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Saturday, November 1, 2014

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Victoria Noble: Coming hoMe

By Victoria Noble, Columnist
Published August 6, 2014

Last summer at this time, I felt the same way that most incoming freshmen probably do now. College was fast approaching, and as the warm, orange summer sun set earlier and earlier; as the loose ends of my summer job wound themselves tightly together; and as my high school friends and I bid goodbye, I was surrounded by the feeling that everything was about to change. I was excited.

My roommate and I couldn’t wait to get to campus and begin our freshman year. As fall grew closer, our excitement grew until we just couldn’t wait to be at school.

My parents and I loaded up our car with everything from toiletries and closet organizers to twin extra long sheets and pictures of home to decorate the walls — everything needed to make our shared, cinderblock-walled dorm room feel like home.

Except it wasn’t home, and it wouldn’t feel like it for quite some time.

My parents left, leaving an overwhelming feeling of insecurity. But, like most freshmen at welcome week, I got dressed and ready, and headed out to a party with my roommate. I later came home in tears, wandering through campus homesick and lost.

Now, that was just one night, and homesickness is to be expected, at least to an extent. Some of my other welcome week memories are among the best I have of freshman year, and my one bad night was nowhere near catastrophic. But for some students, they can be.

Combined with pressure to make friends with new classmates and the nerves associated with suddenly being on their own, often for the first time, alcohol can pose a very real, and in some sense heightened risk for freshmen. Add that to the fact that some of these kids didn’t drink in high school and it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that welcome week can often produce negative experiences for our youngest students.

I watched peers deal with serious and damaging experiences in their first weeks on campus. One got ticketed for Minor in Possession of Alcohol. Even more had close encounters with over-consumption. One was injured on the way home from a party, and one still regrets a sexual encounter she had with a boy she hardly knew. Instances where ambulances are requested become warning tales for overconsumption — and rightfully so. But it doesn’t take an ambulance ride to stain a student’s first week on campus, and we should be mindful of the impact events that seem less serious might have on younger students.

When so many of us call up memories of our first weeks as Wolverines, we cast them in shining, golden hues. In their false light they portray an idolized time when we traipsed around campus with new friends. Envious of our past selves, we remember a time when everything — and I mean literally everything — was new and exciting. There’s no doubt that the first weeks of campus life are incredible experiences. But by neglecting to critically examine the difficulties we faced during that time, we consequently fail to consider how we might improve the experience for the next class of students — and it certainly needs improving.

For many incoming freshmen, Ann Arbor hasn’t yet morphed into the home away from home that most students eventually come to appreciate. To them, it’s almost inevitably uncomfortable while still enviably fresh and exciting. Despite offering up thousands of new souls to meet and hundreds of restaurants, buildings and parks to explore, campus still lacks the comfort and familiarity, and consequently safety, of home.

The University has taken some steps to help improve the experience of incoming freshmen during their first weeks on campus. They’ve eliminated the option to move into dorms early, and shortened welcome week. All of this might limit the opportunity to party without the constraints of schoolwork and class. The University should be commended for recognizing the problem, and taking steps to solve it. They also provide alcohol education, and tools like the Stay in the Blue app, to help students monitor consumption and understand how their habits affect their bodies. While these efforts are admirable, they don’t do enough to remedy the lost sense of security that can, for some, contribute to destructive behaviors.

That’s our job. As returning students, we have the ability to help incoming students feel safe and comfortable on campus, starting from day one. By pressuring incoming students to drink, asserting that drunken adventures are what college is about or failing to be a source of support, students directly contribute to a more hostile environment. And that isn’t the norm at the University. In my experience, many people did do their absolute best to welcome my friends and I to campus in a positive way. If nearly everyone approached welcome week with supportive attitudes, and offered themselves as sources of guidance to younger students, I truly believe we could profoundly improve the new student experience.

Eventually, college will start to feel like home for new students. But for that to happen, they’ll have to rebuild the support system that they lost when coming to college. And to do that, they need you. They need peers who, even if they don’t know them all that well, will be a friendly face on the street offering a smile or some directions; a nice person to talk to at those awkward, somewhat anonymous mega-parties; a benevolent source of advice as they prepare to read their first Psych 111 chapter.

When we come back to campus in the fall, we’ll be, in a very real sense, coming home. Hopefully, Ann Arbor will become a home for the incoming students. They’ll realize, as I did only a few months ago, that when I said, “I want to go home,” I was no longer referring to the place where my parents lived. But those sorts of things take time, and until then, we should at least try to provide the security their home will later provide. No matter what kind of home these students create for themselves this year, the people they meet will always be the foundation.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.