University Launches Orbit Program for Keeping New Comets on Course
With a new director and involvement from numerous campus organizations, UT Dallas’ program to support new students, called Orbit, is ready to launch.
Dr. J.D. Thomas is the director of Orbit: Keeping New Comets on Course at UT Dallas. “If you had to boil my job description down to a single word, I think it would be collaboration. I’m trying to think of ways that I can collaborate with others, while encouraging collaboration between units and schools,” he said.
Officially called Orbit: Keeping New Comets on Course, the program is designed to help students who are new to UT Dallas: first-timers in college, transfer students, graduate students and international students.
“I think of Orbit as a commitment to connecting every student who walks on campus — helping them see that whoever they are, wherever they came from, whatever their prior experience, they are in our orbit, and we are here for them,” said Dr. Jessica Murphy, dean of undergraduate education and Mary McDermott Cook Chair for Undergraduate Education.
Orbit was developed as part of UT Dallas’ reaffirmation of accreditation process, which happens every 10 years. Part of the decennial review included the development of a quality enhancement plan (QEP) — a strategy to improve a particular area on campus. The UT Dallas team focused on a major program to provide support for every new student on campus.
“In true UT Dallas fashion, we decided we wanted to go big — which we did,” said Dr. Amanda Smith, associate vice president for student affairs, dean of students and co-director of the QEP that yielded the Orbit program. “It was a very bold move, and we knew it going in.”
The evolved QEP now focuses only on the Orbit initiatives specific to transfer students: the Transfer Mentor Program and a transfer seminar course; however, the Orbit initiative still targets all four student populations.
Recently, UT Dallas hired Dr. J.D. Thomas as director of Orbit. He is charged with overseeing Orbit by primarily working with various teams on campus to coordinate communications.
“If you had to boil my job description down to a single word, I think it would be collaboration. I’m trying to think of ways that I can collaborate with others, while encouraging collaboration between units and schools,” Thomas said.
“I think of Orbit as a commitment to connecting every student who walks on campus — helping them see that whoever they are, wherever they came from, whatever their prior experience, they are in our orbit and we are here for them.”
Thomas came to UT Dallas from Rutgers University, where he served as assistant dean of the School of Graduate Studies. He previously coordinated new student programs in Rutgers’ Office of Academic Engagement and Programming. At Rutgers, Thomas worked with each of the four new-student populations in some way, he said.
The primary vehicle for growing Orbit is the New Student Engagement Board, which was created last year and includes staff and faculty who work with first-year UT Dallas students. Thomas will help enact the board’s ideas and coordinate with other campus resources.
“UT Dallas already has a lot of infrastructure in place to support these students,” Thomas said. “The idea is to ensure that our people and groups continue to look at the big-picture perspective by communicating across units.”
A goal of Orbit is to ensure that students enjoy their experience at UT Dallas through greater campus engagement. Thomas said students who are connected tend to perform better, stay enrolled at their schools and earn their degrees in a timely manner. He said they also tend to have positive feelings about their alma maters after they graduate.
Murphy, who served as QEP co-director with Smith, said each of the four Orbit student groups is different, which requires different approaches. For example, Murphy said she transferred institutions twice as an undergraduate, with the first one not going so well.
“I want our students here to have all the tools they need to be able to make smooth transitions and good connections on campus like I was able to do at my third institution. We have some 350 student organizations and all kinds of opportunities for them to engage. We just want to make those available,” she said.
Previous quality enhancement plans have launched programs that have become staples at UT Dallas, such as the Student Success Center, which provides tutoring and academic support for students. That was developed from UT Dallas’ previous reaffirmation of accreditation process 10 years ago.
Murphy urged students to take advantage of the opportunities to connect at UT Dallas.
“Orbit is for everyone. We care about your success, and we will find you a program that fits. If it’s not the Freshman Mentor Program or the Transfer Mentor Program, maybe it’s something that they’re doing in New Student Programs or maybe it’s something that they’re doing in one of the schools. There’s always something here for you. It’s a commitment we are making as an institution,” Murphy said.