When new students and their families step onto the University of Mobile campus for the first time, there is an infectious excitement in the air. Returning students and staff members warmly greet families with open hands, assisting with belongings and dorm decorations. Doughnuts are in the lobbies, music is in the air, and Ram Rush is only a few hours away from becoming the most unforgettable first-year experience for the new student class.

Not the Average Orientation

Ram Rush is the University of Mobile's new student orientation hosted every August, beginning on move-in day. The Campus Life department hosts this week of activities, including athletic events, concerts, giveaways, games and massive amounts of free food. Students are encouraged to immerse themselves in this unique experience designed to connect them with new friends and their new life at UMobile.

Upon registering for classes, students are placed in a "Ram Fam" group that corresponds with their Freshman Seminar class. This group provides them with instant friends to walk with them through their first year at UMobile. While many of the groups are specifically composed of freshman residential students, there are also groups for transfers and commuters. Most importantly, Ram Rush is formulated to make all new students feel welcome and part of a "family."

Ram Rush was initiated in 1994 under the direction of current Director of Student Relations Sara Parker. At the time, there was no program in place to orient new students to college life. Parker, who was serving as director of campus ministries, wanted to change that.

"I love to dream and start new programs, so I went to Kim Leousis (vice president for enrollment services, campus life and athletics) and shared an idea of OTC – Off to College week."

The first Ram Rush reflected humble beginnings, with some events being held in Leousis' backyard. Yet, the tradition grew in popularity and was renamed Ram Rush under the leadership of former Director of Student Activities Elizabeth Finch.

Neal Ledbetter, current director of campus life, has been in charge of Ram Rush since 2009. Then, Ram Rush lasted over the course of move-in weekend and events weren't tied in to a purpose. Ledbetter, however, saw incredible potential for student engagement and involvement.

"I felt like it could be more of a production, more of an experience," says Ledbetter. "I felt like it could be more representative of everything they could do as a UMobile student."

So, with a new vision and an eager student committee, Ledbetter set out to redefine this new student experience. He planned to accomplish three things: orient new students to life at UMobile, build lasting relationships, and develop ways for students to get involved.

A Positive Distraction

Students often enter college with fear, anxiety and apprehension. The new environment brings increased academic challenges and different relationships. In addition, many students find it difficult to transition from living at home to independence. Ram Rush helps students forget about these issues and eases them into college life.

"We want them to be distracted from all of that. So, we keep them busy; we keep them engaged, and we keep them involved and entertained. All of that is a way to keep them distracted from the concerns and worries they have so they can focus on making a successful transition," Ledbetter says.

The experience is positively overwhelming, to say the least. On-campus students arrive during move-in day to set up their rooms and say one last goodbye to their parents. After a few hours of mingling and dorm exploration, students head to opening-night festivities. Through the years, this night has featured fire-breathers, a carnival, a petting zoo, aerial artists, concerts and even a live giraffe in Ram Hall.

If that isn't enough shock for one night, students spend the rest of their week engaging in other Ram Rush traditions. Some include the dress-up dance party "Goodwill Gala" and UMobile's version of "Minute-to-Win-It" game show, where students win giveaways and prizes. Other traditions like UM Expo and Dinner on the Run expose students to area businesses, churches and non-profits to help them establish connections outside of UMobile.

Even parents have noticed the week's impact on their students' transition. Rod Pittman, father of current freshman Caleb Pittman, said that Ram Rush "really worked!"

"It was one of those 'hold your breath' moments as a parent," says Pittman. "Already our son misses the campus when he is away and can't wait to get back in order to be a part of the university's atmosphere and student body. He feels like he is part of a big family."

These experiences give students a better picture of college life and prepare them for future involvement.

Developing Leaders

While Ledbetter directs Ram Rush, it wouldn't be fully successful without his team of student representatives. This group spends the entire year brainstorming and planning for one week of events aimed at exceeding the expectations of incoming students.

"We spend a lot of time thinking through things and why we do them," says Ledbetter. "This time, planning and focus leads to family-like relationships among the Ram Rush leadership group, and in turn they recruit students who seek to do the same."

Over time, this method has built a consistency throughout the committee, making each Ram Rush leadership transition smooth.

"They replicate themselves – it's an awesome leadership model," says Ledbetter. "The older members invest in the younger and guide them along. They have to evaluate and take criticism – it's a huge learning experience."

Even for local student Rachel Tillman, Ram Rush has played a defining role in her experience at UM.

"I loved everything about Ram Rush," says Tillman. "They had all of these opportunities to meet people and feel comfortable, like you're at home."

Tillman was selected to be a Ram Rush committee member just a few months into her freshman year. She spent that next year brainstorming with the committee, not realizing the joy she would feel when their Ram Rush plans were brought to life.

"It's cool to see that year's worth of work finally happening," she says.

Now as an upcoming graduate, Tillman believes her experience planning Ram Rush has prepared her for leadership opportunities in the future.

She says, "I've definitely learned that you're going to mess up – but what are you going to learn from it? How are you going to fix it? I think it's one of the coolest things ever."

Exceeding Expectations

Campus Life seeks to make the best first impression for new students and their families. From the minute details of the move-in process to the grand opening attraction, the secret purpose behind every Ram Rush event is to give students more than they could ever expect.

"We want to blow people's minds," says Ledbetter.

He recalls two specific instances that exemplify this mantra. During a circus-themed Ram Rush, he and the Ram Rush Committee hid a live giraffe in one of Ram Hall's storage closets. The giraffe was brought out to roars of student applause during the opening attraction.

At another event, students were watching the baseball-themed move "The Natural" at Jacobs Field. At the apex of the movie, when Robert Redford's character sends a ball bursting into the outfield lights, an array of fireworks exploded simultaneously across the baseball field. Ledbetter proudly recalls that as one of his favorite moments at UMobile.

"I was sitting in the back row when I saw a freshman guy jump out of his seat, exclaiming, 'Unbelievable! That was the coolest thing I've ever seen! I'm going to send my grandkids to this school!' We want students to say that. If we can get that kind of reaction and 'buy-in' out of everything we do, I feel like we're being successful."