The Office of New Student Programs offers an orientation program to incoming first-year and transfer students. They promise the chance to hear valuable advice from current students, talk with academic advisors and register for their first semester of coursework.
When my parents and I arrived for the orientation program in July 2017, we did indeed have the chance to learn more about the campus and what my next four or so years might look like here in Ann Arbor. However, to call those few days an “orientation” still seems to me a great dishonesty. I had experienced a mere drop of the Michigan experience; before me spread an entire ocean.
For me, the conceit of orientation was that the end of the program did not signal the end of the necessity to orient myself. Instead, during college I have waded through long periods of disorientation followed by fleeting glimpses of the right path. Weeks of academic struggle were followed by an affirming test score; weeks of loneliness followed by the outstretched hand of a friend. I had heard that everything would work out eventually, but until then all I could do was wait.
In retrospect, my trajectory made perfect sense: I worked hard in my pre-requisite courses, applied for the interdisciplinary program I had talked about in my college essays, got accepted and comfortably rode out the rest of college. There were contingencies, of course, but in retrospect my strategy seemed sound.
However, like a pathetic seafarer faced with the apparent boundlessness of the journey ahead, I could hardly see beyond the horizon when I first set out. Especially as a first-year student, three days of ambling around an empty campus in July could not begin to address the ambiguities that I held of myself and my future.
So what, then, was the point of an orientation program if the real orientation has been taking place within me ever since?
For some people, orientation will be one of the least consequential events of college; for others, it will be one of the most consequential. And from my experience, the difference between an orientation of least-consequence and one of most-consequence is the people you meet there who have the capacity to change your life.
In general, everyone knows that the friends you make in the first few weeks of college are bound to drift away at some point. The same holds true of so-called friends from orientation — a scene so chaotic and disjointed that it seems impossible to establish a genuine connection with another person. In the majority of cases, I have formed my best friendships in moments of reciprocity between myself and another, moments that are few and far between in contexts where people are interested primarily in portraying an image of themselves — wearing their best mask in lieu of showing who they are.
But there are exceptions to the rule. While some friendships take time to mature, sometimes only a matter of minutes is necessary for me to establish a relationship of considerable depth with another person. One such person, now a great friend of mine, happened to be in my orientation group when we met for the first time on one afternoon in July 2017. And though we met in that time and place where nothing lasts and where everyone is floundering to attach an answer to the question “who am I?” our friendship has endured to this day and will hopefully endure far into the future.
Rowing out into the abyss, we cheerfully talked about our lives back home. Our conversation consisted of mundane things like what we did in high school or what our siblings were like, but without delving too deep there was already a great deal of respect between us. As the sun filtered through the trees overhead, we walked through campus with the rest of our group and picked up our running dialogue in the little breaks in between when our student-advisor stopped to point out a building or deliver some spiel about class registration.
On the last night of orientation, we wandered around campus and eventually stopped by South University Ave. to pick up a bag of Insomnia cookies. As we sat in the East Quad lounge eating the chocolate chip, peanut butter and oatmeal raisin cookies and sipping on cartons of cold milk, the situation felt painfully temporary; after all, this was not what college kids were supposed to be doing on a Saturday night, right?
But this was merely a version of the question facing all of us, not just college students. At every moment we pause to reflect on who we are; what, indeed, am I supposed to be doing? And despite the fact that there exists no right answer to this question that is good for all times and places, it is a question we must address all the same.
Confronted with an ocean of dreams, decisions and expectations, I would want students who are about to start their University of Michigan education to know that this is a voyage they need not confront alone. For no matter how great your orienteering skills may be, college will test them to the limits. No matter where you think you are going, you may find that, in truth, you are upside-down rather than rightside-up; tilted to one side rather than to the other, and at a complete loss for where to look in order to gain your footing. Disorientation can lead to nausea and directionlessness to states of unbearable confusion, and while it is possible to set yourself right, it is almost always more efficient to have someone else there to help.
Because the orientation program is online this year, new students are likely to start forming these friendships when they arrive on campus in the fall. This, I think, is the most important aspect of orientation: orientation with respect to others. To know where I am is also to know where I am in relation to my peers. While carving a path for myself I inevitably cross the paths of others, and it can be a great comfort to have their company in moments when we lose sight of the landmarks that give us direction.
It is difficult to underestimate how these intersections have formed the person I have become. In the case of my friend from orientation and me, it has meant the development of a friendship that has persisted through many common interests and shared experiences that have fashioned themselves into cherished memories. With such a friendship comes the initial validation and eventual genuine trust and support that has proved so essential in allowing me to be myself and work towards the accomplishments I am most proud of in my life thus far. Especially over the past year, I have found it indispensable to have such a friend who both supports my academic growth and occasionally draws me away from my desk to experience what the rest of life has to offer.
For incoming students, my hope is that you, too, get to meet a person who will accompany you throughout college. Know that the relationships, which fill you with joy and leave you feeling secure in yourself in the present moment, are worth preserving. The boundlessness of life spreads itself before you, though not without offering, in due course, the appropriate points of reference. These points of reference, to be sure, are the others you encounter along the way, and without the presence of the other, life is reduced to wandering in the shadow of oneself. What a great feeling it is to look back on the journey and know that, beyond the shadows, we have lit the way for each other.