Why Am I Here? An Orientation Story For Staff

The palms of my hands are raw from slapping the tight leather of the drum while a cacophony of noise assaults my ears, and amidst the echoes pounding inside my head I wonder, “Why am I here?” But as a cheer begins to swell from the plastic floor under my feet, rippling upwards through the crowd high into the rafters of the Mattamy Athletic Centre—I know. The noise becomes rhythm and clarity comes from the beat beat beat of my drum—I do this for them. Our students.

It’s August 25, 2014—1,500 new students crowd into the stands of the historic Maple Leaf Gardens to the thump thump thump of Drum Cafe Toronto, where they find a drum of their own waiting at their seat. It’s the second day of Ryerson’s Orientation Week, and our first-years are participating in Invocation (the bookend to Convocation). The day before, some moved into Residence, many leaving home for the very first time. Today, commuting students join them and the atmosphere is definitely thick with emotion; you can see on their faces how nervous, excited, scared, and confused they are. It’s in the way they awkwardly hit their drums, tentatively at first, almost asking, “Is this okay? Am I doing it right?” but really, in their hearts, asking “Am I allowed to have fun?”

Orientation is the start of a student’s journey through postsecondary education, and if you ask any Student Affairs professional they will tell you how important it is to that journey. A bad experience can skew their entire outlook; a horrible interaction can lead to a person stepping off campus for the last time, leaving behind the title “student” as they cross its threshold. For this reason, among others spread across many different portfolios, Orientation is a behemoth among events at Ryerson, whose planning consumes countless employee’s summers, and in most cases, months well in advance.

Suddenly, I’m pulled to my feet, my drum swapped for a bright orange maraca. As the crowd watches and cheers, the rhythm guiding our feet, several RyersonSA staff members—having come out to show support to the event—are swept up by a crowd of student leaders. We form a dancing line and circle Drum Cafe Toronto, letting the beat from the crowd guide our movements. For a few moments, we are lost to the rhythm.

Later, as the dancing line dissipates and I find my seat again, I’m struck by the poetic, symmetrical beauty of what has just happened to my colleagues and me. Our first year students drummed the beat that guided our dance, helping us find a rhythm that meant something to us; paralleling how we will help them find themselves and create their whole person.

Students come to university to pursue academics. There’s no question of that, and there’s no question that this is what Student Affairs exists to support. But the process of study invokes many realms; those of people, culture, and the self. As a student studies art, business, engineering, or the sciences, he or she faces immeasurable amounts of intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth. And whether they consciously know it or not, academia is the journey that leads them to understand their whole person. That is why Student Affairs exists, to support a student through the many facets of learning that academia invokes.

What I realized at Invocation as I beat a tattoo on my borrowed drum is how important it is for us, as staff, to fully embrace Orientation week, not from our own perspectives but from the perspectives of our students. When the call goes up from the Orientation crew for staff support at events, the returning cry should drown out the drums. Our roles are to help our students find, create, build, and understand their whole person, but we should not forget that personal growth does not stop after university; we, too, are still searching for our whole person.

We work in Student Affairs, and if we don’t try to share the experiences of our students, how can we ever hope to connect with them, to understand their needs, to process and utilize the ever evolving act of human growth. Yes, we were once students ourselves, but our experience then is different from theirs now, just as our experience was different from our elders. By putting ourselves on the ground, by participating with our students, we become closer to our students.

It’s very easy to get caught up in our own portfolios and become specialized in helping a specific part of our students—whether it’s in helping an international student secure a visa, setting up accommodations for a student with disabilities, or offering directions on the front line to a lost student—but let’s remember that these are just parts. Robert Heinlein said, “Specialization is for insects,” and I think he was right. By embracing a plethora of skills, any one of us is better able to respond wholly to our students’ needs. Regardless of our job title, the department we live in, or the work we do, at the very end of the day, whether we offer personal counselling, math tutoring, or a place to live, we all support students.

And all that support starts at Orientation, the place where we, as staff, should all be offering helping hands, mirthful laughs, and dancing shoes to connect with new students and begin the process of living a piece of their experience. Ask Keitha Prospere, from International Student Services, about her time at O-Week. Among many other events, she participated all day during Move-In and stuck around to help serve hungry students at the BBQ, a smile always on her face. Or Joana Londoño, from the Tri-Mentoring Program, who came out to the Fiesta concert, turned an emergency blanket into a cape, and danced the night away to the joyful laughs of students and her colleagues alike. Then there’s Michelle Green, from Student life, who showed up two hours earlier than she needed to on Move-In Day, kept asking, “What can I do to help?” all week, and jumped at every challenge whether it was door duty at the Guinness World Record Challenge or setting up drums for Invocation. These are but a few examples of staff that helped out all week—there are many more—but everyone I asked agrees that being there to connect with the incoming class was infinitely enjoyable.

So I make a huge ask: next year, when the call goes up, I want to see even more staff out there shaking their maracas calling “Ry-er-SON, we got the SPIRIT!” Feeling that they are not just supporting, but participating. That the answer to the question “Can I have fun?” is a resounding “YES!”

As the students file out of the gym, huge grins on their faces, their anxiety and fear already alchemizing into spirit and confidence, and the group of Student Affairs staff and ROC student volunteers collect 1,500 drums and store them away until next year, again, I think, “Why am I here?” and know I have an answer:

To stand, not behind our students, urging them forward into a future we don’t understand, but beside them, stepping into this unknown together.