Orientation undermines new student adjustment

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Photograph of student moving in during orientation, with orientation aides behind them
Photo Courtesy of wm.edu

Orientation: while some people recall it fondly as their first introduction to the College of William and Mary, I recount five days filled with awkward mingling, inescapable exhaustion and a plethora of dead cockroaches in my closet. I cringe looking back at the feeble attempts at friendship I tried to make over my first meals at Sadler and the Caf; I couldn’t eat Cocoa Puffs for months without remembering the lonely, emo breakfasts I had during syllabus week. Although things improved drastically with a little time, I blame orientation for fostering many of my negative initial experiences in Williamsburg.

I would have been mortified to let people know my discomfort while orientation was ongoing, but now that I’m two years removed from the endeavor, I am unabashed in declaring my contempt for the process. Orientation was very difficult for me, just as it was — and is — for many students. Those fateful five days left me feeling antagonistic and resentful towards the College, despite having applied early decision and having been infatuated with the campus since I was 13. 

Before moving on, let me clarify a few things; first, while it took me a few weeks, I grew to genuinely adore attending the College. By the end of September freshman year, I’d found engaging communities, made wonderful friends, and developed adept roach-killing skills. I fell back in love with my school, and the isolation I first felt gave way to inclusion.

Second, my disparagement of orientation is in no way, shape or form a condemnation of Orientation Aides. The OAs I know are confident, intelligent, warm and passionate; I couldn’t be more grateful for their commitment to cultivating a supportive campus community. Additionally, doing any job without pay — especially such an emotionally and physically demanding one — is worth praising. 

But these caveats aside, I cannot help but loathe orientation. My primary critique revolves around the arbitrary usage of residence halls as a means of friendship building. Freshmen are placed into orientation groups based almost exclusively on what dorm they live in, and I don’t see anything inherently wrong with that — until you consider that many students and staff members hype up freshman residence halls as the ideal place to form friend groups. 

This is incredibly toxic. What does this message tell students who don’t vibe particularly well with the 25 other students randomly assigned to live in the same residence hall? For a school that preaches to new students that if they come here they belong here, orientation puts way too much pressure on students to force friendship — and force belonging — with the students that just so happen to live near them. The goal of orientation is for new students to acclimate to their new environment and meet fellow students; it would be much more effective for freshmen and transfers to find communities relevant to their own passions during those five days instead of being herded around like cattle. That would limit the likelihood of students feeling ostracized just because they share little in common with their dorm mates.

Even in the best case scenario, when students do forge bonds with their freshman hallmates, orientation is still deeply flawed. For five days, freshmen and transfers are essentially mandated to spend almost all their time hanging out with hallmates, chatting with OAs, and churning through boring icebreakers. I’m a fairly extroverted person, and even I struggled to stay cheery and engaged in endless social interaction. By the first day of classes, I felt like I never wanted to talk to anyone again — I felt so depleted, and so emotionally exhausted, that I couldn’t imagine how I’d handle four years of being constantly “on.” 

It’s extremely disrespectful to expect introverts to sacrifice their well-being in order to be paraded around campus chanting, screaming and flag waving. If we can agree that the College is supposed to be a place that cherishes individuality, then it becomes hard to justify making students — regardless of their comfort level — participate in a mind-numbing array of potentially stressful activities.

I acknowledge that orientation has its merits. Informative lectures about vital issues like sexual assault and consent should absolutely be required for new students, and I’m happy those are a prominent fixture of the program. Meeting new students without immediately facing academic responsibilities is a welcome opportunity. At the very least, orientation can serve as a helpful “buffer” period, offering students time to transition from living at home to living at school. 

Unfortunately, until we can address orientation’s shortcomings, we risk alienating hundreds of new students every August by mandating their participation in such an exhausting, daunting experience. The College is a caring and empathetic community. Let’s change orientation to reflect those values. 

Email Ethan Brown at ewbrown@email.wm.edu.