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Saint Mary’s University orientation festivities. (Joe Chrvala)
Saint Mary’s University orientation festivities. (Joe Chrvala)

postsecondary education

Making frosh week empathetic and inclusive Add to ...

After last week’s initial shock over new students at two Canadian universities blithely chanting about rape, pressure has shifted to finding and fixing the root problem of outlandish frosh-week behaviour. Yet even as schools rush to react, experts argue that what is needed are not more rules, but greater empathy in student leaders.

A short video surfaced last week showing Saint Mary’s University students, male and female, chanting about non-consensual sex with underage girls during orientation. University of British Columbia students shouted out the same disturbing refrain days later.

Administrators at both schools reacted fast, launching investigations, mandating more training for students involved and, in UBC’s case, withdrawing support for some events. Yet experts say stricter policies are not the solution; both schools already have training and codes of conduct for frosh leaders, who are upper-year students. Rather than simply defining what is inappropriate, the point is to help student leaders see that a ritual that seems harmless to some may quietly alienate others – and be intolerable to society at large.

Student leaders responsible for shaping frosh culture often define inappropriate hazing in extreme terms, said Ryan Hamilton, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick, perhaps thanks in part to American pop culture’s wilder depictions of fraternity-sorority initiations.

“They’re taped to a tree, they’re being forced to chug alcohol, they’re being beaten with a paddle – that’s what people see hazing as,” said Dr. Hamilton, who runs hazing-prevention workshops for orientation organizers and has studied student athlete initiations. But by using a subtler definition that includes being yelled at or made to dress up, he identified 93 per cent of student athletes he studied as having been hazed, even though only 30 per cent of them believed they had.

The power of frosh week’s rituals can blind both leaders and new students to the consequences of their actions. Students arrive at orientation “motivated to fit in” and looking for social cues, Dr. Hamilton said, and when encouraged to dress up in costume or roll down a hill, they must choose whether to face the fallout of not joining in.

And in a sea of chanting, partying students, there is a danger of “dehumanization,” Dr. Hamilton said. “They’re just frosh. They’re wearing a red shirt, and that’s it.”

In response, Kelley Castle, dean of students for Victoria University at the University of Toronto, drills into orientation leaders that any given student may be feeling especially vulnerable – perhaps they have suffered from depression, or just left a sick family member at home.

“You can not hide behind a group and feel less responsible for what happens,” she told student leaders this year.

Frosh leaders typically undergo months of intermittent training ranging from sensitivity to mental health. But the hard part is the transition from instruction to the real thing. In a group, students can feel that responsibility for their actions is diffused.

“This individual culpability for carrying out something terrible, you don’t experience it,” Dr. Hamilton said. “It’s not just me cheering this vile cheer – it’s a group of people, so I don’t feel morally that it’s me anymore.”

The stakes are high for institutions, as frosh-week follies are closely tied to reputation and school pride. Dozens of Saint Mary’s alumni made their displeasure known after learning of the chant, with some threatening to cut off future donations. “They wanted something to happen,” said Mary Ann Daye, the university’s director of alumni engagement.

Kevin Reinhart, a “proud” Saint Mary’s alumnus and the CEO of the Calgary-based energy firm Nexen, is satisfied so far that the university is “taking decisive action,” but his continued backing, including donations, depends on whether he sees the school following through. “If they take the expedient way out, they will lose my support as at that point, they become complicit,” he said.

First-year student Kourosh Houshmand, 18, loved his frosh week at the U of T’s Trinity College, and feels it gave him a crucial “sense of belonging.” Activities ranged from receiving ceremonial gowns to a paint party, “where people were just throwing around paint, and we were dancing and laughing,” he said. But he fears that in the very concept of frosh week, “a framework exists for there to be misjudgments or misconduct.”

“People feel that it’s a time where you can break free,” he said. “Now, the problem is, how much are you allowed to break free?”

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