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Frosh-O gender tensions tackled

Kare Antonacci and Karen Langley | Friday, April 14, 2006

While Kyle Rocca enjoyed Freshman Orientation Weekend, something struck the Walsh Hall freshman as strange.

Depending on whether Walsh was socializing with a men’s dorm or women’s dorm, she said, the mixer events took on a decidedly different tone.

“Any time that we were with a girls’ dorm was in a sit-down activity. With the guys’ dorms, it’s always a physical, touching activity,” Rocca said Sunday, pointing to the intertwined limbs of Walsh and Alumni Hall freshmen doing the “human knot.”

“With girls it is not one-on-one, but with boys it’s like, ‘Here’s your date,'” Rocca said. “I’ve had fun, but it’s awkward. It’s not normal social functioning.”

Rocca’s observations spell out the feelings of many Notre Dame students about Freshman Orientation weekend, the University’s annual activity-packed crash course in dorm life. Designed to allow new students to meet as many of their peers as possible while distracting them from homesickness, Frosh-O instead often becomes a source of lasting tension between the sexes at Notre Dame, students and University officials said.

“Frosh-O is the time during which initial impressions of campus culture and gender norms at the University are established in the minds of freshmen,” said Ali Wishon, chairperson of the Student Senate Gender Issues Committee. “By encouraging events that reinforce typical gender stereotypes and the college ‘hook-up’ culture, we are setting a dangerous precedent for freshmen to uphold.”

Creating unhealthy relationships between the sexes is not the University’s intended outcome for orientation weekend, said Ann Firth, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs.

“Freshman Orientation is simply how we welcome the newest members of our community, but we always have to be aware of how all men and women are treated at the University,” Firth said. “There is always room to grow in terms of being a place that really welcomes people, and there is always room to grow in terms of our attitudes.”

Changing the toneAfter a series of focus groups held last spring, student government officials found some orientation events to be so damaging to campus gender relations that it labeled them “juvenile and hypersexualized” in its April report to the University’s Board of Trustees.

Student body president Dave Baron, former president Adam Istvan and former vice president Karla Bell told the trustees that activities requiring male and female freshmen to pair off should be eliminated and replaced with events between many students of the same sex.

“I received a lot of feedback [from the focus groups] that students felt uncomfortable with what they labeled as ‘coupling’ that happened during freshman orientation weekend,” said student body vice president Lizzi Shappell.

Over the summer, Baron said, Freshman Orientation commissioners worked with administrators and members of student government to create activities promoting healthier gender relations, which some dorms implemented last weekend.

In addition to increasing same-sex interhall events, some dorms incorporated icebreakers that paired freshmen by birthdays and hometowns to reduce awkwardness. Side activities, like inflatable games, were also set up to distract those who felt uncomfortable with forced interaction.

“At the end of my Frosh-O, I felt like I had met all the girls in the world but didn’t know any guys in my own dorm,” said Jonathon Floyd, a sophomore Alumni Orientation Commissioner. “I think that the way the events take place puts much more pressure on meeting the opposite sex rather than people in your own dorm, which for some may create tension and discomfort for more shy people and possibly unhealthy gender relations.”

Across South Quad, Howard Hall tried this year to branch away from the stereotype of orientation activities between one women’s dorm and one men’s dorm, instead holding activities with neighboring women’s dorms Pangborn and Lyons, sophomore orientation staff member Pia Mauro said.

“We want to facilitate activities that encourage girls to approach guys and vice versa,” Mauro said, “but not to force them into relationships.”

Pasquerilla West rector Sister Sue Bruno said she supports the inclusion of same-sex interhall events in Frosh-O weekend.

“I think it’s healthy,” she said. “We’ve always wanted to have a good relationship with our neighbor [Pasquerilla East] … We can have friendly bantering and allegiance to our own dorm, but we need to be able to interact in a respectful, friendly manner.”

In her years at Notre Dame, Bruno said she has seen great efforts made to encourage balanced interaction between the sexes.

“In terms of Frosh-O, they’ve done a tremendous job of making it more comfortable,” she said.

Also changed this year was the annual “From Football to Finals” presentation, designed to inform first-year students about how to stay safe at Notre Dame.

