Here’s how Northeastern orchestrates a seamless move-in, a study in advance planning

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Each fall, just as the air is beginning to turn crisp, Northeastern’s Boston campus bursts to life with thousands of students—and the family and friends who help them do it­—moving onto campus, marking the beginning of a new year full of possibility. But for some on the university’s campus, it marks the end of a year filled with planning and coordinating the intricate move-in process.

“Sometimes we’ll start planning a couple years in advance,” says Robyn Golden, director of housing services at Northeastern. “But at the very least, shortly after one fall move-in, we start planning for the next.”

Imagine a small city, with its myriad restaurants, apartment buildings, parks, libraries, offices, and more. Now imagine that the vast majority of the people who will dine in those restaurants, live in the apartments, play in the parks, read in the libraries, and work in the offices all arrive during just a handful of days—and you get a sense of the Herculean effort it requires to choreograph Northeastern’s move-in.

Facilitating a seamless move-in process for the roughly 9,000 students who arrive at Northeastern’s Boston campus each year requires planning from more than 350 people—including an army of volunteers, and organizers from every corner of the university— and coordination with the City of Boston. But, like a well-oiled machine, it goes off without a hitch.

“So much work goes into it, and it’s truly a campus-wide effort with everyone doing their piece,” Golden says. “Everything from providing ponchos and tarps, setting up portable restrooms and trash collection, distributing parking passes, running dining halls, offering tents and water—there are so many little details that make it what it is.”

Planning gets underway in earnest around May, say Golden and Dan Finn, director of residential safety and security, who both chair the committee dedicated to executing move-in.

“We start by setting the dates, which has a lot to do with when Labor Day falls and when the off-campus leases in the city turn over,” says Finn. “But we also think about things like: When are the other colleges moving their students in? Are the Red Sox playing? We don’t want to move students in on a game day.”

This year, students will move onto the Boston campus from Aug. 29 to Sept. 5. The move-in committee and the Northeastern University Police Department coordinate with city officials to secure moving permits and reroute traffic patterns during peak times.

And in-house, members of the committee also work with orientation leaders to ensure that the move-in dates dovetail with Welcome Week, the university’s signature welcome events for new students.

Then there are other pregame considerations, as Finn describes them. Staff in University Housing and Residential Life prepare the residence halls by cleaning and decorating them; transportation and maintenance crews from Facilities Management ensure that furniture and other necessities get where they need to go, and that outside movers are hired to help families ferry their belongings from car to dorm. The Sign Shop ramps up production for the hundreds of posters that adorn campus and direct families. The Office of University Mail Services has to get ready for a huge influx of packages and other mail. The business office and coordinators ensure that housing is secured for students in hotels near Boston’s vibrant downtown and historic Back Bay neighborhoods. And hundreds of volunteers prepare to greet the thousands of new students and families who are preparing to launch into an exciting new journey.

“We have to balance out how this works without shutting down the whole city,” Finn says.

The committee and its network of campus offices do as much prep as possible, “and then it’s kind of a waiting game” until the big day, Finn says. Or, big days, as it’s been recently.

In 2020, the university stretched on-campus move-in from a concentrated few days to 12 days in order to reduce the number of people in one place at the same time and mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It also prohibited parents and families from entering the residence halls with students, for the same reason.

This year, with vaccinations on the rise and mask requirements in place, Northeastern is again allowing families to help their students move into their rooms. But, say Golden and Finn, the lessons learned from 2020 will continue to guide move-in logistics this year and in the years to come.

“Last year, with COVID-19, we had to think creatively and comprehensively about what move-in would look like, and how we could do it in a safe, efficient way,” Golden says. “It was a huge undertaking.”

Some of the changes, including the longer move-in period, stuck. This year, students will move in over the course of eight days—a figure that’s shorter than 2020, but longer than in years prior.

“We found that by extending it a little bit, we were able to decrease some of the lines in places, and make sure people are able to get in and out of the buildings a little easier,” Golden says. “That’s something we might not have considered if 2020 didn’t happen.”

Then, it’s game time. Organizers hope for good weather but prepare for the worst with tents, umbrellas, and ponchos on deck, just in case. And Golden and Finn crisscross campus each day to handle any unexpected issues (those are rare) and just generally get a feel for how things are going.

“We easily log six or seven miles a day just walking back and forth,” Finn says, “but it’s important to keep checking in with everyone, and talking with parents to get the vibe that they’re enjoying move-in.”

They do. Every year, parents, friends, families, and students go out of their way to compliment the process and report (sometimes with awe) how smoothly it all went.

“Northeastern does go above and beyond to make sure there’s support in place to make move-in go smoothly, whether that’s hamper locations and availability or hired moving support,” Golden says, referring to the laundry hampers that are the mode of choice among families for shuffling belongings to and from dorm rooms. “It’s not something that every school does, and we really want to make sure that people are starting off having as smooth of an experience as possible.

“This is our way of saying ‘Welcome to Northeastern,’ and we want it to feel as fun and exciting as students’ whole experience here will be,” she says.

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