The beginning of term: orientation. It’s the first exposure to life at college, an induction into campus culture, the downloading of rules and regulations, and for some a festival of celebratory distractions.
Whatever shape it takes on your campus, orientation is, to use the name we give to the very last event of a college education, a commencement.
It’s also a moment to confront our obligations.
Like a series of inoculations before a journey to a remote somewhere, orientation compresses into a few days a series of necessary exposures meant to warn, to enlighten, to protect, and to point.
The word orientation has roots in the practice of arranging churches and tombs to face eastward. It bears the trace of a Christian association with resurrection, as well as a connection to the use of a compass to align a structure.
So, while orientation may involve handbooks and T-shirts and discount coupons at local merchants, it’s fundamentally about direction and getting one’s bearings.
The OED’s earliest citation for orientation in reference to college life is from Modern Language Notes in 1916: “Unless a specific course in orientation is provided, the responsibility falls chiefly upon instructors in freshman English.”
Much since 1916 has fallen upon instructors in freshman English (my candidates for faculty members most expected to perform miracles). Responsibility for orientation, however, has at least moved into the offices of deans of students.
But orientation is hardly something that can be offloaded to a dedicated team of student-support professionals — even those with unfailing positive energy — assigned to enlighten the incoming class regarding college life.
All of us on campus, even the most long-serving, might approach orientation as a renewal for ourselves — a moment to think not only about these young people (and they get younger every year, because that’s their job), but also about what our own roles must be.
Especially now, especially this academic year, what does it mean to enroll in college and see the prospect of neo-Nazi racists, their tiki torches held preciously aloft?
To be clear: The problem is not Virginia’s alone. It’s ours.
So how can we — faculty and staff members, administrators, returning students — help orient the new arrivals? Not only inform and accommodate, but protect, and promise to protect, against the worst that we are capable of?
How, in other words, do we orient ourselves while we orient our beginning students, at this moment, in this year, under this regime, when the contract between the educational and the social, between personal dignity and communitas, seems — to quote another college student — out of joint?
We need an orientation — a commitment not only for the beginners but also for those continuing.
Because as the news now makes evident day after day, American compasses — distorted by some terrible magnetism — aren’t true.
This September, our campuses have an even bigger job to do.
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