SINGAPORE - University orientation season is here.
Unlike previous years, though, there are no loud, boisterous cheers or crowds of freshmen on campus grounds.
Instead, most freshmen orientation programmes at the autonomous universities in Singapore have moved online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Straits Times observed one such virtual session at the Singapore Management University (SMU) on Wednesday (July 29), the third day of a four-day orientation programme.
About 1,900 incoming SMU students out of a 2,300-strong cohort were involved in the online orientation, which featured programmes such as games and webinars.
Over 200 current student facilitators, 30 student organisers and 20 staff trainers were also involved.
On Wednesday, a group of 12 freshmen were hosted by two senior student facilitators in a teleconference call on the platform Webex.
The incoming students were keen to know more about issues such as bidding for modules, which is a practice in SMU.
Former Education Minister Ong Ye Kung also joined the group, taking part in some games and to chat with the students.
Mr Ong told them: "One of the things I did before I left the Ministry of Education... is (to ensure) that when universities open, you can have 50 to 60 per cent of footfall back in campus, which I think is an important thing to do.
"Because for young people, to stay at home and do online learning is just not the same. University is also really about friendship, meeting people, and sometimes meeting your professors face to face, asking questions and exploring queries that you have."
One of the group's facilitators, third-year accountancy student Mikail Ismail, said he took on a similar role in last year's physical orientation programme.
It could be tougher to forge close, meaningful relations with the freshmen with an online programme, the 22-year-old said.
"On Webex, there can usually only be one speaker at a time. Last year, we were moving around school, orientating them to the ground, and as we moved from place to place, we could have small talk in between. Small talk is really the baseline of how people get to know each other.
"But I'm hoping that once everything gets better, the school can and will provide opportunities for them to get to know each other better, to have fun."
Incoming business management student Terrence Seow, 23, said he enjoyed the webinars organised by the school, adding that his two facilitators did well in helping the group gel.
Mr Seow said: "Before I came for the camp, I didn't have high hopes. But my facilitators and group mates are very engaging and I'm very lucky to be able to make friends with them, and hopefully, bid for modules together."
Other universities have come up with similar virtual orientation programmes.
The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) will be holding a week-long one for its 2,800 freshmen from Aug 24 to Sept 1.
It will feature virtual campus tours at each of the six SIT campuses, as well as activities such as having freshmen meet with their respective programme faculty, seniors and course mates via scheduled Zoom sessions.
The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) held similar programmes for its incoming students in July, and they included live chat sessions with SUSS competition groups such as the swimming, track and field and tennis teams.
More than half of its incoming cohort attended the e-orientation. An SUSS spokesman said this was a slight increase compared to attendance for the physical orientation held in July last year, adding that this could be due to more people being able to attend the event from their homes.
At the National University of Singapore, freshman orientation programmes between June 1 and Aug 7, including those conducted by halls, residential colleges and residences, have been and will continue to be conducted online.
Ms Rachel Teo, an orientation camp programme director at the university's Temasek Hall, said: "Our focus this year is not to try to make it as close to the real thing (as possible), but rather create a new and unconventional camp online that could provide the freshmen the same intrinsic experience and engagement as before."
Nanyang Technological University also said its schools, residential halls and student organisations are putting together over 40 online transition programmes for some 6,000 freshmen this month.
Meanwhile, the Singapore University of Technology and Design is the only institution still planning to have a physical orientation programme as scheduled from Sept 10 to 11.
Its interim provost Lim Seh Chun said the programme is designed with the current Covid-19 situation in mind and will adhere to safe distancing measures.
Prof Lim added: "Students will be divided into small groups with no cross mingling between groups... (but) if a face-to-face orientation is (still) not possible, we will endeavour to engage our new students virtually."