Today was my first day of Orientation Group Leader (OGL) training. OGLs are the upperclassmen who lead freshman around during those few quiet days before the rest of campus arrives. We give tours, aid with book buying and classroom finding, dry homesick tears, and generally help soften the transition between high school and college.
This isn’t my first time being an OGL, so I knew what to expect with the training; lots of information delivered by lots of different people (librarians, counselors, computing services gurus, etc.). It’s certainly important to get this information, as I don’t want to not know the answer to a freshman’s question later on, but it’s an overload when you have it thrust upon you all day every day for 3.5 days.
Tonight, however, the Orientation Task Force had a unique activity planned for us. We were led to the Fitness Center without being told what was in store. Upon entering, we were asked to get in the line that corresponded with the first letter of our last name; the Fitness Center was set up to resemble an airport. We gave our names to an official (the hall directors played this role), who would find us on a list, give us a color (i.e. “You’re in the Blue Dorm”), and direct us through a door. Some people were ‘detained,’ which meant that they had to go to a roped off area. I never found out if they had to do anything special there.
Once through the doors, we found another official whose name tag color matched the one we had been given. The official gave us a ‘form’ to fill out. The ‘form’ was a set of eight basic questions (name, hometown, phone number, etc.) written entirely in Pig Latin.
After translating and filling in our forms, we were herded downstairs to the gym, where a podium was set up. We sat on the bleachers and listened to the OGL head (masquerading as the Chancellor) gave a short introduction speech, similar to the one all freshmen hear when they first arrive on campus. Then we were divided into our color groups, and asked to follow our new ‘hall directors’ to our ‘dorms’ (the quotes, obnoxious as they are, denote that many of the activities/people were simulated).
My dorm, the Blue Dorm, was a small classroom just off the gym. Once there, our hall director led us in a few ice breaker activities (names, interests, etc.). He then gave us blue name tags, and announced that in the Blue Dorm, there is a long-standing tradition. The tradition is that whenever one refers to himself/herself while speaking, that person must touch their own foot. So any “I” or “my” merits a foot touch. He explained that we would now be heading to our ‘OGL Groups,’ and that it would be important for us to uphold the Blue Dorm Tradition at all times.
In the OGL Groups, people from all different color dorms were mixed together. As we did more activities within those groups, it was evident that every dorm had its own unique tradition: the purple group members were loud and proud and refused to stand close to anyone from a different dorm, the yellow group members stood as close as possible to other people at all times, the green group members would touch a person’s elbow every time they spoke to them, etc.
I wasn’t sure what the meaning of everything was until we were all asked to gather together and sit on the bleachers again. In front of us were two international students who had been asked to come and speak to us about the international student experience in general, and how we as OGLs can help international students to feel welcome and included in our groups and on campus.
The entire simulation, then, had been intended to mirror the experience of an international student arriving in the United States and being introduced to the campus. The ‘traditions’ we were assigned in our ‘dorms’ and asked to carry out into our ‘OGL groups’ echoed the cultural characteristics that international students bring to campus, which are often viewed as strange by American students.
It was interesting, when it was all over, to step back and think about how odd my foot touching must have looked to other dorms, and how odd I thought the elbow touching was when I witnessed other dorms doing it. And then to think how alien other cultures often seem to me, and how alien American culture must seem to everybody else. And finally, to think how I can apply these lessons when leading my own OGL group.