6 Essential Elements to Include in Your Orientation Leader Training

Orientation leaders are the linchpins of many successful orientation programs.

These peer leaders are often tasked with staffing check-in tables, shepherding students to and from sessions, facilitating icebreakers and doing lots else to make orientation a success.

But how can student affairs professionals prepare orientation leaders for their many responsibilities? One great way is through a comprehensive training program. While you may not be able to prepare OLs for everything that orientation will throw at them, through thoughtful training, you can equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to handle unexpected challenges.

Drawing from my experience supervising OLs, along with NODA’s Orientation Planning Manual and other sources, I present here some considerations for planning out a stellar OL training curriculum.

Information Gathering

During orientation, OLs will probably be the first people whom new students turn to with questions about campus or the local area. So, OLs should be equipped with a wealth of information regarding student services offered by a myriad of campus departments. 

One way to impart this information is to ask departments to give short presentations to the OLs during training. Another idea is to assign groups of OLs to interview a staff member from each department. Each group would then give a presentation to their fellow OLs about the department that they interviewed.

To familiarize OLs with the local area, you could send them on a scavenger hunt or challenge them to answer trivia questions about local landmarks. I usually don’t award prizes for these sorts of competitions because I want to discourage OLs from driving recklessly in an effort to get first place. Instead, I want them to focus on learning.

You should also consider how you can leverage the experiences of any returning OLs. This might take the form of a panel wherein new OLs can ask more experienced ones to share lessons they’ve learned. Or, mentor groups could meet at the end of each training day, with experienced OLs leading daily debriefs. The Circle, Square, Triangle activity from the linked article works especially well for this purpose.


Try to incorporate a wide variety of team-building activities into the training schedule.

These resources offer ideas for activities you can facilitate on your own:

If you have the budget, consider researching if there are any challenge courses nearby. YMCAs, retreat centers, Boy Scout/Girl Scout campsites, and other local college campuses may have them. An expert facilitator can help your team build rapport through high ropes and low ropes activities.

Many orientation programs place their OLs into pairs, with each duo leading groups of new students together throughout orientation. The foundation for strong partnerships can start with intentional bonding during training. 

Sometimes, having less structure in partner-bonding activities is better. One of my students’ favorite activities has been simply going for a walk (or finding a quiet place away from everybody else) while talking to their partner using discussion prompts. 

For the sake of the activity, I choose prompts that deepen relationships rather than merely start conversations. The goal isn’t small talk; it’s to strengthen connections quickly. I like to distribute a few Holstee Reflection Cards, So Cards, or index cards with questions involving variable levels of emotional risk in pursuit of this goal.

Between all of these activities, be sure to schedule some time for fun! Mini golf, laser tag, s’mores — pick something that’ll bring your OLs joy. Time at the end of each day to write or announce kudos for each other could fall into this category.

DEI Training

OLs will interact with students from different backgrounds throughout orientation. This means that OLs should have an awareness of how social identities can influence how new students view the orientation experience.

Consider introducing OLs to Nancy Schlossberg’s theory of marginality and mattering as a framework for understanding why social identities belong in their training curriculum. 

For example, if an OL asks a new student if they have a nickname because the OL thinks that their real name is too hard to pronounce, the new student could feel othered and marginalized. An OL who has a better grasp of what makes someone feel marginalized should be less likely to make this mistake.

This theory, combined with their knowledge of social identities, power, privilege, and microaggressions, can help OLs develop a sense of belonging in their orientation groups. The social identity wheel and privilege for sale are both examples of activities that can touch on these topics during training.

My earlier blog post here provides additional resources for incorporating DEI topics into student learning. Your office of diversity programs or multicultural affairs, social work or sociology faculty, or trained social justice facilitators could help you set up these portions of OL training.

It would also be wise to discuss ways of modifying icebreakers for increased inclusivity. Imagine, for example, that an OL finds out on the first day of orientation that a student in their group is on crutches. The OL should know how to quickly substitute any icebreaker that requires physical movement with one  that the student on crutches can do. This e-book from Stonehill College offers more suggestions for activity modifications.

Small-Group Facilitation

In my opinion, one of the most valuable skills that students learn during OL training is how to facilitate small group activities. This transferable skill will come in handy whenever students need to facilitate any sort of meeting or lead a training.

OLs will spend a lot of time facilitating icebreakers, so you should give them a chance to practice these activities with each other. It’s always helpful to provide OLs with a physical packet with icebreaker ideas and instructions, which they can pull out and refer to throughout orientation.

