Jill Halvaks
Jill Halvaks, director of new student programs, fields questions and eases anxieties at a recent Student/Parent Orientation Program. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

It’s a rite of summer: About 500 students toting sleeping bags, suitcases and cell phones file through UC Irvine’s Student Center and into the Pacific Ballroom to check in for the Student/Parent Orientation Program. Just as she does at each SPOP, Jill Halvaks has stationed herself at a table to field questions from anxious “helicopter” parents and students clutching paperwork.

“We call this ‘Groundhog Day’ — like in the movie where Bill Murray lives the same day over and over,” says Halvaks, sporting a bright blue SPOP T-shirt and matching sneakers. “We do the same thing for every SPOP, and this year there are eight. We wear the same clothes; we see students with the same worried or excited looks; we answer the same questions. They always ask if they’ll be registering for classes today. The answer is yes. And they always ask, ‘Do my parents have to stay?’ The answer is no.”

As director of new student programs and an alumna, Halvaks introduces students to the ways of the Anteaters. Few are better qualified. She got her bachelor’s in history from UCI in 1980 and has worked on campus 29 years. She’s helped generations of freshmen and transfer students make a smooth transition to university life.

“I thought I would teach, but I ended up teaching in a different way,” says Halvaks, who joined the dean of students’ office after graduating and enjoyed working with students so much she never left.

Each new class reminds her that, to the uninitiated, the campus has its quirks. Many students want to know why so many things are called Zot, such as the student ZotPortal. (Note to newbies: Zot is the campus’s rallying cry. Inspired by the B.C. comic strip, it’s the sound UCI mascot Peter the Anteater makes when he flicks his tongue to catch prey.)

“It’s a new vocabulary for them,” Halvaks says. “They don’t know that SOC means schedule of classes. Or we’ll mention McDonnell Douglas and they’ll go, ‘Who’s that?’ We have to explain it’s an engineering building.”

The two-day SPOP is mandatory for all new students — 4,000 for 2009-10. Halvaks knows firsthand how orientation can ease both students’ and parents’ anxieties.

“We give students a good balance of academics, resources and fun,” she says. “They spend the night in the residence halls, eat in the commons and get a sense of where everything is. They register for their classes. When they leave here, they have a good feeling for what fall quarter will be like.”

“Years ago, I came to UCI orientation as a freshman with my parents,” Halvaks recalls. “On the drive home, we were all saying, ‘Wow, it was great to see the campus.’ It gave my parents a picture in their minds, so when I would call home and tell them I went to the library, they remembered the building. They felt relieved.”

Halvaks and Mike Knox, assistant director of new student programs, begin working on the upcoming SPOP in January and rely on volunteer students and summer interns. Halvaks also plans Celebrate UCI, the annual campus open house, and helps organize the New Student Convocation (Sept. 21 this year).

“We let new students know that they’re now part of the Anteater family, and it’s important that they not only survive but thrive,” she says.