SPECIAL REPORT

Life After Class

The controversies and passions of campus life often are the most lasting lessons of university

DIANE BRADY October 21 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

Life After Class

The controversies and passions of campus life often are the most lasting lessons of university

DIANE BRADY October 21 1991

Life After Class

The controversies and passions of campus life often are the most lasting lessons of university

Before Cory Kuepfer even stepped into a classroom at McMaster University this fall, he found himself facedown in the mud during gruelling tryouts for the school’s varsity football team. But for the 19year-old first-year student from Stoney Creek, Ont., the struggle to win a position as wide receiver on the McMaster Marauders paled in comparison with passing the daunting trial of team initiation. With about 35 new recruits, Kuepfer spent the so-called rookie night running around the Hamilton campus doing stride jumps in student pubs and outside women’s residences—sporting only running shoes and a jockstrap lined with heat balm. The evening was capped off by drinking an odious nonalcoholic concoction that Kuepfer likens to “cottage cheese and sardines.” Then, reeling from nausea, he braced himself while senior teammates shaved a circle on his head. “I freaked out at first,” says Kuepfer, now wearing a hat to cover his bald spot. “It sure leaves a lasting impression of your first week in university.”

For many students, the most lasting lessons of campus life are learned outside the classroom walls—in an array of activities ranging from the passion of campus politics and social activism to the nervous exhilaration of collegiate sports and fraternity parties. It is where tomorrow’s leaders in every field first test their ideas and discover their skills. Until recently, university officials have had little involvement in after-class activities, leaving campus groups to organize clubs, first-year orientation and a host of student services. But growing concern over alcohol abuse and sexual discrimination, coupled with increasing demands to accommodate students of diverse backgrounds, has raised the profile of extracurricular life. Says Dima Utgoff, director of student services at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., and president of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services: “We are now being held accountable for everything that goes on.”

Of all campus activities, the chief target for reform is first-year orientation, usually a week-long ritual that includes activities ranging from wearing bizarre outfits while screaming offensive chants to participating in alcohol-related tests of endurance. Says Louis Gliksman, a research psychologist with Ontario’s Addiction Research Foundation who studied universi-

ty students’ drinking patterns: “The first year is the binge year, and it usually starts with orientation.” But some critics say that the rituals themselves, not the alcohol, are the problem. While Kuepfer emerged from the Marauders’ rites of passage with some amusing anecdotes and a bad haircut, one of his fellow McMaster students was much less fortunate. During a Sept. 6 residence orientation organized by students, Mark Woitzik of Whitby, Ont., became paralysed from the chest down after slipping and hitting his neck on the ground while trying to do a headstand in the mud. Says Woitzik, now in rehabilitation for his spinal injury in Toronto’s Lyndhurst hospital: “We were supposed to do pushups, but everyone got carried away.”

Meanwhile, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., past controversy over sexist slogans and alcohol abuse led to a complete overhaul this year of its week-long orientation program. In addition to a ban on “hazing”—initiation rituals such as forcing first-year male and female students into an exercise where the men do pushups with women lying underneath them—the school’s student council required each orientation leader to sign a pledge not to drink, lead offensive cheers or indulge in sexual activities with firstyear participants. Says third-year student Colleen Kennedy, 20, the campus activities commissioner: “It might not be as fun, but it’s not their frosh week.”

The changing composition of the postsecondary student populace is challenging the status quo in other areas of campus activity. In particular, the strong presence of older female students is giving a higher profile to day care, campus security and women’s studies, as well as expanding the choice of after-class activities. Says Bernice Edward, a 32-year-old thirdyear education student at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, which is affiliated with the University of Regina: “We hold family-oriented events instead of beer bashes or ladies’ nights.” But access is the issue for part-time students such as Paula Gauthier, 47, who is taking a social sciences course at the University of Prince Edward Island. Says Gauthier: “Services should not just shut down at night.” Indeed, an executive at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund told the University of Toronto student newspaper The Varsity that under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ guarantee of

“life, liberty and security of the person,” university administrators could be held responsible for any untoward incidents unless they improve campus safety, especially after dark.

Still, despite the evolving complexity of academic life, many students look to conventional after-class pursuits to improve their employment opportunities after graduation. Faced with soaring numbers of universitytrained competitors for fewer jobs, students say that an undergraduate degree alone has become common currency with most employers. As such, some campus leaders and administrators complain that extracurricular involvement is characterized by greed or apathy. “There’s a real ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude,” says Kelly Lamrock, full-time national chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students, an Ottawa-based service and lobby group that represents 400,000 university students.

Indeed, in a study of Canadian university presidents’ perceptions of campus-life issues released in May, 1991, Queen’s University professors Thomas Williams and Martin Schiralli found that the respondents’ chief concern was student preoccupation with career goals. That serious tone also has touched extracurricular activities. “A lot of students are more concerned with recycling than partying,” says Mary Jean O’Donnell, 25, a second-year women’s studies student and co-ordinator of the Student Environment Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Adds Terry Robinson, 21, a second-year physical education student at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.: “You’re trying to make contacts who might help out later on.”

Despite academic and career pressures, the more traditional life around campus pubs, parties and sporting events still plays an important role in student activities. When University of New Brunswick officials in Fredericton announced in February that they would extend quiet hours during residence orientation, 300 students marched in protest. “People exploded all at once,” says 22-year-old Jonathan Keith, a business student in his final year. “The social aspect of this university is too important.” Even at schools that pride themselves on academic excellence, athletics remains a vital part of campus life. When the board of governors at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., stopped funding the university’s football program last November to cut costs, the school’s alumni immediately protested and started a special fund to keep the team alive and safeguard future athletic programs.

Indeed, academic officials are becoming increasingly aware that extracurricular activities set the tone for entire universities. For some, the desire to create a more positive campus atmosphere is rooted in pragmatism. Says Robert Sproule, business manager for the University of Calgary’s students union: “Students need to leave with a warm, fuzzy feeling if they are going to respond as alumni to university fund-raising efforts.” And Tracy Lyn Lettner, a first-year student at Ottawa’s Carleton University, says that she plans to become involved with peer counselling, ^ sports and other activities in order to enjoy ; the university experience. “You’re putting 9 down $10,000 for a degree, not the courses,” 1 says Lettner. “So I might as well be silly for I the next four years and have fun.”

DIANE BRADY