This month on the campuses of American universities, companies such as American Eagle, Hewlett-Packard, Target and Red Bull will employ an estimated 10,000 college students as “brand ambassadors” in on-campus peer-to-peer marketing schemes.
Companies are increasingly eager to create life long consumers from the ranks of college freshmen, but so far, corporate presence on campus at U of T remains scant.
“The commercialization of everyday college life is a distinctly American approach to student life,” says U of T orientation and transition coordinator Josh Hass.
“Corporate engagement is a huge, huge difference between Canadian and American schools,” agrees New College orientation executive Sam Khon, an American himself.
According to student leaders and Student Life administrators interviewed by The Varsity, a major reason for the lack of corporate involvement in U of T frosh weeks may be the piecemeal approach that comes with having several separate orientation schedules.
While U of T’s St. George campus may boast an incoming class of over 10,000, the division of freshman by college and faculty means that orientation groups are likely to be comprised of hundreds, instead of thousands of students.
“Nothing is so decentralized as U of T,” Khon says. “The different colleges and faculties are just a can of worms.”
The unifying body for orientation teams at the university is the Office of student life. Hass describes his department as a resource for the different orientation executives. Over the course of the summer, the department offered skill development and engagement for orientation coordinators.
Student Life does not offer funding, but gives financial rewards after-the-fact if minimum standards for orientation week are maintained.
The system makes for a stark contrast with American schools, where offices of Student Life partner with corporations to offer frosh week programming. At the University of North Carolina, the incoming class was treated to a late-night shopping excursion to Target, in an arrangement engineered by the vice chancellor of student life.
Representatives at various Ontario universities spoke of a concerted effort to protect allegedly vulnerable freshmen from the manipulation of corporate sponsors.
“There’s always a balance with corporate sponsorship,” says Adam Fearnall, president of the Students’ Council at the University of Western Ontario. “You don’t want to give up your moral independence to secure corporate funds.”
At U of T, the University of Toronto Students Union is determined to maintain ethical business relations with potential sponsors, as a member of the Canadian Federation of Students.
“They’re strict about who they associate with,” says Hass. Union presidents over the past several years have warned of “corporatization by stealth.”
The organic, student-led orientation system that exists at U of T is not universal. Fernall highlighted radically different attitudes towards orientation that he witnessed at universities such as Syracuse, Columbia, Cornell and NYU on a recent American tour.
Cornell’s administration, for instance, ran 170 events in a four-day period, recognizing that it was to their benefit to run their own orientation programs rather than leave it entirely up to student organizers. Most of Cornell’s frosh events were free of charge, while students at U of T paid between $80 to $120 dollars to participate in college or faculty-run orientation weeks.
Corporate sponsorship will represent less than one per cent of New College orientation expenses this year. What’s more, donations that are received are nearly always in-kind: notepads, ink cartridges, or branded pens for frosh orientation kits.
“We were able to get some sponsorship from small businesses,” says Kohn. “But money — actual money — is a very rare donation.”
Faculty-specific orientations have been somewhat more successful in seeking out sponsorship opportunities.
The orientation week for Rotman Commerce has found generous patrons in the past. Some of the sponsors of the Rotman Commerce Student Association this year include accounting firms PriceWaterhouseCoopers and KPMG.
Funding from academic departments normally support U of T’s engineering orientation, which also obtained funding from the National Bank of Canada this year.
While planning orientation events by college may be more desirable, the student-led teams are volunteers with one-year terms may well just be unequipped to secure external funding.
“Every orientation is created in some four to eight months. If I go looking for corporate sponsorship, I don’t have any numbers or data from the last 10 years to show,” explains Kohn. “If a big corporation gave any college orientation a big chunk of money, I’d be extremely surprised.”