Planning for the unplannable year

The map to this year’s Freshers’ Week took an unusual route for Trinity’s orientation team

The start of Michaelmas Term is historically marked by rows of stalls at the Freshers’ Fair, hundreds of students packed into lecture halls to listen to the Provost and Senior Tutor welcome them to campus, and the palpable excitement and chaos of meeting other students and trying to find the right classrooms. While the global Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that this academic year will look like no other, the practicalities of what the start of the year will bring for new students has been a process that has shifted and moulded as public health guidelines evolve.

Typically, the process of planning for undergraduate orientation begins in February and is led by Transition to Trinity Officer Eimear Rouine, who has been running orientations for undergraduate, postgraduate and visiting and Erasmus students since being appointed to the role in 2016. Speaking to Trinity News, Rouine said that planning for orientation starts with timetabling. “I go through the timetables from the year before, making sure if there were any issues the previous year that we can fix them,” Rouine said. 

The timetables are normally sent out to staff around the end of March so that they can be confirmed by the end of the academic year, and work on the Welcome Guide and orientation website can begin. “That’s a really big piece of it,” Rouine said. “For CAO students, we don’t have a way of contacting them directly until they’ve accepted their offer, so that’s really important.” College offers made through the CAO – the third level application process for students in Ireland – are usually issued in August, only a few weeks before the academic year begins.

“As we got into April it became clear that this wasn’t something that was going to be fixed by September.”


This year, however, the plan for orientation is very different from those that were discussed this past spring, as the reopening of College comes with measures to enforce social distancing and prevent the spread of Covid-19. “We’re probably on plan version 892 at this stage,” Rouine joked. “Come March, when we were all sent home, I continued planning as normal because at that stage none of us knew how long this would be going on, but as we got into April it became clear that this wasn’t something that was going to be fixed by September.” 

In response to changing government regulations and general uncertainty surrounding the reopening of College, Rouine and her team developed a series of plans for orientation, each differing based on whether teaching would be in person or online for the academic year. In the end, the plan that was settled on was for undergraduate orientation to mirror the hybrid style of teaching Trinity has adapted, with large group lectures being held online and smaller groups meeting in person where possible.

Both the Provost and the Senior Tutor are expected to welcome students to campus as normal, but their remarks will be delivered in video format to avoid the health risks that can come with a crowded lecture hall. Similarly, the Trinity in Twelve Weeks program, which covers topics ranging from how to access Blackboard, study skills and career advice to budgeting and tips for looking after your physical health, will also be online. Students can register for these sessions on the orientation website and are encouraged to submit questions for the speakers through the registration link. 

“It should provide quite a good starting point for orientation to have started with their peer mentor.”

Another critical component of orientation is run by Student to Student, or S2S, a student-led program designed to provide peer mentoring and support for incoming undergraduates. Recognizable by the classic red hoodies, student mentors have an important role in Freshers’ Week by taking groups of students on tours of the campus and holding icebreaker and FAQ sessions in classrooms. Though social distancing guidelines have made it impossible for these groups to be able to meet in person this year, the staff at S2S is still providing new students an opportunity to ask questions of a peer mentor and meet others in their course before term starts. The S2S virtual meetings were held on September 25 before Freshers Week officially began. “We think it’s a good opportunity [for incoming students] to have asked a few of those questions, some of the worries and concerns, to have had a chance to meet some of their future classmates and to know who your mentor is,” Rouine said. “It should provide quite a good starting point for orientation to have started with their peer mentor.” 

Freshers’ Week is typically preceded by an orientation week for incoming postgraduate students, which includes talks centered on international students, diversity and inclusion, and health and wellbeing, as well as advice on research skills. 

For Rouine and her colleagues in Global Relations and Student Services, one of the added difficulties of planning an orientation this year was the move of Freshers’ Week to coincide with the first week of teaching for returning students. Ordinarily, Freshers’ Week takes place before the first week of the semester, followed by the return of lectures for all students. This year was originally going to look similar, but in response to Leaving Certificate results and CAO offers being pushed back to September 7 and 11, respectively, Freshers’ Week was moved to September 28 alongside the start of lectures to returning students. New students will start lectures on October 5.

“Normally, this happens before teaching starts so we have free reign of classrooms and all of our student volunteers, student officers, my colleagues across the services, and our academic colleagues are available,” Rouine said. “That move into Teaching Week One has been difficult because I’m trying to schedule around teaching, so there’s a lot more layers in it this year.”

While some events are able to be converted into an online format relatively smoothly, the translation of social events from real life to the digital world is less straightforward. Rouine and her team are mindful of the importance of the social element of Freshers’ Week, and during planning, hoped to have course meetings in person, though this will be decided on a course-by-course basis. “When I was going through the events we had the course meeting really stood out, so they can meet the academics and see the faces of the people they’re going to be in lectures online with,” Rouine said. “However, with government gathering guidelines, revised space capacity in classrooms on campus, and working around the teaching timetable, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to have every course in person for their meetings, despite all of our best efforts.”

Still, Rouine stressed that her team was working hard to ensure that students would have some aspect of face-to-face contact during orientation. “I think it’s really important, particularly this year, to get our new students on campus for something,” she said. “We’ll still be doing our best to make sure as many students as possible have the opportunity to come onto campus during Freshers’ Week.”

Since then, Dublin has been placed under Level 3 restrictions, with colleges asked to limit the number of students on campus – meaning that the approach to events during orientation and the first few weeks of the term have needed to adapt yet again.

Though the look of orientation this year will undoubtedly be much different from any other year, Rouine said that the advice she would give students remains the same: to “be brave.” 

“There will be ways for them to meet other students, and making those social connections is really important so throw yourself into it.”

“It’s really great to be standing there seeing everybody so excited, running around, so I’m definitely going to miss that this year, but there’s still going to be plenty to do and to get involved in,” she said. “There will be ways for them to meet other students, and making those social connections is really important, so throw yourself into it.”

Olivia Flaherty-Lovy

Olivia Flaherty-Lovy is the Features Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of English Studies.