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Freshmen use Web to ease jitters

Students chat before arriving on campus

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Marcus Robinson helped develop a virtual orientation Web site for students at the University of Dayton.

Marcus Robinson helped develop a virtual orientation Web site for students at the University of Dayton.

Bill Reinke, Associated Press

BETHESDA, Md. — When Amy Anenberg got her roommate assignment from Northwestern University this summer, the first thing she did was head to the family computer.

The Illinois school didn't provide much information, just a name. So Anenberg did what many anxious freshmen heading off to college have done — she went to the Internet and Googled her roommate-to-be.

"When you first get your name, everyone is so hyped up about getting a roommate. You want to immediately know something about them," Anenberg said of her use of the Google search engine.

Many freshmen have dispensed with awkward introductions or anxiety over what the stranger they'll share a cramped dorm with will be like. Today's incoming freshmen have an array of Web-based tools available to research their classmates and roommates before they reach campus.

Colleges and universities facilitate online introductions with orientation Web sites that allow freshmen to view photos and profiles of classmates, see pictures of their future dorm room, and use a private chat room for roommates only.

The result, administrators say, is students who are much more comfortable with their surroundings and classmates when they arrive on campus.

"They move in and start off like they've been here for years," said Marcus Robinson, who developed the University of Dayton's online orientation site.

The Web has proved to be a valuable tool to provide both information to incoming students and to take care of some orientation details. Students can now go online to download forms for required vaccinations, take placement exams and buy books.

Some orientation sites include features like profiles of the incoming class, a resource that helps students get a feel for other members of their class.

Oberlin College in Ohio posts "journal" entries where students may present themselves in whatever way they choose, with photos. One New Yorker tells of her inevitable pre-college breakup while another laments she will have to sell her horse when she leaves for school.

Participation in Oberlin's service has been light, according to Leslie Braat, a senior associate director in Oberlin's admission's office. Only about 25 members of the incoming class of 800 have made journal entries.

But at the University of Dayton, all 3,880 members of the freshman class have logged onto the school's "virtual orientation," according to Robinson. And they've sent 23,000 messages to each other since the site went live in the spring.

Each can post a personal profile with a picture and description. Other students can browse the profiles and send e-mail. The site is available only to incoming freshmen, and it is password-protected to provide security.

There are also chat rooms on topics like current events and campus issues, and discussion threads are set up for dorms and roommates.

Colleen Towne of Stamford, Conn., connected with her roommate from Ohio using the virtual orientation, and they have planned how to decorate their room and compared lifestyle habits.

"I would prefer this to normal orientation," she said as she packed for the drive to Ohio. "My roommate was my biggest concern about going to college. I talk to her a lot now and feel like I know her already."

At some schools, incoming students have a say in picking a roommate. The Atlanta-based company WebRoomz has signed up about 10 schools — such as the University of Tennessee, Emory University in Atlanta and Bowie State University in Maryland — for its roommate-matching software.

Students answer a range of questions, most based on lifestyle issues like smoking, bedtime and preferred music volume. They can then search profiles, which do not carry students' names, and pick roommates who best match their preferences.

"One of the students' main worries is that they want more control," said Jessica Harrison, a company spokeswoman.

Anenberg's Google search didn't yield a wealth of information, but she did at least find a Web site for an arts exhibition that showed her roommate is from Los Angeles. Since then, they've connected by e-mail.

"We've talked a couple of times about hobbies and things," Anenberg said. "She seems very nice."