As they waited for an orientation program to begin on Wednesday, scores of USC Aiken freshmen appeared to hold on to a classic “deer-in-headlights” expression. Courtney Wideman, however, wasn't one of them.

“I'm just a people person and love meeting them,” Wideman said, a Saluda High School graduate.

Joined by their parents, about 200 first-year students attended sessions during the first of two days. The orientation will end today. Two more programs are scheduled before the fall semester to introduce another 400 freshmen to the campus.

Brooke Cantrell recalls the same anxiety that many of the new students are experiencing; one year ago, she was in the audience herself after graduating from Aiken High School.

Now a rising sophomore, she and about 20 other upperclassmen are serving as Pacesetters, providing the freshmen with cheerful comments, and also useful information about the university. Later, they served as tour guides and described their classes and available activities.

Becoming a Pacesetter “was the most comfortable thing, making it easy to get involved. My transformation was great. I'll talk to (the freshmen) today in some group games and help them get to know each other,” Cantrell said.

Dr. Michael Ritchie, a USCA business professor, is an orientation fixture – drawing smiles from the students and, perhaps, even more from their amused parents. Ritchie told the students their lives had just changed dramatically. Mom won't be there to wake them and fix their breakfast.

“You are driving the bus,” he said. “Nobody will tell you what to do.”

No one will tell them to attend class. Each professor will ask for their homework and won't ask if they don't turn it in.

Ultimately, “we want to be here to help you succeed,” Ritchie said. “But this is your new job. Your job is to go to college and study. And it's horrible, but you have to read a book. You have to sit down and open the book and read it and think about, ‘Do I agree with it?'”

Alex Oliver, the Student Government Association president and a Pacesetter, said the organization's officers and members pride themselves on working with new students. There are so many organizations available to the freshmen, Oliver said he didn't find his own niche until he joined some intramural teams.

“The university will open its doors to you,” he said.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.