A work in progressBut even with this year’s adjustments, Frosh-O remains a work in progress, and not everyone agrees that the current orientation format is flawed. While support exists for same-sex interhall activities, not all such events went smoothly last weekend.

“Saturday night our event with Farley didn’t go very well,” said sophomore Megan O’Hara, a Campus Orientation Commissioner for Lewis Hall, of a same-sex interhall event that was encouraged but not required by the University.

“There were groups of Lewis girls and Farley girls standing around separately,” she said. “It’s a good idea in theory, but there are 128 Lewis freshmen and they don’t even know each other’s names yet. They don’t feel as obligated to reach out to other girls. They want to meet boys.”

O’Hara said that if her dorm were to hold a similar event in the future, she would have recommended that students drop the dorm shirts that broadcast their hall affiliation and often become an immediate source of division.

“I would have had them wear normal clothes so girls would have just looked for other girls who looked nice and talked to them,” she said.

Same-sex interhall events might be more successful if they were not just confined to orientation weekend, said Farley rector Sister Carrine Etheridge.

“I think it’s important to meet other girls on [North] Quad,” she said. “[But] Frosh-O is so compressed, so I think the key is planting seeds and doing follow up. I would like to see our freshmen do follow-up a few months later with girls from [Breen-Phillips] and Cavanaugh.”

And while several freshmen sensed Orientation Weekend was setting an unhealthy tone, others said they recognized its artificial constructs wouldn’t last long.

“This feels like summer camp,” said Keenan freshman Scott McBride. “We go around marching, chanting, shouting ‘We love you’ to girls’ dorms. Obviously on Tuesday summer camp ends and college starts.”

Fellow Keenan freshman Lance Ladendorf denied that the weekend focuses too much on meeting the opposite sex.

“Right now there are 90-something [freshman] guys in my dorm,” he said. “There are no [fraternities] at ND, so Keenan is it for me. You meet maybe three girls at an activity, and you need to get to know guys, too. I think it’s great to move into our dorm with freshmen and a few sophomores. We’re all a little nervous and going into it together.”

Stanford rector Father Tom Gaughan said he impresses upon his freshmen that regardless of the social activity on the Frosh-O slate, they should not feel pressured to participate.

“It’s possible that a guy has had a painful separation from his girlfriend and does not feel like running around and meeting girls on Frosh-O weekend,” Gaughan said. “It is most important to have activities that people find fun, comfortable, welcoming. The problem comes when people are forced or pressured into anything.”

Seeing through the ‘gender lens’Notre Dame recognizes that setting a positive gender relations tone does not stop with Frosh-O, said Heather Rakoczy, director of the University’s Gender Relations Center (GRC). Though a Women’s Resource Center has been present on campus since 1993, the creation of the GRC was announced March 1, 2004. Founded to create a healthier climate for women and men at the University, the center is striving to take on a more active role in improving how gender functions at Notre Dame, Rakoczy said.

“When a gender lens is missing from the conversation, gender relations and gender issues can become an invisible entity at the University,” Rakoczy said. “I hope that the GRC can begin collaborating with other University departments to provide that gender lens.

“If that happens, we might begin addressing how gender relations operates within [Freshman Orientation] and in so many other contexts on campus wherein it may have gone unaddressed in explicit ways as well.”

Etheridge agreed Frosh-O is not the only culprit for negative gender relations at Notre Dame.

“I think it’s funny to see kids packed into a dorm room with the lights off in a haze of alcohol and then to hear them complain about how bad gender relations are,” she said, adding students might form better relationships once the school year starts if they try to meet people through clubs and activities instead.

Still, student government officials are confident the changes to Freshman Orientation will have a positive effect on overall gender relations at Notre Dame.

“I cannot speak for the University as a whole, but I feel that setting the foundation for long-lasting healthy relationships between and within the genders is paramount during Frosh-O,” Wishon said.

Firth praised students for taking on a leading role in bringing about this year’s changes.

“These were positive first steps and certainly steps forward,” she said. “I think our goals are to welcome people, and to welcome them into a community that is comfortable with dialogue and welcomes all equally and has healthy attitudes about gender.”