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College orientation, online

The Baltimore Sun

Devon McLaughlin has made 120 friends at Goucher College, picked her roommates for next semester and embarked on her first collegiate romance with a Goucher boy.

All before she arrives on campus this fall as a college freshman.

Like thousands of college-bound students around the country, the Long Island teen has spent much of her summer on the social-networking Web site facebook.com, "friending" future classmates and getting a jump-start on campus life.

"We're really the first generation of people who are so connected," said McLaughlin, 18, who is one of several self-appointed "officers" of a Facebook group for incoming Goucher students that now boasts a membership of about three-quarters of the 400-student freshman class. "We've been so connected for our whole entire lives, it doesn't seem strange at all."

Class of 2011 virtual communities have emerged on Facebook and MySpace, another hugely popular online community, for hundreds of U.S. campuses, with similarly high rates of incoming freshmen joining. Online networks of admitted Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland, College Park students have signed up about 75 percent of their incoming classes.

Which means that by the time they arrive on campus in a few weeks, many freshmen already will have formed cliques and crushes, traded tips on classes, dissected roommates' pop-cultural tastes, planned parties and scoped out likely nemeses.

"When you're going to a school with 10,000 kids, you don't want to show up without knowing anyone," said Sana Waheed of Columbia, who will attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County this fall and spends two to three hours a day communicating with future classmates she's met online. Without her online connections, "I would feel like a lost child" on the first day of classes, she said.

The phenomenon is accelerating the transition from high school to college, and presenting opportunities and headaches for college administrators.

Last week, College Park had just sent out roommate assignments to about 3,800 entering freshman when university official Brian L. Watkins received his first phone call of the season from an upset mother.

The woman said a Facebook profile of her son's freshman roommate "indicated that the roommate was into the same sex, so that threw up all kinds of red flags from their perspective," said Watkins, UM's director of parent and family affairs. "My response was that real or perceived sexual orientation is not a valid reason for a roommate change and that in our eyes that is like saying, 'I'm rooming with a Muslim, you need to move me,'" he said.

College officials say sexual orientation, religious differences and perceived "party animal" personalities top the reasons for pre-college roommate-change requests.

In reaction, some campuses are now counseling incoming students to clean up their online profiles before dormitory assignments are made, to protect themselves from being stereotyped by fellow students they haven't met.

At Goucher's early summer orientation for incoming students, officials hold a special session to remind of "students' propensity for going online and gathering as much information as possible," said Scott Eckhardt, the private Towson college's director of community living.

"We ask the students, 'How much of ... your Facebook account is an accurate representation of who you are as a person, versus a projection of whatever message you want to get out there?' "

While still relatively infrequent, demands for roommate changes are increasing, college officials say, because so many college-bound high school students have established online profiles, often with detailed information about their religious beliefs, political views, career aspirations, relationship histories, party photos - and intemperate comments dashed off in moments of adolescent pique.

"I know some people throw caution to the wind on the Web," said Stacey Greene, an incoming freshman at College Park who has used Facebook to coordinate dorm-room furnishings with her future roommate. "I tend to keep my page as legal and safe as I can."

Despite minor concerns, college officials and students say increased summer socialization among incoming freshmen is largely a positive trend.

"I've never been very much of a people person," said Emma Goldman of Mount Washington, who will attend UMBC in the fall. "So, going in and knowing some people even if I hadn't seen them face to face before makes me feel a bit better about this college experience."

Goldman "friended" - or linked to - a fellow freshman through Facebook and then befriended her at UMBC's campus orientation session this summer.

"She recognized me from my photo," Goldman said. "If I hadn't had Facebook ... I wouldn't have already made a close friend."

The three-year-old Facebook, based in Palo Alto, Calif., began allowing high school students to join in September 2005. Now the sixth-most popular Web site in the country, Facebook has about 31 million active users - half of whom log onto it every day - and is growing at a rate of 100,000 new users a day, the company says.

Johns Hopkins admissions official Daniel Creasy believes Facebook and other online networking tools have led to a reduction in "wallflower" freshmen.

"We've noticed over the last year or two that the freshman class is coming in with a lot less fear" and is quicker to participate in social activities and classroom discussions, he said.

This year, Hopkins scrapped an internal message board it had been hosting for incoming students in favor of a university-managed Facebook group for the Class of 2011. Loosely overseen by Creasy's office, the site is staffed by Hopkins upperclassmen who use it to answer incoming students' questions and offer orientation tips.

The relatively polite tone of the Hopkins-managed site is offset by spontaneous Facebook communities organized around everything from Hopkins majors ("Course Selection for Engineering Students") to dorm buildings ("Wolman 2 West is the S---!") to underage drinkers' alcohol preferences ("Hooray Beer!").

And, of course, plenty of communal disquisitions on the "hotness" of fellow classmates. In this regard, Facebook is merely the natural extension of its print predecessor.

"Facebook is modeled after something that existed in paper form on college campuses long before" the Internet, said Danah Boyd, a University of California doctoral student studying youth-oriented social networking sites. "At Harvard and other Ivy League institutions you would get a physical facebook ... and you would go through and circle all the people you thought were hot."

Today, future freshman like Goucher's Devon McLaughlin can do more than circle the grainy head shots of prospective paramours in a bound picture album. They can thoroughly research their crush and flirt in a non-threatening forum where there is no such thing as awkward silence.

After friending a certain young Goucher-bound man, McLaughlin has met him in person several times this summer, she said.

"I really like him, you know. I also realize we're going to school together for four years and I know how incredibly dangerous that can end up being, because one of us will end up getting hurt ... "

Her voice trails off in a nervous laugh. Proof, perhaps, that all the online research and virtual friends in cyberspace or MySpace can't eliminate the age-old anxiety of the first day on campus.

"No matter how many friends I have in the Goucher network or how many people whose cell numbers I have in my phone, there's still that fear," McLaughlin said. "I'm afraid that I'm not pretty enough or smart enough or funny enough."

Still, she's going to give it the old college try.

"I'm sure I'll have palpitations and be completely short-tempered and nervous. But that's part of this experience," she said.

"There's no escaping it."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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