August 20th, 2009
The summer is flying by faster than Usain Bolt. You can feel the slightly heightened sense of activity and anticipation in our offices. The days are getting a little shorter, the nights a little cooler, and the Canadian brain, which is wired to our seasons, starts to make room for thoughts of new courses, research programs, and a refreshed fall wardrobe. Students who have been away all summer, whether in their homelands far away or at summer jobs, are trickling more steadily into our offices, full of questions about their funding, their programs, deadlines, paper trails, and so on, or just to say hello to our cheery staff. We like to think of the School of Graduate Studies as a welcoming destination, way more sincere than Wal-Mart, and with much better lighting.
We have been planning fall orientation for new graduate students for some time, but as August rushes into the start of the semester those plans are starting to gain much more material reality. Orientation for graduate students is a relatively new phenomenon, here and elsewhere. Undergraduate orientation sessions have long been a vital part of the annual fall welcome ritual, and USA-based institutions have it all down to an art. At some campuses, activities extend well into a whole week, all designed to make the incoming student feel part of a community, with everyone wearing the same t-shirt, chanting the same school cheers, and marching like an army of new recruits through various planned activities, all aimed at heightening the level of belonging. One American web site that shall remain URLless boasts that its campus orientation “provides an overwhelming introduction to an abundance of riches within a stimulating intellectual and social environment.” Now, in an English class, that would be considered a crime against subtlety. Who wants to have an ‘overwhelming’ introduction? Fire the web writer!
When I was about to enter my first year of university in the same city in which I was raised I wouldn’t be caught dead at an orientation session. It was quite an uncool thing to do, or admit to needing. You had to be from far away and a real joiner to sign up for any of the activities, and none of my friends would dare don a t-shirt everyone else was wearing, especially one in the uni school colours with a way too high neckline. That would be like admitting to being part of a cult. Sometimes I wish I had attended some of those events. They might have saved me from some of first-semester blurring, and that nauseating feeling that I was alone in a forest of strange-talking animals.
At their best, undergraduate orientation activities do serve to demystify the post-secondary education experience, while giving incoming students a sense that they are not alone in the great anonymous, institutional universe. Graduate students are, by definition, older and more mature, and so orientation sessions for them have been afterthoughts, when they have been thought about at all. But today’s campus has so many more international students and so many more people who have never set foot in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, let alone on campus, that some sort of welcome event has seemed more and more necessary, as well as courteous and respectful.
We launched our first full orientation day in 2008 and were pleased enough with the turnout that we immediately vowed to do it again—and again and again until we no longer feel it is necessary. If you are reading this blog you have passed GO and the SGS home page and therefore probably noticed that this year we have some juicy giveaways—blatantly designed to attract new students and to keep them in their seats for the duration of orientation. Of course, we have designed the day to be both useful and entertaining, and so the last thing we want students to feel upon first arriving is that they are being put through some wringer. You will also notice we are supplying a free breakfast (!), as well as 50 free (!) USB sticks to the first in line to receive them. But the big winner of the day will get an Apple Macbook (!). That possibility alone should bring in some new warm bodies. The scheduled panel discussions are also free (!) and are designed to give new students a feel for what lies ahead—notably, how best to maintain a healthy supervisory or advisory relationship and how best to balance work and life. There are no magic formulae for these challenges, but there are lots of tips and the ample wisdom of those who have been through the experience.
We are very much looking forward to the event, scheduled for September 12th, and so if you are reading about it for the first time and have been thinking it was really uncool to attend an orientation session you now know better. Please pass it on. It’s free (!).