Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College’s innovative approach to orientation prepares first-year students for long-term success

Photo courtesy of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College.

Supporting all students by offering the best of both worlds

At Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College (NHSC) in New Town, North Dakota, students vary widely in age, educational background, and circumstance — from late teens to elders; single individuals to working parents. Welcoming first-time students to NHSC in ways that were both personalized and accommodating had proved challenging over the years.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many students faced obstacles that inhibited their ability to persist with their education: childcare, finances, familiarity with technology, and others. Although the college’s face-to-face orientation had been designed with students’ busy lives in mind, it quickly became evident that students and staff alike were struggling to get the most value out of the course.

So NHSC decided to try a new approach — in part due to the pandemic, but also in response to campus-wide feedback. They sought to combine the flexibility of on-demand resources with the personal touch of real-time conversations with instructors. The solution: integrate the new-student orientation into the college’s Psychology of Student Success course.

“We feel that if students have a good grasp of how to navigate things, that it’s a great base for them to move forward.” 
– Dr. Jennifer Janecek-Hartman, vice president of campus services

Providing a more meaningful context

Every first-year student at NHSC is required to take the Psychology of Student Success course (PSY 100), regardless of whether they are a new or a transfer student. For Dr. Jennifer Janecek-Hartman, vice president of campus services, and Deanna Rainbow, student development retention counselor, integrating the orientation within this existing one-credit course seemed to be a logical approach.

“The last couple of years, we have worked to create a really great orientation for the students when they come to the college,” says Janecek-Hartman. “However, we weren’t seeing the desired level of success, as students viewed it as an additional burdensome task. With the advent of COVID and our institution being fully online, we had to pivot and move into more of a virtual environment.” Integrating the orientation into the college’s newly online Psychology of Student Success course would enable NHSC to offer the orientation in a more meaningful context.


Photo courtesy of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College.

Part of the challenge of delivering the orientation in a stand-alone model was that the information was crammed into a short period of time. Students were on information overload; since they weren’t familiar with the campus, they didn’t have context for the content.

Combining orientation with the Psychology of Student Success course enabled the instructors to reference the orientation material throughout the semester. This gave students the opportunity to ask relevant questions as they were engaging with campus resources and facilities, experiencing situations, or needing services during their first semester.

Scaffolding to help students navigate

Topics included in the first-year student orientation and the Psychology of Student Success course were designed with the first-year student in mind: navigating campus resources, staying connected, how to succeed, paying for college, and campus life. Integrating orientation elements throughout the course enabled students to identify and connect with campus services and resources based on where they were at in their journeys. 

For the orientation elements of the course, Rainbow approached NHSC leaders and staff to record short videos to introduce themselves, welcome new arrivals, and orient students to the departments. “We invited our president, vice president of student services, financial department, and a few faculty members to offer encouraging words for the semester ahead,” says Rainbow. “Rather than sending a written email, these videos offered a more personal way to orient students to our mission and core values, as well as provide insights on to how be a successful student at the college.”

The course is a study in how to equip students with the skills they need to succeed, covering:

  • Creating a study space that is conducive for learning
  • Building a virtual learning community
  • Note-taking, including teaching effective strategies such as shorthand
  • Learning styles where students can identify which modality works best for them
  • Test-taking techniques that empower students to deal with anxiety and better prepare for exams
  • Dealing with difficult situations
  • Money management
  • Personal statement/scholarship essay writing
  • Course evaluation

Student feedback

“I really enjoyed this class and know if I ever need anything or someone to talk to, I know I can come to you! Thank you!”

“All the skills were well thought out and explained. That taught me more about myself. I enjoyed doing the student success plan the most.”

“The class activities worked well. Also working with classmates worked well. I plan on using the note taking and credit help from the Tioga Bank."

A recipe for student success

“We had to sit down and think like a student,” says Janecek-Hartman. “We listened to their feedback and implemented changes.” From adjusting the semester length and schedule to providing orientation materials a week ahead of the start date for Psychology of Student Success, NHSC demonstrated the college’s commitment to providing students with some of the holistic supports they needed to succeed. Staff continue to make themselves available 24/7 by text, phone, or email for those who require additional support.

The college’s efforts show promising results. Rainbow reports that, before the pandemic, their student pass rate rose from 64 percent to 78 percent — an increase of 14 percentage points — during the orientation’s inaugural semester. She credits students with a perseverance that has enabled them to apply the strategies they’ve learned not only to their own lives, but to staff’s as well. “In the beginning, there’s a lot of handholding conversations with students, getting on a Zoom call, sharing screen,” concludes Rainbow. “But once you show them, they’re off and running — and then they’re teaching me a few tricks.”


Photo courtesy of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College.

Next steps: becoming increasingly data-driven

While much of this orientation re-work was underway before NHSC became an ATD Network college (as a part of the Serving Native American Students with Holistic Student Supports Project), NHSC’s work with ATD has supported and substantiated the college’s direction. For NHSC, ATD validated the importance of the orientation course in laying the foundation for student success and guiding the college in becoming more data-centric.

“Working with ATD has helped us become increasingly data-driven,” Janecek-Hartman. “We are asking more of the right questions, capturing and recording data, and making data-informed changes that are demonstrating a positive impact.”


About Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College
Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College is one of is one of the six Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) in the Serving Native American Students with Holistic Student Supports Project focused on transforming the student experience through a holistic student supports redesign. Through this engagement with Achieving the Dream, the TCUs are receiving customized coaching, subgrants and opportunities to engage with the others in the cohort as a community of practice, to strengthen their capacity to better serve students in their communities. Learn more about NHSC and ATD’s role in supporting student success at TCUs.

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