t even remember what happened at parties I went to.

Kavin, Class of 2018, AEM

I’m not a party kid but I felt I had to try to enjoy them. And I think that’s what people did at Cornell for fun: to fake-enjoy drinking shitty beer.

I think as you get older, you’ll gain a better understanding of what fun for yourself can be. For me, even though I knew I didn’t like partying, I still tried to force myself into those situations. I did it because I was a sheep.

Charles, Class of 2019, Engineering

We had some parties and it was pretty fun. But I hung out much more with high school friends who also got into Cornell as opposed to students in my orientation group.

“What were some of the small bits of feelings and also the overall emotions going through orientation week?”

Fang, Class of 2019, SHA

Nervous excitement.

I was nervous because it’s an experience I’d never been through before. I just didn’t know what to expect. But at the same time, it was also exciting because I didn’t know what to expect. They go hand in hand. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I was excited because I wanted to learn, you know?

Cathy, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

I think during o-week, it didn’t really hit me that I was actually in college and far away from home. I was kind of still talking to my old friends at home and from high school on what they did or are doing in their orientation week. And even when I didn’t have a good day, I would tell myself that “this was temporary.”

Jeeah, Class of 2018, Fine Arts

I think excitement and a bit of nervousness. I was mostly excited about meeting new people and had gotten even more excited after interacting with our diverse group. Being international, I had certain ideas about what America would be. But the vibe I got when I met everyone was quite similar to my international school.

O-week is also a time when you’re not worried about school, running into trouble with friends, missing your family and all that stuff yet. It’s simple and fun.

Kavin, Class of 2018, AEM

I felt like I should have chosen a different school.

By the end of my first semester, I was preparing for a transfer. People tell you that Cornell is big enough for you to find anyone and any group. What people don’t tell you is the time it takes to filter through all the people and groups. So I understand why people transfer out.

Looking back, I don’t regret going to Cornell but I do regret not being prepared for it. I thought I was going to an east coast school where everyone cared about the things I cared about.

I enjoyed sitting around, talking and engaging. I didn’t feel people enjoyed that. Everyone was just interested in showing off. Granted, people probably felt the need to do that because everyone was doing it.

But I did find people I love.

Charles, Class of 2019, Engineering

It was pretty overwhelming to be honest. Going into a brand new environment, I didn’t really know what to do. There is so much going on. You have to go to all these mandatory events, sit there, and play games. It felt very disjointed. I understand why the administration had to do these things. There were just too many cultural differences and language barriers.

“As a more seasoned undergrad looking back, what would you have liked or wanted to experience during orientation week?”

Fang, Class of 2019, SHA

I think maybe keeping in touch with my RA more. We just never saw our orientation leader after meeting them the first time. Because even after the first few days of o-week, you’re still a clueless high school student.

Cathy, Class of 2019, Info-Sci

I wished I’d gotten to know more people on my floor. It was just hard because people didn’t seem that open to meeting people. And I definitely wished I’d gone out to more events throughout the day. There were info sessions that I was interested in but was either too lazy or couldn’t find anyone to go with.

Looking back, it felt intimidating because everyone was going with someone else and it felt weird to go by yourself. But I’ve come to realize that Cornell is where everyone kind of does their own thing but they have friends to support them along the way. You’re kind of growing by yourself. It’s very different than high school where you always do things with classmates.

Especially going to dining halls by yourself. That was a challenge. But I’ve learned that everyone has their own schedule and I actually really like that. That feeling of independence.

Jeeah, Class of 2018, Fine Arts

I think less walking. I walked everywhere. I had the bus pass but I didn’t know which bus was going where.

I also would have enjoyed more interaction with upperclassmen. When you only spend time on north campus, it’s kind of a bubble. The rest of campus is so much more diverse and fun.

Kavin, Class of 2018, AEM

Content. It’s a really hard thing to feel that. And as a senior, I still struggle with it sometimes.

But just the feeling that “this was all going to be okay.” I personally don’t think anyone felt content or that sense of optimism. Everyone around me just seemed really happy and I felt like the one kid who didn’t.

Regardless to say, I’m still super close with the 3 or 4 kids I that really bonded with during o-week. I think if people were more honest with how bad some things were (even though it’s kind of oxymoronic that if people were more honest with how bad things were, they would feel better), than they would have a better experience overall.

Charles, Class of 2019, Engineering

I would have liked more structured, one-on-one mentorships with an upperclassmen with the same major or background (someone who might have gone through the same as me even though that’s hard).

Coming in as a high school kid, there should be someone to lead you or give a sense of direction. I want to know what they enjoyed the most in their time here. Because while it felt like my peers were enjoying themselves, no one really seemed to know what, why or how they were going to manage the next four years.

Wrapping up each Interview,

I realized that the slight and large variances in the interviewees’ backgrounds and previous experiences made a big difference in what they felt and took away from o-week.

Everyone had their own reasons for feeling and acting the way they did. Lost. Happy. Frustrated. Confused. Supported. Excited. Nervous. It was because they were all different.

But what I didn’t expect were the large inconsistencies in how each individual was introduced to o-week, something that wasn’t in the student’s control. Some students were placed into better environments that suited them better, while others were not. This is very apparent when we take a step back to evaluate and compare the situations with each other. Even with these five students, I could see that if some of them had swapped places (whether it was dorms, orientation groups/leaders, or even the students they engaged with) their experiences would have been dramatically different.

Moving forward,

I hope to continue learning about the diverse stories of all students, staff, and users of designed experiences both on and off campus. If you have any feedback, suggestions, or insights you would like to provide for my current & future series, feel free to reach out!

While we’re all different because we’re different, we’re also the same because we’re different. It’s our personal backgrounds and interactions with other experiences that makes us who we are. And it fascinates me that these slight or large differences have the ability to impact how we feel in ways that still often unpredictable to me.

That’s what I’ve come to appreciate with design thinking. All of that.




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