Where I grew up, the standard expectation was to graduate high school and go to four-year university. But, my path was different.

I didn’t go straight to university. First, I went to a community college and then was a transfer student at the age of 21.

On my first visit to UC Santa Cruz I felt like a freshman even though I had completed two years of college classes already.

After being accepted, I soon learned I was invited to the “Transfer Student Orientation.” I was grateful there was a place for me to go, to figure out what I needed to do next and how to be successful. I hoped I’d meet some people and make some new friends.

My memory of transfer student orientation is that I filled out some paperwork, there were balloons, it was sunny. Maybe there were free cookies? Not sure. I came and left as fast as I could. Orientation was boring, random and unfacilitated. It was a DIY experience with a check list of to do items.

I didn’t feel connected to my university experience, and pretty much started planning as many ways that I could to be away from campus. I studied abroad, I filed for a workstudy opportunity where I spent 6 months off campus. As soon as that was over, I stacked my classes so I could graduate early. My total university experience was 18 months, 9 of which were spent out of the area. Not surprisingly, I don’t have a single person who I was friends with at university that I keep in touch with now. I don’t have college reunions or feel a sense of connection to my alma mater. When people say “Go Slugs!” I really can’t relate to a sentiment around a campus pride.

Here’s what went wrong: My University didn’t onboard me, we just had an orientation. An orientation day is not the same as onboarding.

An orientation day is not the same as onboarding.

Onboarding happens over time and encompasses many things beyond paperwork, balloons and free cookies.

Onboarding is a journey, with many elements, important transition moments, key milestones and commitment moments.

Onboarding needs to be collaborative community effort, not a DIY experience.

Onboarding sometimes is looked at like the first thing a new employee will do. Wrong, I see this as ‘you are still dating’. Commitment to a company happens during onboarding, not before. New hires are still assessing the environment, the culture.

In onboarding, employees start to plan how long they will stay with the company in the first weeks of onboarding. This is a crucial time for companies to still be focused on sharing the employer value proposition.

Just like my college transfer student experience: I started looking for ways to be away from campus before I had even arrived to campus. Orientation didn’t serve my needs for connection, community or structure. I was left as an independent transfer student, given space and autonomy to DIY my university experience. Maybe not the worst outcome for me, but I certainly didn’t stay long or become a passionate ambassador for my university.

When reading my story, did you feel liek you wanted to offer some ideas or suggestions of how the university experience could’ve been more engaging? That’s a common response – you are seeking to help me solve a human need.

Oftentimes we launch into IDEAS, and phrases such as:

“Have you tried?” “What about…” “It would be great if…” “Could you…”

But ideas are tricky. Ideas are a form of problem solving. In a human centered approach, you want to start with empathy. You can start with empathy by documenting what you already know or believe in a reflection journal.

Was your university orientation experience different? Did you feel onboarded? How can you extract learnings from that experience?

In a Human Centered Design approach we start with empathy. What are key methods used by designers for empathy?

  • Self reflection
  • Self observation and journaling
  • 1:1 interviews
  • Observation
  • Focus Groups

Have a listen to this audio recording where I dive in a little deeper on:

  • What you can do to gather insights about building better onboarding by starting with empathy.
  • Questions to ask yourself before you get started with empathy interviews
  • Why “idea” is a trigger word to watch out for!

==> Listen now

Want to connect with others who are bring design thinking into how they innovate the employee experience? Check out what we’re doing at The Workplace Lab!