If traditional images of frosh week—excessive drinking, ridiculous rituals, young co-ed herds in identical t-shirts—make you cringe, NSPIRG insists you’re not alone. This year the student-based Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group, a social and environmental justice organization, is holding its own Alternative Orientation for first-year students at Halifax universities.
Billed as “a radically different perspective on Halifax,” Alternative Orientation will focus less on partying and orientation to the schools themselves, and more on introducing students to progressive politics and lesser-known heritage in the city. The month-long series of events boasts a range of workshops on topics from Mi’kmaq drumming to anti-war activism, as well as film screenings, political- and environmental-themed city tours, a hip-hop concert and an alternative book fair. Participants receive a map of Halifax that points out libraries, community organizations and businesses offering “vegetarian, organic and conscious food.”
Dave Ron, director of NSPIRG, explains the shift away from a typical, campus-focused frosh week. “Most students who arrive unfamiliar with the city usually only climb out of the campus shell in their third or fourth academic year,” he says. Once they do, they can discover a community that’s “rich with art and diverse culture,” but also “plagued by systemic poverty and rife with institutional racism.” Ron hopes Alternative Orientation can empower students to think politically and effect positive change in their new city.
There’s no doubt that regular frosh activities will still appeal to a lot of students. But it’s also true that some will prefer the kind of program offered by NSPIRG, says Ezra Edelstein, president of the Dalhousie Student Union. The DSU, along with student unions at Saint Mary’s, Mount St. Vincent, King’s College and NSCAD University have offered varying degrees of support for Alternative Orientation; all of them have at least included pamphlets for the events in their information packages for new students. “We feel that the more opportunities there are for our members to participate in the Dal community, the better,” Edelstein says, adding that he knows some students just won’t participate in “mainstream” student orientation.
Chris Parsons of the King’s College Students’ Union agrees. The KSU supports “giving members other choices” besides its own frosh activities, he says. Parsons also sees benefits in engaging students on a political level early in their academic careers; for example, it could help to mobilize students for February’s annual Day of Action against rising costs in education.
Although Alternative Orientation is the first event of its kind in Halifax, there are other politically-oriented frosh programs in Canada, says Dave Ron. Groups at Concordia, Carleton and the University of Ottawa regularly offer alternative frosh weeks, and in past years McGill University’s student union has collaborated with activist organizations to blend more “radical” events into its orientation. Ron hopes this year’s experience can establish Alternative Orientation as a mainstay in Halifax, and that in the future all student unions can be on board as active organizing partners.
At Halifax’s premier art school, student representatives have already whole-heartedly endorsed the NSPIRG initiative.
“It really fits in well with the type of orientation we try to do at NSCAD,” says Lyndall Musselman, president of the Student Union of NSCAD, which will host a workshop for Alternative Orientation on art-based activism. Art students are generally more interested in “alternative events” than initiation rituals, she says, noting SUNSCAD deliberately avoids using the word “frosh” in anything to do with its orientation week.
Alternative Orientation will likely turn some people off with its politics (like those from businesses targeted on the “Corporate Criminals” city tour). But pretending that conventional frosh weeks are apolitical and suited to everybody would also be disingenuous.
“It’s all about choice,” says Dave Ron. “People might be too cautious to break the conventional mold of frosh. But it’s due time to break the mold.”