UM’s New Student Orientation, Advocates Win Awards

Three males who a part of UM's Orientation staff stand and smile outside
UM Director of New Student Success Devin Carpenter, center, won the Innovative Program Award at a recent NODA conference. Also during the conference, UM Advocates Bridger Liston, left, and Kamm Mangun won Best Undergraduate Student Presentation for their session “Redefining Our Legacy.”

Two students and one employee from the University of Montana recently won top awards at the regional conference of NODA – Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education.

UM’s New Student Orientation, led by Director of New Student Success Devin Carpenter, won the Innovative Program Award for Region I at the NODA conference, which took place last month in Las Vegas. The award recognizes innovative and effective approaches in orientation, transition and retention that help meet the changing needs of students on college and university campuses.

Carpenter was tasked with reworking UM’s New Student Orientation in late 2018 and built an entirely new seven-day experience for incoming first-year students. The changes were implemented based on the success of UM’s Freshman Wilderness Experience, a program held before classes begin that allows students to form a strong cohort of new friends while enjoying the Montana outdoors.

The resulting new, two-part orientation program includes a three-day Big Sky Experience that provides a team-based immersion experience, just like the Freshman Wilderness Experience. The second part of UM’s orientation, Getting Your Bearings, provides more traditional on-campus programming focused on the academic and social transition to college.

“Based on the experience of the students who participated in the Freshman Wilderness Experience and their outcomes – strong friendships, higher retention and student success rates over time – we knew we had to completely reimagine our New Student Orientation experience for students,” said Cathy Cole, UM vice president for enrollment and strategic communication. “The program had to not only welcome students into an inclusive, engaging community from the moment they arrive on campus, but also allow students to participate in service-learning opportunities with a small cohort of other incoming students.

“It then switches to an academic focus within their own major area of interest to further embed our students in our campus family. The program that was built was intentional, focused and purposeful in nature.”

Though the program was started in Enrollment Management, it soon transitioned to Academic Affairs under Vice Provost for Student Success Sarah Swager. She and her staff, along with Enrollment Management and the rest of campus, brought the program to life.

“After its very first year, Devin’s program has won a major award and UM saw an increase in the retention of first-year students from fall to spring semesters,” Swager said. “We are so incredibly proud of Devin and the New Student Orientation program he created. When we put student success at the center of everything we do, we all win.”

UM’s orientation format helps students build new connections and friendships to enhance belonging and retention while also preparing them for academic success. And it is working. Freshmen retention from fall 2019 to spring semester 2020 was up 1.7%.

Also at the NODA conference, UM Advocate Coordinators Kamm Mangun and Bridger Liston won Best Undergraduate Student Presentation in Region I for their session “Redefining Our Legacy.” Mangun and Liston led members of student groups from other universities in a session to examine their organization’s history, purpose and mission. The UM duo shared the Advocates’ own process for defining themselves this past fall.

During their presentation, Liston and Mangun learned that other student groups in attendance either did not have a mission statement or did not know it.

“No other group could remember their statement,” Mangun said. “I think this speaks to the strength of individuals within UM Advocates, and it’s also a direct result of great leadership from our advisers, Devin and Liz Stotts.

“Seeing how our group works together, while all coming from different backgrounds and majors, all working toward the same goals and ideals for incoming and prospective students is hard to bring into words,” Mangun said. “Walking away from our presentation, I realized how lucky I am to be a part of such an amazing organization with great leaders and how grateful I am for all those before me who built this 50-year legacy we now get to extend for another 50-plus years.”


Contact: Devin Carpenter, director of New Student Success, Office of the Vice Provost for Student Success, 406-243-2332,