Wheaton College Reimagines Student Orientation Experience

September 14, 2021

Passage, the Orientation Program for incoming students, will launch Fall 2022.


Starting in Fall 2022, Wheaton College will launch Passage, a cutting-edge new orientation program that will propel incoming students into an even greater academic, social, and spiritual experience.

Passage will be a new, multi-site experience that will expand the College’s existing orientation program by enhancing its collaborative, community-based nature, providing all new students with a dedicated space to transition into their academic careers.

“Today’s students benefit from robust support—relationally, academically, and spiritually—as they navigate the transition to college,” said Steve Ivester, Dean for Student Engagement. “The new multi-site Passage experience will set a vision for how all new students can thrive in the development of peer and mentor relationships, creating a safe and supportive community to begin their time at Wheaton College.”

The HoneyRock Center for Leadership Development, one of Wheaton College’s twelve academic centers, will lead the program. “We have been doing this type of outdoor, experiential-based orientation program for 53 years and are global experts in this type of programming,” said Rob Ribbe, Ph.D., Executive Director of HoneyRock. “Out of the more than 200 outdoor orientation programs throughout higher education, Wheaton’s is one of the longest-running and most comprehensive offered.”

Passage will be led by Nate Thompson, Ph.D., the program director. Thompson comes to Wheaton College with years of experience researching the growth that comes from connecting people and using team-building initiatives through adventure education.

Development of Passage at Wheaton

Born out of an intensive, year-long research initiative, integrating the College’s original Orientation and Passage programs has been a collaboration between the leaders of HoneyRock, Wheaton College Student Development, and the Christian Formation and Ministry Department.

“It was a strategic decision,” said Ribbe. “Research shows clearly that the benefits to this approach are significant to student success. This new program will deepen our impact on students by better integrating them into the life and rhythms of Wheaton’s quintessential Christian liberal arts experience.” 

The new program is grounded in a rites of passage philosophy, associating the three distinct phases of the experience with meaningful life transitions. This guiding philosophy provides students with support and strategies to adjust through the significant change of going off to college.

One of the strongest outcomes of Passage over the years is the focused relational connections and social support gained from the unique experience off campus. A key element that facilitates this friendship formation is the absence of personal electronic devices. This element, named one of the top three most positively influential elements for students who participated in the optional Passage, maximizes student engagement. “Removing access to technology is key to this process,” says Ribbe. “Passage is highly experiential and about building a supportive, relational community.”

The Distinctives of Passage: Multi-Site, Faculty Involvement, and a Focus on Small Group Formation

Multi-Site Experience

A major component of Passage is the multi-site experience that takes students off of Wheaton’s campus in Wheaton, IL, to a dedicated small group experience in an engaging location. These sites include:

  • Northwoods – Based at Wheaton’s HoneyRock Center for Leadership Development in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, students can form new connections with their peers through team-building initiatives and fun activities on HoneyRock’s expansive campus.
  • Urban – Located in the Woodlawn neighborhood in Chicago, students partner with Wheaton’s Center for Urban Engagement. The Wheaton Center for Urban Engagement itself partners with Sunshine Ministries, a fixture in the Woodlawn neighborhood. On Urban Passage, students can connect with current residents, learn the dynamics of the neighborhood, and engage with the history of the area.
  • Wilderness – Students set off to premier wilderness destinations that involve backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing, or sea-kayaking.
  • Transfer – While the location has not yet been confirmed, transfer students will gather at a camp and conference center for an experience specifically designed to facilitate the transition into Wheaton College from another college or university.

A key part of this transition is coming together with the rest of Wheaton’s student body on campus. Although each site has a different start date, all groups will converge on Wheaton’s main campus four days before the first day of classes to get acquainted with their new college environment.

Faculty Involvement

“We are not aware of any other college orientation program that will match Passage in faculty participation,” says Ribbe. “This is one of the truly distinctive qualities of Passage. Wheaton has exceptional scholars and experts in their fields who care deeply about students’ lives beyond the classroom. They dedicate some of their busiest time—immediately before the semester begins—to welcome, mentor, and disciple students through Passage.”

One of the other distinctives of Passage is that it is offered for 2 hours of credit. The Passage class is housed in the Christian Formation and Ministry department and will be called “Life with God, Together.”  This curriculum links to the overarching spiritual formation program lead by the chaplain’s office.  “It’s a great course to act as a jumping off point for beginning the college experience,” says Thompson. The course will address topics such as studying in the liberal arts environment, growing as a whole person at Wheaton College, and spiritual formation.  The final course assignment asks students to write a vision statement, integrating all that they’ve learned from their orientation experience into a personal plan for engaging with life at Wheaton College.

Interested students can also apply these credit hours towards Wheaton’s Leadership Certificate.

Three Passage Program Phases

Students will experience three key phases of their Passage experience.

  • Move In and Welcome. Students and their parents will be welcomed to campus on the first day of their Passage experience, which varies by site. After moving in to their rooms, students and parents will attend welcome events at Wheaton.
  • On Sites with Small Group. A key differentiator of Passage compared to other Orientation programs is the multi-site small group development that happens off campus. After leaving Wheaton for their unique site, students will participate in site-specific activities with their small group. A trained upper-class Wheatie leads this small group along with a faculty member. Conversations and experiences center around exploring personal identity and the four core themes of Passage: life in Christian community, service, spiritual formation, and life of the mind.
  • Converge on Wheaton’s Campus. The third and final phase invites students to experience the radical hospitality Wheaton is known for and begins with a commissioning service.

The Wheaton Passage orientation program extends into the semester until the end of A-quad. Students will continue to meet with faculty to help them with their transition into college life.

Wheaton Passage Unifies the Wheaton Community

“When we start connecting the whole incoming class together, we’re saying, ‘This is a new community that you have,’” says Thompson. “When we bring everybody together on campus at the end, they’re celebrating not just being a freshman class together, but being a whole student body at Wheaton.”

The finale of Passage joins all students, staff, faculty, and college leadership in welcoming and celebrating the new community.

“Passage introduces students to Wheaton’s mission and commitment to their thriving in college — spiritual formation, developing peer and mentor relationships, expanding the life of the mind, and generally building a vision for their personal formation as a student,” says Ivester.

--Alex Shimalla