Adis Handanovic had just parked his car near Oak Hall one summer afternoon and was stepping out of the vehicle when he heard an unfamiliar voice shouting his name.
From across the lawn on the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ South Campus, upperclassman Kenny Kolesa anticipated Handanovic’s arrival and didn’t waste a second making the incoming freshman feel welcome.
“Kenny was one of my orientation leaders during that overnight program, and he really helped me ease into school here,” remembers Handanovic, now partway through his first semester at UMSL. “He had asked me for my number that weekend, and then he texted me a few days before I moved in this fall, inviting me up to his fraternity’s house the night of Move-In Day.”
Handanovic, who was born in Bosnia, was quickly impressed with the Sigma Tau Gamma guys.
“They genuinely care for you and everyone else around them,” says the information systems major. “They love to help out any way they can to make this a better place for everyone, and I admire that about them.”
Such genuine care among the UMSL campus community keeps coming up in conversation with Handanovic and others new to the university.
From initial campus visits to the first days of class, many are pleased to find approachable people and a sense of comfort so early on.
“The student leaders and employees created a warm, friendly and fun environment, and I couldn’t wait for my college experience to begin,” says Buchman, who hails from a town north of Chicago. Her new teammates also made an impact, quickly drawing Buchman and fellow freshmen into the fold as the new players arrived at UMSL.
“We do a lot of things together, but one that really has made me feel at home is having team dinner,” says Buchman, who is majoring in business administration and shares a Mansion Hill apartment with another student-athlete. “Being able to be with the team outside of a school or volleyball setting just adds to the excitement and helps to make me comfortable being away from home.”
The natural and built environments that make up campus contribute to positive beginnings as well. Buchman is relishing her scenic walks to class, while Handanovic enjoys looking out over campus from the elevated running track inside the Recreation and Wellness Center.
“It’s just beautiful,” he says. “It never gets old.”
The shady Quad, with its canopy of trees stretching over a cluster of tables ideal for study and refreshment, is fast becoming another of Handanovic’s go-to places.
“I have favorite spots all over campus,” adds Sherell Adams, who transferred to UMSL a year ago. “But when the weather starts to get cold, you can find me at the Fireside Lounge near the fireplace.”
She can also be found spreading warmth all across campus – assisting fellow Mansion Hill residents like Buchman, studying with accounting classmates and helping new Tritons feel right at home.
Watching her confidently lead the traditional Serendipity Sendoff procession for new students this fall, you wouldn’t suspect that her own first few days on campus were a struggle.
“I was having a few problems adjusting to the new housing and was getting ready to head over to the Triton Store to get my books,” Adams recalls of one pivotal day. “Somehow I missed the shuttle, and I felt as though I was waiting forever for the next one. I was already frustrated and decided to walk to the student center. But by the time I arrived, the bookstore had closed.”
At that point Adams sat down in the middle of the Millennium Student Center, overwhelmed and discouraged, and burst into tears. Moments later, Assistant Dean of Students Miriam Roccia walked by and asked her what was wrong.
“I explained everything, and she welcomed me into her office and explained how the shuttles work faster in the fall than the summer, and she showed me the app that I could use to track them,” Adams says. “She encouraged me to get involved on campus and asked me to stop by anytime to discuss how things were going. I immediately felt as if I mattered on campus.”
It’s those small yet enormous moments that can mean so much, Adams says.
“In return for the kindness that I have received, I try to be that person for others. We have all had those days where we don’t know how things will work out, but then someone comes along and assures you it will.”
Both Buchman and Handanovic are open about experiencing some anxiety and a wide range of feelings as freshmen at UMSL. Such emotions are common and normal during the college transition. But they’re still difficult to encounter.
The day after moving into Oak Hall and meeting a lot of great, new friends, Handanovic remembers feeling very alone.
“I don’t know what it was, but everything just hit me all at once, and it was very tough,” he says. “All of my closest friends from high school went to different schools, and I knew nobody.
“I was with my parents getting food that day. It happened right when they dropped me off in front of Oak – I just totally broke down in front of them, because I was actually going to be away from them, too. I’ll never forget how understanding they were, and they were crying, too. It was a very emotional day, but things got much better since then.”
Adams sees the flurry of campus activities, particularly near the start of each semester, as something more than simply a bunch of stuff to do. She points to the most recent Triton Take-Off Weekend, just before the first week of class, as an example of fun-filled, purposeful events designed to help students thrive.
This year, the weekend involved a scavenger hunt. As organizers explained the plan to a large crowd of new students, Adams saw looks of apprehension on some faces.
“We had to stop off at three different locations all over St. Louis and capture photos of certain attractions using MetroLink,” she says. “Many of the students who were not from St. Louis looked confused or even worried at first. But then everyone was organized into teams with leaders who were prepared to guide them on the way, and by the time the hunt concluded, most everyone was smiling and ready to make plans for the next place they wanted to visit.”
For Buchman, another activity that helped ease the transition, and particularly the anticipation of classes, was spending time with the other freshman volleyball players while setting up their living spaces.
“We did a lot of shopping and decorating, which kept us busy,” Buchman says. “It really was a cool experience being able to decorate our own apartments at 18 years old.”
And since classes got underway, Buchman has actually been breathing easier.
“The teachers seem very open and approachable, which helped calm my nerves about college,” she says. “My favorite class so far is psychology, with Dr. [Jennifer] Siciliani. The way she teaches and interacts with the class makes it very interesting and makes me look forward to attending.”