DeKALB – If Emily Parczany is going to stay at Northern Illinois University, she's going to need a few things. Topping the list for the 18-year-old freshman who moved into her new dorm room on Friday: a connection.
“I would say I need a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose,” she said while unpacking her belongings in her room at Neptune North with her mom, Rose Parczany.
The need to connect with new students in particular also tops the list of NIU's official priorities. Under President Douglas Baker, the university has put more effort into student retention to curb a decade of enrollment declines. Part of that effort included changing move-in day to Friday and compressing four days of welcome events into three.
By the time classes begin Monday, 4,200 students will have moved into five dormitories on campus.
“That's where we're at and that's when we're full,” said Dino Martinez, the associate director for student recruitment initiatives and assessment.
Based on university statistics, there's a one-in-three chance Parczany might not finish her degree in graphic design at NIU. University officials found that only 66 percent of students who were freshmen in 2012-13 returned as sophomores last year. Baker has been vocal about the need to connect students with the campus as a means to keep them at the university. University officials want to increase student retention by 5 percent a semester.
Keeping students at NIU throughout their college career could start with keeping them there on the weekends. A recent study of students found that of those who go home on the weekends, only 11 percent do so for work.
Parczany already has plans to go back to her hometown of Crystal Lake.
“I plan on going home every other weekend to keep in touch with my Crystal Lake friends,” she said.
But Friday night after moving in belonged to the university. Part of the university staff's strategy to give students an immediate sense they had a connection was to change what was previously an academic welcoming into what was dubbed the “Huskie Family Welcome.”
Emily and Rose Parczany both planned to attend.
“I'm going to stay as long as the weather holds out,” Rose Parczany said. “Then I'll probably cry the whole way home.”
About a quarter of the university's 16,000 undergraduate students live on campus. Brian Theis, a 22-year-old senior from Palatine, has lived on campus since he transferred from Harper College almost two years ago.
The actuarial science major said he always stays on campus on the weekend because that's where his friends are.
“Some of the best moments happen on the weekends,” Theis said.
He knows some of the students who shuffled past his room in Gilbert Hall with arms full of clothes and boxes might not want to stay every weekend. But he thinks once they start to hang out with other people on their floor, visit the coffee shop downstairs or get involved in a group on campus, they might decide to skip the trip home.
Students coming to campus Friday had help from some 1,300 student volunteers donning red shirts, as well as faculty, staff and community members such as DeKalb Mayor John Rey and Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy.
Second Ward Alderman Bill Finucane drove one of 62 golf carts that zipped around campus Friday. Finucane co-coordinated move-in for more than 20 years before retiring last year.
This year was a little calmer that previous years, Finucane said, speculating that overnight rain in Chicago might have staved off a massive wave of student arrivals early Friday morning. This year the university also had smaller fleet of golf carts because Douglas Hall closed before being demolished this fall.
Finucane himself moved into Stevenson when he came to NIU, living on campus for three years.
“It's not that weird that Douglas is closed because Lincoln has been closed,” he said. “But if they close Stevenson, that will be weird.”
After students settled into their dorms, they prepared for a weekend packed with events. Eric Glasby, a Gilbert Hall community advisor, thinks the events will go a long way toward increasing student retention.
He sees himself as a conduit between the students navigating a new university and the opportunities they could seize.
“You find your own piece of NIU and you make it home,” Glasby said. “The biggest thing is that they find their niche on campus and call it their own.”
By the numbers
• Number of students living on campus: 4,239
• Students who moved in Friday: 3,100
• Students moving in over the rest of the weekend: 900
Source: NIU spokesman Paul Palian