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UMD rolls out the welcome mat for new students

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Student volunteer Kate Nelsen (left) pulls a loaded cart into Griggs Hall during move-in day on Tuesday. Nelsen was one of number of volunteers helping new students move into UMD’s dorms. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
UMD seniors Nick Vittorio (from left), Alex Ryan and Emily Madigan distribute wristbands to new students in Kirby Student Center on Tuesday. The wristbands get the students into various events during welcome week. Vittorio, Ryan and Madigan have worked since March organizing welcome week and student volunteers. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Student volunteer Ntxias Chang pushes a loaded cart up a slope to a dorm on Tuesday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Courtney Ditmarson pulled a red microwave from the back of her mom's van and nestled it into the large maroon cart with the rest of her belongings to be moved into her dorm room Tuesday morning at University of Minnesota Duluth.

Ditmarson, of Spicer, Minn., said she is nervous and excited to begin her freshman year studying elementary education with a special education focus. When Ditmarson's hometown population is combined with the adjacent town, it adds up to about 5,000 people, said her mom, Pam Ditmarson.

"The student body here is larger than both our towns combined," Pam said. "Hence the nervousness."

Duluth's population will spike this week as thousands of UMD students participate in move-in week. According to a UMD news release, 2,130 of the 10,850 students enrolled for classes this fall are freshmen, a 6 percent increase compared to last year.

More students will arrive in the Twin Ports next week as the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Wisconsin-Superior host their move-in days.

Students moving into campus dorms and apartments at UMD on Tuesday came from small towns, the Twin Cities and other states. But they each had something in common — they were nervous about the big change.

Lucky for them, UMD's Welcome Week crew was ready to ease their anxieties.

In the Kirby Student Center ballroom, about 40 students wearing varying colors of the same shirt danced to music. For them, it was the beginning of a weeklong party that includes welcoming new students, leading activities and doing everything they can to help incoming students feel welcome.

The students are among 124 "RockStar" UMD orientation leaders who helped students move in Tuesday and will continue to help them adjust during orientation week.

Organizing those volunteers are three UMD student coordinators who have spent their spring and summer preparing for this week: Nick Vittorio, Alex Ryan and Emily Madigan.

Vittorio, Ryan and Madigan are interns with the Office for Students in Transition and are in charge of running Welcome Week smoothly. Ryan is a senior. Vittorio and Madigan are both fifth-year seniors.

"We've been putting so much effort into this," Madigan said. "It's all coming together now."

In addition to organizing student volunteers, the three student coordinators designed orientation week curriculum and activities to ease students into their new community. Vittorio said they also were in charge of selecting orientation leaders, who receive a stipend and class credit for their work this week.

"We hire them to be the bold and friendly people that they are," Vittorio said, who was an orientation leader the previous three years. "It's honestly the most fun that I've ever had in college."

Fourteen more "white shirt" volunteers join in to help the orientation leaders during move-in day and orientation week.

"They're the glue that sticks everything together," Madigan said of those 14 volunteers.

This summer the three seniors worked on Welcome Week full-time, divvying tasks to prepare for this week. This week is a culmination of that work, Madigan said.

Referring to the incoming freshman, Ryan said all that work "is not for us, it's for them."

Junior Tyson Friedges, known as "Chicken Strips" by his peers for sharing his first name with the food brand, is in his second year as a RockStar orientation leader.

Friedges said Welcome Week as an orientation leader is fun but tiring. The leaders work 8 a.m. to midnight from Tuesday to Saturday, he said.

"Red Bull and caffeine" are two necessities to make it through the week, he said.

Friedges said he decided to be an orientation leader again because he wants to make newcomers feel welcome in the UMD community.

"I had the best Welcome Week ever and that made my freshman year the best year ever," he said. Friedges said he hopes to give incoming students the same experience this week.

Dave and Natalie Nelson of Hector, Minn., moved their youngest son, Jedd, into his UMD dorm Tuesday morning.

Natalie said UMD volunteers and staff made the move-in experience run smoothly.

"Good directions. Good help," she said.

Jennifer Doebler, associate director in the Office for Students in Transition, said the point of Welcome Week is to help new students develop connections. A successful Welcome Week aids the process of transitioning into a new life in Duluth, she said.

Doebler is the supervisor of Vittorio, Madigan and Ryan, and praised their efforts.

"To coordinate the details for 2,300 students — it's a full-time job," Doebler said. "A lot of responsibility for three seniors. I couldn't be more proud."

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