Confessions from an Orientation Counselor
Orientation leaders can tell you all about the ins and outs of campus, but please don’t ask them about the drinking scene.
By Molly Flynn, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
The crisp air of a 6 o’clock morning.
Running around campus trying to find where registration is. Spending a day and a half with a bunch of strangers while getting to know all about their super important high school achievements through fun little games called “ice breakers.” And, of course, getting to spend the night on a stiff dorm room bed next to a stranger.
Ah, freshman orientation. The two-day adventure incoming students dream about and hope for—well, maybe that’s a tad bit of an exaggeration. However, regardless of the level of excitement orientation is greeted with, it is an obligation nonetheless.
Unlike many students who only get to go through the joyous cycle once, I have had the opportunity to attend numerous orientation sessions; no, not because I have a strange obsession with the aforementioned characteristics of orientation and, no, not because I have transferred to multiple universities. But, because for two summers in a row, I worked with the Orientation program at my university.
As a former orientation counselor (OC), I am not here to explain to you how to annoy students with endless get-to-know-each-other games. I am, however, here to tell you a few things that I didn’t get to tell my students during orientation.
While a required orientation for incoming students can sometimes be a little awkward, there are many benefits for this initial introduction to a college campus. Maybe I’m a little biased because of the time I’ve spent leading clueless “freshies” through their own orientation, but, from my personal experience going through the process, I did learn a lot.
First of all, I learned how to navigate my new enormous campus from a chirpy guide who had an unreasonable amount of energy for it being so early. I also learned about the campus dynamics and what we valued as a university. I was able to register for classes and was introduced to many different organizations that I would later join. But, while there is a lot you will learn from orientation, there is a lot you won’t. Primarily because, we as orientation leaders, don’t and can’t tell you.
As an OC, my responsibility was to foster relationships with my students, guide them through the process of joining our university and diplomatically avert controversial conversations about drinking, sex and which teachers to avoid. (Oh, and pretend that RateMyProfessors wasn’t a thing.)
I could definitely tell you the different dining options and walk you through which ones would best fit your schedule and financial needs. I could not, however, tell you that campus food was shit, and you’d be better off eating outside of campus or having your mom precook weekly meals for you.
I could tell you that although we are not a dry university, underage drinking is strictly prohibited and leads to disciplinary action. I could not tell you, however, that the likelihood of getting punished for underage drinking is very small and that of the thousands of students that partake in drinking, a majority of them are underage. Cheers!
Like my khaki-panted colleagues, I couldn’t explain to fashionista Fran that a few weeks into her 8ams, she would be closeting her Jimmy Choos and substituting them for yoga pants and a messy bun. I couldn’t tell the I’m-gonna-be-a-walk-on kid that the chances of him “walking-on” to the football team were smaller than the number of girls he was actually impressing by telling them this.
There were a lot of opinions I had to mask when I put on my super cute khaki shorts, green polo and backpack that made me look like a 12-year-old zookeeper. While I do absolutely love my university and believe in everything that I promoted as an OC, like every other college out there, it’s not perfect.
In order to positively emphasize certain aspects of campus during my time as a glorified babysitter, I had to neglect others.
For example, the following are a few truths that aren’t shared at orientation.
Working less than 20 hours a week, like what is recommended in many of the long, boring presentations during orientation, is not always realistic. I, personally, have to pay for my college tuition on my own. Minimum wage and minimum hours don’t quite cover the costs of a university. For the past year and a half, I have had to work full-time while still being enrolled full-time (and people question why students drink so much).
There is a big party atmosphere on my campus—like almost every other campus. Yes, Jill’s mother from group #12, I did tweak the truth when you asked about drinking on campus. And yes, I’ve heard your daughter attends a lot of the parties.
Also, 8am classes are worse than you think they will be and way worse than we will tell you. What I will mention, though, is that I sure as hell haven’t taken an 8am since my freshman year.
Greek life really is expensive. As an OC, I was also a member of a sorority on my campus. I heard many fears about the expenses of “Going Greek.” My trained response was, “Most organizations will be extremely willing to help you financially.” If only those organizations helped me out a little more financially. While I did greatly enjoy my time in the Panhellenic community, it was a costly exploit. Seriously. Thousands-of-dollars kind of costly exploit.
While orientation is an important part of joining a university, and while it will teach students many important things, there are other essential topics that it won’t cover. Students have to learn many other nuggets of wisdom on their own. Maybe I could’ve slid in some of these aphorisms more subtly in my small group sessions. Maybe I could’ve told Jill’s mom that the decisions her daughter makes are now up to her daughter. Maybe I could’ve told my students that most of the classes they need will be full by the time we let them register. I don’t think it would have mattered, though.
After a semester or two, most students have figured it all out. And while I would love to think that my guidance through their first few days on campus was life changing, and that forever they will credit me for their awesome college experience, I know most of them don’t remember me—or orientation—at all. And that’s fine. Orientation is great! I lived and breathed it for two years. But orientation is just a small window into what college will actually be like.
So, if you or someone you know is about to embark on orientation, keep an open mind. And remember, the food they serve you those two days is MUCH better than what you’ll be eating the rest of your college life.