Here are some icebreakers you can include:

OLs will encounter students with many different temperaments, possibly including some of the eight difficult personas outlined in this article. Students can practice handling these personas through role-play scenarios, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

Being aware of your body language and the body language of others is particularly important for group leadership. OLs can review these resources to learn how to read and respond to body language:

OLs should also have a basic understanding of how to create safe spaces. Besides making activities that invite personal vulnerability easier, like Fear In A Bag, groups tend to bond more when trust is established early. OLs can boost the rapport that naturally grows as the orientation group spends time together by introducing these safe space concepts.

Two critical skills are being able to tell when people need a break and knowing when to check in on everyone’s emotions and learning. By being equipped with so many activities and discussion topics, OLs might feel pressured to engage with their group every single second. However, introverts need time to recharge. If the OLs notice that their group looks tired, distracted, or uninterested, they could use a check-in activity to understand how the group is feeling, facilitate an energizer, or propose a short break.

There will be times, such as during meals and when traveling between destinations, that OLs will have the opportunity to engage with new students in small talk. If your OLs struggle with doing so, you can show them the journalist Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk on 10 Ways to Have A Better Conversation. The lessons from that video can be supplemented by the FORM technique, which explains four categories of conversation starters.


Incorporating experiential learning activities, such as role-play, could help your OLs achieve the training’s learning outcomes.

John Buelow, a facilitator who designs role-play scenarios, describes three benefits of including role-playing in training:

  • It builds confidence. Role-playing provides a safe environment to encounter new scenarios, which builds up students’ confidence for handling real situations.
  • It develops listening skills. Resolving an interpersonal issue involves actively listening to the other person and observing their body language. (More resources to share with OLs about active listening can be found here and here.)
  • It encourages creative problem-solving. As any professional who has facilitated aspects of orientation knows, unexpected things can (and probably will) happen. The more scenarios that students are exposed to during training, the more mental dexterity they’ll have when solving a real problem.

Here is a list of orientation scenarios to help you craft your own customized list:

  • A student has a major headache and typically uses Advil or Tylenol at home to relieve symptoms. However, this student did not bring any medication to orientation and seeks out the closest OL to ask for some.
  • A student starts to get upset about the prospect of leaving their family and home behind. The student begins to cry as an OL passes their room.
  • A student in an orientation group is not interested in participating in any of the activities or interacting with the other students.
  • A student approaches an OL to tell them that they are uncomfortable with their roommate being gay.
  • An OL is walking through the residence hallway back to their room. They hear loud music coming from one room as a student walks by with a bottle of alcohol.
  • An OL is sitting in their room when they hear a loud bang from above. They go to check it out and see that a student has fallen down the stairs, possibly breaking a bone.
  • A family member approaches a nearby OL to ask if they can stay with their student for the rest of the day instead of leaving campus like they are supposed to.
  • Around midnight, a student approaches an OL about their orientation roommate being extremely loud. They would like to be placed in another room in order to fall asleep.
  • An OL finds a group of students in the common room after lights out. The OL sends them back to their rooms, but finds this same group of students back in the common room later.
  • An incoming student starts bragging to their orientation group about having been a camp counselor for many years, claiming that they could do a better job leading icebreakers than their OL. They keep interrupting the OL to point out how they would do it.

Depending on the size of your orientation team and how many scenarios you want to go through, you can set up the exercise a few different ways.

One way is to pick a scenario out of a hat and have OL pairs role-play the situation in front of the whole group, making sure that everyone has the chance to play the role of OL. Another way is to have OLs rotate through stations around a room, each set up with a different scenario.

Regardless of what format you choose, it is essential to debrief the experience afterward. Here are some questions you can ask:

  • How did you determine what course of action to take first?
  • Was there a clear-cut way to handle this situation? What was it, and why is it the ideal response?
  • Is there an institutional policy that should be applied to this situation?
  • During this scenario, did you consider asking for assistance from a fellow OL or a professional staff member? When and why (or why not)?
  • How did you handle the conflict that you encountered with students or their family members?
  • What role did your personal values play in the way that you dealt with situations, especially when the other party’s values were different from your own?

Logistics Review

One of the final pieces of training should be a physical walk-through of a model orientation session.

A walk through should strive to answer these common logistical questions:

  • What routes should OLs guide their groups through when traveling from one location to the next? What entryways will they use?
  • Where will each group be located when they are spread out for icebreakers?
  • When an event is held in a large venue, in what order will each group arrive and depart?
  • Who should OLs contact (and in what order) in the event of an emergency?
  • What are the expectations of OLs during meal times? Should they sit with new students?

A comprehensive training program is labor-intensive to put together, but a well-prepared OL team will give you peace of mind during orientation and make the new students’ experience all that much better. 



Justin Terlisner

About the author: Justin Terlisner (he/him) is a student affairs professional who focuses on helping students thrive through dynamic leadership education and inclusive supervision practices. When not writing curriculum or working with students, you’ll find him enjoying a book, hiking or baking. Learn how we can help get your students involved.