With frosh week behind us, it’s time to take stock. Countless first-years have marched through the streets, belted out college verses both foul and fair, and generally partied hard. The question that remains in the wake of the week’s frivolity is whether the current model for frosh week — as a time largely devoted to building college spirit — is best for the students it aims to please.
School spirit is a laudable goal but also a vacuous one which, after the college-coloured body paint has washed away, ceases to have much relevance to the day-to-day life of first-year students. Frosh week aims to provide students with a home in their college and a sense of belonging. But any such belonging will wilt in the absence of more concrete relationships with other students: it’s hard to feel engaged in a college when it’s a faceless entity.
What first years need is to build lasting friendships with their new classmates, and frosh week is the ideal time in which to do that. Ultimately, fostering friendships will have a farther-reaching effect on student contentment and happiness than college spirit, because they endure longer and are, by their very nature, individualized to meet each student’s wants. This is especially important for commuters, who don’t have a built-in community in the form of a residence.
Of course, for some frosh, spending time cheering and chanting will help them to make friends. But I suspect that these are the students who will never have much difficulty meeting people. The model for frosh week can’t be based on extroverts, because other students who might require a little push to make friends will not get one, and will end up drifting through the year flitting from class to class in a campus that has become conspicuously large.
How do we shrink the campus by fostering friendships? We can first agree, I hope, that size is intimidating for many people, and large-scale events that involve lots of noise-making don’t usually get people acquainted with each other very well. Smaller events keyed to specific interests and with opportunities for prolonged interaction will work better at introducing likeminded people than trying to get very different sorts of people interested in large-scale events where contact is fleeting. As far as possible, given organizational constraints, these events should be flexible: if students need to sign up for each specific activitiy weeks in advance, it’s difficult to hang out with the people you’ve just met and like who’ve signed up for different ones. Having alternate activities for those who don’t want to attend the raucous parties would keep everyone involved and engaged.
It’s also worth considering whether the current model, in which colleges organize their own frosh weeks, is an unnecessary constraint to meeting people. Many of the clubs at U of T are campus-wide. Why not extend that idea to parts of frosh week beyond the UTSU’s parade? Maybe that’s not feasible for organizational or funding reasons, but there seems to be no other reason to keep students entirely separate. It’s something to think about, at least.
At the risk of sounding like a trite character from a children’s TV show, university is best enjoyed with company. Insipid or not, if we foster friendships and allow people to meet each other during frosh week, the isolation and strangeness of the new environment gives way to enjoyment. It will never be possible to get everyone engaged, no matter what approach is used, short of cordoning off Con Hall after each 100-series class and forcing chit-chat amongst the students there. We can get more out of it, though, by shifting the emphasis of frosh week from spirit to enjoyment.
Even if the cost of these changes is that not all first-years are able to sing their school songs from memory, it’s worth it. More likely, happy, befriended students will make for a spirited community that is enthusiastic about university life and eager to participate in it. And that is exactly what frosh week is meant to be about.