Feeling welcomed is nice, but it means a lot more at universities these days. Studies show that students who feel connected to their institution will engage and are more likely to stay in school and get a degree.

Being hospitable and creating a welcoming atmosphere matters more than ever. That’s why at the University of Central Florida – the second-largest university in the nation – a team of faculty and staff spend countless hours preparing for Welcome Week called Pegasus Palooza.

The week – actually nine days at the beginning of the fall semester– is packed with activities aimed at getting students out of their residence halls and living the college life. There’s everything from a welcome expo where students can visit booth after booth of clubs and resource centers at UCF, to a glow party and concert. The events are meant to be fun, get students to meet each other, and get them familiar with the campus.

“If students, especially first-time-in-college students, feel connected, they are more likely to stay in school,” said Erin Butler, director of UCF’s First Year Experience Office. “If they stay in school and take advantage of all the resources at their disposal here, they are more likely to graduate.”

And that’s what it is all about. UCF, which is expected to see more than 61,000 students this semester, now has a six-year graduation rate of 69.7 percent. That’s among the best among public universities in Florida. UCF is poised to improve that percentage. This academic year, several programs are launching or getting a boost in an effort to help improve retention and increase graduation rates.

UCF’s mission of providing access to higher education includes programs aimed at helping struggling students and students who want to achieve even more. This year there’s a renewed emphasis on helping all students successfully navigate their college years.

For example, this year Welcome Week includes 73 different events or activities including several regional campus events. Last year there were 34. And this year the university is launching its Knight Watch program. That program identifies students in the “murky middle,” reaches out to them at the end of their first semester, and gives them access to additional academic advising before their second semester begins. There’s also the rollout of the Think 30 education campaign, which aims to inform students that to graduate in four years they’ll need to take 30 credit hours a year.

The Think 30 campaign began during summer orientation sessions. At that time, parents and students new to UCF were advised that most majors require 120 credit hours to obtain. To do that in four years, students will have to take 30 credit hours each year. During orientation, students and parents were shown the “degree audit” tool on www.my.ucf.edu that can help students keep track of the courses they’ve already taken and what’s left before qualifying for graduation. And students were also encouraged repeatedly to meet with advisors regularly and seek out academic help early on.

In order to get students to pay attention and seek out resources that can help them, they must engage in the community, Butler said. And that brings us back to Welcome Week.

The week began Friday, Aug. 21, which coincided with the first official move-in day for residents. After a long day of lugging suitcases, mini-fridges and meeting roommates, students were invited to the UCF Fan Fest at Bright House Networks Stadium. From 6 to 9 p.m. students got a chance to meet this year’s football team and its staff and to get autographs and earn giveaways.

Saturday, students stopped by the main campus bookstore to take pictures at a photo booth, enjoyed a giant bounce house and got more giveaways while learning about the procedures for renting textbooks. Saturday was also the night of the biggest Welcome Week tradition, LINK Launch —  a giant party at the CFE Arena. This year the theme is Greek Mythology and as part of the festivities, students made their way through a training camp of inflatable games and other adventures during the party.

There are events that are fun, such as relaxation stations on Aug. 27, and there are events geared toward delivering specific messages. For example, students can learn about budgeting for college on Aug. 25 and graduate students can find out about what UCF can do to help them on Aug. 26.

For a full list of activities click here.

“We know that the first to sixth week of their first-semester experience will determine whether a student decides to stay or not,” Butler said. “We want our students to get involved, become part of our community and have a positive experience so they will succeed. It’s as simple as that.”