Soon after suffering a devastating defeat, Temple University freshmen from Johnson Hall gathered in solidarity last week on Geasey Field.

They'd just lost a fierce tug-of-war, pulled across the line during a round-robin competition that would end with Morgan South being crowned the strongest on campus.

The Johnson freshmen swallowed their dismay and cheered for others. They talked, laughed, and danced to the loud music being blasted across the field.

They made friends.

"I'm definitely feeling a team vibe," said John Harris, 18, of Nazareth, Pa. "I wasn't feeling it so much before."

It's just what Temple was hoping for.

"The more connected students feel to Temple from day one, the better their experiences," said Stephanie Ives, the university's dean of students. "We want that experience to start right from the very beginning of getting them connected, getting them engaged, and giving them a sense of all Temple has to offer, because every student here is different."

Welcome Week at Temple and other universities looks nothing like what greeted students of generations past.

The North Philadelphia school's events this year included a giant game of bingo with hundreds of students, a barbecue, a magician's performance, tours of the neighborhood, and a "Cherry and White Palooza" campus carnival with a large slide and Ferris wheel.

Last year, there was a zip line through campus.

Other public colleges and universities in the region also offer a variety of social events during their freshman orientation or welcome programs, including Rowan University's pride rally, movie night, midnight breakfast, and family feud event.

West Chester University also is holding a carnival on campus this year for the first time. Stockton University has a campus scavenger hunt, a casino night, and a movie-night slumber party. Rutgers University's New Brunswick "Welcome Days" include a dance party, post-convocation carnival, and a "Throwdown" competition that pits freshmen in a series of games.

"A lot of times people look at it and go: 'Why are you doing all this fun and games? Why are we paying tuition to go toward these things?' " said Jennifer Radwanski, Stockton's associate director of new student programs.

But, administrators said, there are very serious goals behind the decidedly nonacademic events: Research shows students who feel engaged and at home are more likely to do better, stay in school, and ultimately graduate.

"Building a sense of learning communities, but also social and emotional communities … , really improves their outcomes," said Julie Ajinkya, the vice president of applied research for the Washington-based think tank Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The university can be a daunting place, said Tony Doody, senior director for student engagement at Rutgers-New Brunswick, with more than 40,000 students in New Brunswick alone. That makes new students' first days critical, he said.

"We are really trying to break down this very large community into smaller peer groups," he said, "so that students can really find their place."

Schools' welcome programs have evolved over time, particularly as the student populations have changed.

Temple began holding this type of Welcome Week about a decade ago, and in that time, the program has gone through several changes. A-list performances in the Liacouras Center have been replaced, for less money, with the Cherry and White Palooza and other events that involve more student interaction.

The program also has grown as the university has sought to create a sense of home for a growing residential population.

"We are trying to ensure they feel a strong sense of community here," Ives said.

Stockton University has to make sure it's welcoming not only traditional, residential freshmen, Radwanski said, but other significant groups: transfer students, commuter freshmen, students over age 25.

"Making sure we target our Welcome Week programs to those specific audiences is really important for us," she said.

Joey Tamburo, 22, a senior from Manahawkin, Ocean County, who is studying hospitality and tourism management, said he was acutely aware as a freshman that he would have to put in more effort to make friends as a commuter student.

The worries disappeared when he attended a mandatory icebreaker. In one, students milled about the room while music played; when it stopped, the person they are facing became "a buddy" and the two were told to interact — high-fiving a "hand-to-hand buddy," touching feet with a "foot-to-foot buddy," bumping kneecaps with your "knee-to-knee buddy."

It was silly, Tamburo said, but effective. And the connections rippled through the rest of the school year.

Such as when students spot a buddy on campus.

"You'll see people run up to each other and scream, 'Knee-to-knee buddy!' " Tamburo said, laughing. "And you'll see people do it in the middle of a hallway."

Tamburo is now one of two upperclassmen supervising the students who lead freshmen through the week.

The other student heading TALONS — The Activity Leaders of New Students — said she met her best friends during Stockton's Welcome Week.

Angelina Wheatley, 20, of Stockton, Hunterdon County, a senior in communications studies, said she met a group of young women and clicked instantly.

"I've known these girls since day one of school, and I can honestly say they're all my best friends," she said. "I don't see them going anywhere anytime soon."

jlai@phillynews.com
856-779-3220
@elaijuh
www.philly.com/campusinq