Thousands of freshmen forged friendships at the 20th annual Leadership Safari
Hundreds of people in hand-decorated, animal-themed vests welcoming thousands of freshmen was enough to make Dan Delgado a little nervous when he arrived at Central Michigan University on Sunday.
"I thought I would be placed in a (Safari) group with my friends," said the Chicago freshman. "There were so many people and groups."
Delgado was one of more than 2,000 participants in Leadership Safari — an extended orientation program that ran Sunday through Wednesday. The purpose behind the leadership program is to introduce freshmen and transfer students to campus and get them acclimated to college life before classes start the following week.
Safari participants are placed randomly into groups of 10 and led by a student volunteer who serves as their "Safari Guide." The guide facilitates group activities throughout the week.
"My favorite part of Safari so far has been the challenge courses, because we had to work together," Delgado said on Tuesday. "There's no way (my group) couldn't have had a connection after that."
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Safari. This year's program featured events that invited alumni staff members to help celebrate the anniversary.
Cheers erupted in the Bovee University Center as alumna Caitlin Casarez, a past Leadership Safari participant-turned guide, reunited with the Safari staff members she worked with during her time at the university.
"Safari cemented CMU as my home," said Casarez, of Fenton. "(It) made me a stronger leader and more outgoing."
"My favorite part of Safari so far has been the challenge courses, because we had to work together. There's no way (my group) couldn't have had a connection after that."
More than 2,100 incoming freshmen and transfer students took part in the five-day program that began Sunday. Each participant was placed into one of 209 groups led by a Safari guide and support staff, totaling at 282 student volunteers.
Speakers and activities were chosen to help participants branch out and connect with people and campus, according to Dani Hiar, the assistant director of the leadership program.
"If a Safari participant has met and connected with one person," Hiar said, "then we've been successful."
An incoming freshman or transfer student who participates in Leadership Safari is 1.5 times more likely to return to CMU for their second year than someone who didn't take part in the program. For at least the last 10 years, there has been a noticeable increase in retention, for people who choose to take part in Safari than those who did not.
"President Ross has continuously asked us to focus on increasing the number of incoming students who participate in Safari," Hiar said. "Other than the huge number of participants and student volunteers, it's become a unique fabric in CMU's quilt."
Even though the retention rate that Safari boasts is technically impossible to prove, Hiar said the data is strong enough that she is confident the program does make a difference in retention rates.
"What makes our program unique at CMU is the heart the student volunteers put into it," Hiar said.
The message that guides, speakers and activities is making aim to reinforce a healthy transition from their past to their future as a university student.
"We want participants to take away that this is a new chapter. Nothing defines you. What you came from before CMU doesn't have to define you," Hiar said. "Students won't be as successful if they don't feel like they belong and they matter."
Not much promotional marketing is done for Safari. The increasing number of participants despite lack of promotion and decreasing overall enrollment speaks to Safari’s success, she said.
Even though she was scared about attending college at first, Victoria Kosnik ended up having a good experience when she did Safari as a freshman.
"I wanted to become a guide to make sure all of my participants had a good experience like I did," said the Warren junior.
That's also the main reason Robert "Bobby" Hahn wanted to be a Safari guide this year.
"I wanted to be that welcoming face to my group," he said. "This being the 20th anniversary, that means we've grown this program like no other university has."
The Troy sophomore said the guides and other support staff had to go through training the week before participants arrived on campus.
"(Safari) has always been student-run," Hiar said. "So the staff is trying to meet the needs of participants, maybe giving them more attention in areas where they thought they needed it themselves when they went through Safari."
The next step for Safari is to make sure every incoming student who wants to attend is able to. Students were placed on a waitlist this year as spots filled up that was closed partway through the summer, but eventually everyone on the list was able to attend.
"It's hard from a logistical standpoint to plan events for thousands of students so everyone is sound, safe and with a back-up plan for the weather," Hiar said.
Each Safari guide group is assigned a group name, which is always the name of an animal. With the two decades Safari has been in existence and the growing number of group sizes, Hiar said her staff have fun researching new animals every year for the groups.
"There are only about four animal names in existence that have been around since Safari's first year," Hiar said.
If someone does Safari and becomes a guide, they can get "willed" the same animal group they had when they were a participant, she said. If someone doesn't get willed their animal from their guide, then they draw a name from a hat, leaving some unused.