What my overwhelming Welcome Week experience taught me about college

    Most of the movies and TV shows I grew up with taught me to look forward to college. Whenever I thought about university life, the images that came to the fore mostly included relentless partying, sleeping until noon every day and playing witty pranks on curmudgeonly deans.

    But just as we’ve been taught to associate seasoned college students with devil-may-care geniuses capable of all out debauchery whenever appropriate, freshmen have always been shown as just the opposite: awkward, pubescent, confused, wandering around campus with their hand-stitched jeans hitched up to their bellies and their self-esteem down around their ankles. We’re the ones whose surroundings are not kind to us: We’re paddled in the behind by fraternity brothers, rejected by cool
    older girls and called out by professors in the middle of class. We have to earn the respect of our peers -- until then, we’re just the scum at the bottom of the food chain.

    I could never have guessed that the real problem I encountered as a freshman would be the total opposite of all that: too much positive attention. My first week of college involved being hit over the head with a “welcoming spirit” so furious and steadfast that it left me feeling smothered and a little confused.

    It began the moment I arrived on campus a few weeks ago. Driving up to my dorm felt like being shot into a world where people had spooled through all those old movies and found ways to turn them completely inside out, creating some kind of alternate universe where freshmen were the kings of all the campus.

    No sooner had I gotten out of my family’s car on move-in day than a team of pre-chosen pack mules swarmed around me to grab all my things and lug them up to my room for me. A gigantic banner draped over the front of my dorm building read “welcome home,” like I’d been already been living there long enough to get an advanced degree. The next day’s ceremonial “March Through the Arch” was made memorable not by the big piece of black steel we all passed through, but by the hundreds of students and faculty who cheered their lungs out and formed a gigantic line to personally high five all of us. I felt more like Rudy, about to walk onto the football team in a championship game, rather than some new student admitted to college.

    That night, a hodgepodge of performances and a capella groups showed off to us right on the front steps of our building as a way of personally welcoming us to school. At the end, though, they all told us to audition. They didn’t make it sound like an option.

    As the days went on, and we all became more acclimated to our new home, the welcoming spirit only intensified, as every obscure student group on campus made direct appeals to us to be a part of their faction within the university. Whether by stopping us on the street or staring up at us from Xeroxed flyers duct-taped to the very ground we walked on, they kept hollering at us: audition for our group. Come to our event. Write for our publication. All at once we were dealing with the same desperate loons you’d find on the subway, asking for donations or looking for people to sign their petitions. Only these were people you couldn’t ignore, because these were the people who went to school with you.

    And every time the activity hawkers got tired of standing out in the street or the flyers from the sidewalk washed away with the rain, new ones always cropped up to take their place.

    The special Activities Fair held at Norris last Monday felt like an overcrowded scene from Night of the Living DeadWith every step, a new stranger grabbed at me for my attention. Only instead of trying to eat my brains, they tried to give me bite-sized candy in return for my email address, so that I could forever thereafter receive updates on the details and progress of the Latvian karaoke club.

    In less than a week, all the attention we were getting went from fun to vaguely interesting to remotely uncomfortable to downright irritating.

    It all led up to the night I heard a knock on my dorm room door while I was reading in bed. I got up and answered the door in my pajamas, thinking it might be my CA to tell me that the building was on fire. Instead, it was two girls asking me to try out for the ski team. They held out a big plastic flyer and told me to be at their first meeting. Instead of taking it, I looked down and scratched the back of my head.

    “Well, I mean I don’t really ski...” I muttered at the ground, in my best I-may-be-an-innocent-freshman-but-you-can’t-make-me-do-this voice.

    “It doesn’t matter!” One of them instantly chirped back. “We can teach you!” It was all I could do not to slam the door in their faces. I’d only been living here for a few days, and already I had my very own version of the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to educate me about what was missing from my life.

    This creepily persistent attitude toward freshman was not only espoused on campus and in our dorms: During welcome week, almost every day was followed by a night of shady off-campus parties held by various fraternities hungry for freshman recruits.

    My friends and I would walk up Maple looking for a party someone may have heard about when a random brother would stick his head out of the window of his apartment and shout down at us: “Hey guys, come in! We have free booze!”

    This was nothing like what we were taught to expect from frats. Where was the hazing, the freeze-out, the paddle to the behind? Instead of “You can’t stay unless you shotgun this beer,” it was “Why don’t you shotgun this beer while I introduce you to my friends and tell you all about our fraternity.”

    It was more fake charm than you’d get out of a dating show contestant. Welcoming at first, it had a quick way of making freshmen feel awkward and distant.

    I’ve tried my best to ignore all this excessive outreach and attention, though, and over time I’ve actually seen things calm down. I’ve watched friends settle into the activities they’ve chosen for themselves, and I’ve begun to find myself doing the same.

    After two weeks, I’m amazed to find how quickly all we freshmen made the jump from scared, confused high school student to comfortably self-identified members of the Northwestern family.

    I catch myself thinking, despite myself, that maybe I was wrong to question the incredibly overwhelming system of club advertising we were all put through. After all, leaving home for the first time to live in a totally new environment is certain to be overwhelming, no matter how we’re treated by the people around us.

    We were worried about where freshman year might leave us, often fearing we wouldn’t find a way to fit into the Northwestern community. The truth is that thanks to all the peer advisers and club runners who rushed us into the college system, all these fears were resoundingly stamped away after one hectic, terrifying, wonderful week on campus. In seven days, they turned our visions of college from unforgiving rat race to wholesome all-inclusive community where each of us was certain to find a place
    we belonged.

    Yes, all the advertising was overwhelming and at times unnerving. And no, it’s still not okay to knock on my door to tell me about your club. But in the end, overly energetic upperclassmen were, for better or for worse, the reason why we’ve all found our place on campus. If they were any less enthusiastic, our worst fears may have come true, and we might really have become those dorky freshmen made to feel helpless and inadequate on the college campuses we see in the movies. Thank God we came to Northwestern instead.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.