“Welcome to first-year orientation” (Gulp)

 

Samuel Morse's landscape picturing the university as paradise, using NYU's original Gothic style building (1835-36)

Samuel Morse’s allegorical landscape picturing the university as paradise, placing NYU’s original Gothic style building at left (1835-36)

For many educators, mid-August brings a sort of foreboding: Uh oh, school is starting up again very soon. The endless summer is coming to an end.

Now, this may sound odd coming from someone who enjoys teaching and is grateful for the opportunity to make a living as a professor. But yes, I feel this way, too.

I trace this anxious rumble in my belly to memories of first-year orientations as a college and law student many years ago. I suppose they planted the seeds for how I regard the beginning of an academic year.

Let me go back to August 1977, first-year orientation at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. Valpo, as it is colloquially known, was only a 45-minute drive from my parents’ home in Hammond, Indiana. But I was quite unworldly at that early juncture of my life, so that distance felt like a million miles away during those first few days (and the weeks to follow).

In terms of events, I hazily remember a bunch of meetings big and small, a large-group assembly or two, and some type of cookout. VU’s orientation program neither eased nor stirred my anxieties. However, the status quo was about as much as I could’ve asked of it, given my constricted comfort zone. It would take another two years for me to find my social and extracurricular groove at Valparaiso, mainly via my joining the staff of the campus newspaper and eventually spending my final semester in England. A good number of lifetime friendships were forged during those years.

Now let’s quickly jump to August 1982 and law school orientation at New York University. Outwardly I tried to maintain a friendly and upbeat demeanor, but privately I wondered if I was in over my head. I had moved from Indiana to the heart of Manhattan. Lots of my new classmates had gone to elite colleges. Many had done fancy internships. When a fellow 1L mentioned that he had spent the previous year working as an assistant at the U.S. Supreme Court, I decided not to offer that during the same time I was working as a stock clerk at a retail drugstore.

NYU’s law school orientation was the usual mix of welcoming speeches, panel discussions, intro classes, and receptions, but the content and people were such that I came out of it mildly reassured that I would (1) survive law school; and (2) have some good job opportunities at the finish. I was also pleasantly surprised that so many of my super-talented classmates were genuinely nice people, and I started making friends very easily. Overall I had the strong vibe that this was the right place for me, which turned out to be true.

Academic orientation programs are organized with the very best of intentions, and often they convey important information that can set the stage for the remainder of a student’s degree program. As to whether they soothe or stoke individual anxieties, well, that’s a crapshoot. I think it depends more on the specific student than on the content of the program!

Someday, when I’m in an even more nostalgic mode than is my usual state, I’ll have to sift through the memory bank to recall other orientation-type programs during different chapters of my academic and professional lives. Maybe I’ll find some similarities and connections between my reactions to them.

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