A few summers ago, Ann (Stanley) Dobbels ’87 took her daughter, Alyssa Damato, to her Preview orientation at Illinois State. As the first day’s program ended, she watched as her eldest child ran off with her new friends for her first overnight stay away at college.

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Dobbels knew exactly how she felt, because she lived the experience herself 31 years earlier when she was a new student at Preview. Back then the clothes were different and course catalogs were still made from paper, but everything else was the same. Nervousness fades. The beginning of independence. A new adventure.

“By the second day, Alyssa didn’t want to leave. She was ready to stay,” Dobbels said.

Preview photo collage
The guides, shown in various uniforms from years past, consider it a privilege to represent the University.

It’s a moment that’s played out thousands of times since Illinois State created the Preview program 50 years ago. So much has changed on campus in the past half century, but Preview remains remarkably similar. It’s aged incredibly well, perhaps because it was so ahead of its time when first created in 1966 by visionary University President Robert Bone.

That 50-year history of success is due in large part to Preview Guides, the student leaders who help incoming Redbirds navigate and feel comfortable in their new home. There’s something special about that summer job—really only two months—that’s sparked a camaraderie among former guides that lives on 20, 30, even 50 years later.

Turns out, the freshmen weren’t the only ones learning.

“Having the opportunity to represent Illinois State and be the face of the University as a student was really transformational for me,” said Steve Smith ’89, M.S. ’93, a former guide and current member of the ISU Alumni Association Board of Directors.

Prior to 1966, Illinois State’s orientation was less formal and typically took place in September. There were tests, academic meetings, and old-school social gatherings such as Watermelon Picnics in 1953 and “All-University Hootenanny” in 1965.

As the campus and student enrollment grew, Bone and others worried about Illinois State becoming impersonal, like other large institutions. They created a plan for a new summer orientation program, called Preview, that would build closer relationships between staff and incoming freshmen, and between parents and the University.

“Bone wanted to make sure we kept that small-college feel,” said Mary Jo Fabich, coordinator of Preview for the past 25 years. “We still talk about that need today.”

preview small groups
Small group sessions are the backbone of the program, which relies on student guides to make families feel comfortable on campus before the academic year begins.

Dave Templeton ’67, M.S. ’71, was among the first guides in summer 1966, or “Premiere Preview Guides,” as he calls them. Templeton loved the experience so much—especially building relationships with the other guides—that he came back for a second year.

“The fact that the University looked at us as leaders, that they felt we were the right people to lead incoming students, that felt good,” Templeton said.

Most large institutions weren’t doing full summer orientation programs in the 1960s, and even less included parents in the experience. The important role of parents has been integrated in the program from the very beginning, just like its two-day/overnight schedule. In the official 1971 Preview schedule booklet recently unearthed by the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives, “DISCUSSION OF CONCERNS BY PARENTS IS ESSENTIAL” is plastered in all-caps.

“We were ahead of the curve,” Fabich said.

During today’s Preview, parents and students still split up for certain sessions and rejoin for others. Alumni parents like Dobbels get to wear a special Redbird pin. Parents who’ve been through Preview before with an older student are called “Expert Parents.”

Dobbels especially liked it when her daughter and the other students returned and greeted their parents with custom cheers in the Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall. The goal, Fabich said, is to make parents feel like a Redbird too—not just a checkbook.

“It was amazing. It’s uplifting,” Dobbels said. “It was all very interesting and fun.”

Talking with the parents was the best part for Aaron Watson ’97, a former guide who is now the office manager for Preview.

“I remember how nervous I was as a student at Preview,” he said. “Hearing parent questions and realizing that they were just as nervous as their students, but in different ways, was very eye-opening to me. Talking with them, giving them honest answers, and helping them feel comfortable with their student’s choice in coming to ISU, that really felt good.”

Smith’s son, Zack Smith, was a first-year Preview Guide last summer, a job that now requires three stages of interviews. The junior public relations major said Preview had a “huge impact on me” as a freshman, and he wanted to have that same impact on the next generation.

“I met a ton of people. It really made me feel comfortable on campus,” Zack said. “A lot of times when students first come in, they’re a little bit shy, or nervous, or excited. So my job as a guide is to bring them out of their shell, help them meet people, and build connections.”

preview guides
Fifty years after its start, the Preview experience continues to get high praise from parents and incoming freshmen.

Today’s Preview is strikingly similar to those from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Even some of the training materials used by guides today date back to the 1960s, Fabich said.

“It’s nice to know that legacy continues and that’s a shared experience people at ISU have,” said Smith.

Some things have changed. Gone are the paper catalogs and punch-card registration. Today’s students—some of whom attend orientations at multiple colleges to help make their final decision—can pull up their schedules on the Illinois State University mobile app.

Preview is no longer themed, like it was in 1996 (“Set Sail for Preview”) or 2001 (“Welcome to the Redbird Zone”). Since Fabich took over, they’ve moved away from “talking heads” in big rooms toward smaller group interactions, such as EXPO and conference sessions.

There were 20 guides last summer, up from just nine in 1971. And they got to wear shorts and polo shirts, unlike the red blazers that Templeton’s Premiere Preview Guides endured. (The fashionably questionable guide uniforms through the years are perhaps Preview’s greatest flaw.)

“It was definitely warm most days wearing those blazers,” Templeton laughed.

Guides bonded over more than just uniform gripes. Each summer’s group would fill dry erase boards and scrapbooks with favorite quotes, funny photos, Preview Proverbs, and other memories. Templeton’s crew would perform skits for the freshmen and their parents every night in the basement at Linkins Dining Center. Smith’s group always dreaded giving the after-dinner bus tour of Bloomington-Normal, but made it fun with a heavy dose of corny jokes.

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Some guides, like Templeton, make lifelong friends. Others fall in love. Twenty-five years after his last outing as a guide, Smith still occasionally gets recognized by former students.

“It’s only two months of their life, many years ago, but it’s still a part of who they are today,” said Fabich.

That’s why everyone in this story, and many others, plan to attend the Preview staff 50th anniversary reunion April 22–24. (See adjacent column for details and RSVP information.)

Smith has another son in high school, which means the family is starting to visit other college campuses for tours and open houses. The welcoming atmosphere that Illinois State has grown and sustained is now part of our culture, Smith says, and it sets us apart.

“It’s not a sales approach. It’s very authentic. It’s very real,” Smith said. “And it’s been that way for 50 years.”

From the parents

These are real quotes from parent evaluations collected at Preview in summer 2015:

“I liked that this was parent-centered as well as student-centered. I don’t feel like a checkbook anymore.”

“I feel my child is in great hands. You truly want them to succeed.”

“The best part was being separated from my student to allow her a glimpse of what decisions she will have to make on her own.”

“My son passed on a full scholarship ride at another college, but I’m still pleased he is coming here.”

“This program is great, and I’m proud to say as an alum that ISU is a great school. This is our second child attending. Thank you for making this experience so enjoyable!”

“My daughter was sulking, ‘Why do I have to be here for two days?’ on the way here, but now she has met some new friends, hung out last night, and is looking forward to fall.”