Discussions about social life, academic success and meal plans still dominate college freshmen orientations, but a more somber note also is being heard this season as new students lug their laptops and mini-fridges into dorm rooms.
In the wake of the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in April, many colleges and universities in California, and around the nation, are forcefully tackling issues of security and mental health during summer orientation seminars and greet-the-frosh gatherings with parents and new students before regular classes begin.
Some are introducing new emergency notification systems or reinforcing procedures already in place. Many are more explicitly telling students how and when to seek mental health counseling for themselves and urging them to report classmates who may need intervention, as the Virginia Tech gunman desperately did before he killed 32 people and himself in the campus massacre.
"I think it's safe to say that the incident at Virginia Tech brought campus security issues to a higher priority level, and we actively talked about those issues," Amy Johnson, USC's associate dean of students, said of the series of two-day orientations the campus held during the summer.
USC, UC Irvine, California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Pepperdine University in Malibu, Skidmore College in New York and Villanova University in Pennsylvania are among schools that have added or soon will adopt new systems that send out mass text messages, e-mails and phone messages about emergencies.
At USC, more than 8,600 of the school's 40,000 students, professors and staffers so far have signed up to receive such emergency notices since the new system, "Trojans Alert," became available Aug. 1, according to campus police Chief Carey Drayton. "It's one of those things we have and hope to never use," Drayton said, stressing it would be triggered only by serious events like a major earthquake or reports of a gunman on campus.
Fred Miller, Cal Lutheran's security director, said his staff and other university officials will be holding sessions with students over the next few weeks to explain the new warning alert system. He said he expects the training will be done "in a way that is not threatening, in a positive way, so it's not going to put fear in them."
Still, the references to violence and how to avoid it are often unavoidable as the school term starts, officials report.
"Many, many campuses are addressing this forthrightly," said Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of the National Assn. of Student Personnel Administrators, a Washington-based group that focuses on student life. "There's been a lot of dialogue throughout the summer."
Yet, although those talks introduced a fleetingly dark tone to orientation and freshman welcome weeks, they did not dominate, Kruger added. "College remains an exciting opportunity for young people. The excitement still exists. This is not changing the basic delivery of orientation," he said.
The Virginia Tech horror was in the news again last week with the release of a report, commissioned by Virginia's governor, that strongly criticized the university's actions before and during the shootings. If the university had issued an alert or canceled classes after Seung-hui Cho shot his first two victims in a dormitory, the death toll from his later assault on a classroom building might have been lower, the report said. It also detailed failures in the way reports of Cho's mental problems -- evidenced by his deep alienation and his writings about violence -- were handled.
The Virginia Tech attack prompted UCLA to add a new feature to its orientation sessions. A half-hour video presentation, called "How Bruins Handle It, " details ways to cope with such stressful factors as academic pressure, homesickness, making friends and depression, said Roxanne Neal, UCLA's orientation program director.
The video was shown 18 times throughout the summer to groups of 400 freshmen and transfer students.
Discussions also focused on mental health resources on campus and how to watch for signs that a fellow student might be having psychological troubles, such as not leaving dorm rooms. The goal was early prevention, Neal explained: "What to do in a more proactive sense, rather than focusing just on when something happens."
Incoming UCLA freshman Daysi Alonzo said she felt "very reassured" after seeing the videos and hearing about security measures on campus. But the 18-year-old from South Gate said she does not think many students dwell on the possibilities of danger. "We are more nervous about things like leaving home, being independent for the first time," she said. "Am I going to pass my classes? Will I have time to do all my reading?"
Karthik Muralidharan, 18, of San Jose, another freshman, agreed. He said he feels very safe on the Westwood campus, where he was taking a tour Friday as part of UCLA's final orientation session this summer.