This isn’t mandatory

Off the Beat

No matter how terrible your orientation experience was, I can almost certainly guarantee that your Golden Bear Orientation leader had a worse time. For me, perhaps more dreadful than the sleepless nights — and even worse than the omnipresent fear of losing a freshman on public transit — was the exasperation of answering “The Question.”

If you’ve ever been an orientation leader before, you know which one I’m talking about. It’s the one you were asked ad nauseum, from before the first awkward icebreaker until even after the group had dispersed after final closing. It’s the message that lit up your home screen with notifications from 10, 20 — sometimes even 30 students — asking the same question every day.

Everybody, say it with me now: “Is this thing mandatory?”

If you’re a freshman: Yes, this is mandatory. In fact, everything is mandatory, and your registration will be held if you miss a single event. No exceptions. Full stop.

My frustration stems not from the fact that so many freshmen were asking me questions or even that they were all asking the same one. In most cases, asking questions is highly encouraged, and seeking clarification through follow-up is a skill that should be cultivated.

Even if I believed otherwise, it was my job as an orientation leader to aid these freshmen — incessant, repetitive questions and all — during their first week at Cal, and I was ready to be the best damn orientation leader these freshmen could ever hope to be assigned.

I had been trained, mentally prepared and given a standard response for “The Question” and every one of its iterations. Yet every time someone asked me, “So how mandatory is this activity really?” I couldn’t help but be annoyed and frustrated before I delivered the scripted answer.

The standard response was an elegant composition of guilt (“We just want to remind you that you’ve already paid for orientation”), concession (“This isn’t mandatory …”), sandwiched by more guilt (“… but we highly encourage that you participate in everything”).

Typically, the three-word concession was enough of a blessing for the freshmen to excuse themselves from whatever “Incredibly Exciting Activity” my co-leader and I had planned, but it wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t personally offended that my students probably had more exciting social ventures to pursue, nor was I unsympathetic toward their boredom with the tediously long orientation program.

So at the end of it all, why was I so frustrated by “The Question”?

I suppose my biggest issue with “The Question” was not how frequently it was asked, but the apathy it conveyed. Clearly, most people only wanted to participate in the activities that they absolutely had to attend: the “if you don’t go to this, some terrible consequence that will affect your entire future will be inflicted upon you” kind of events. And honestly, this confused me. Why approach an entire experience as a string of obligations?

To me, orientation was a chance for new students to “become oriented” with the campus, sure; but it was also a prime opportunity for freshmen to truly be Freshmen, capital F, without hesitation or fear of judgment.

Forget the frat parties; there are four more years of those to come. This golden seven-day orientation period, on the other hand, is a one-time occurrence, one in which even the most mundane of Berkeley experiences — eating terrible food at Crossroads, hiking to the Big C, sitting on Memorial Glade — are introduced as novel, and perhaps even exciting, events.

For many freshmen, treating orientation as a string of obligations, then, likely transformed the week from the intimate insight into Cal that it was supposed to be into an impersonal process composed of X’s for non-mandatory activities and O’s for those irritatingly required events.

If I were to answer “The Question” again, I would veer off of the standard, scripted path.

It’s true: Not much is mandatory, but I would encourage participation anyway. In fact, I would also encourage open-mindedness and spontaneity, a willingness to be uncomfortable and a readiness for looking dumb.

Orientation — like life at Cal — is about discovering yourself, pushing boundaries and saying yes to more things, not fulfilling a list of requirements.

So do it all. Try out for that dance team. Get that extra boba topping, even though you can’t afford it. Let yourself fall in love. Say yes to that team social, and forget — just for a night — that you have a midterm next week.

I’ll let you in on a secret: In the end, Bear Pact is the only thing that’s mandatory anyway. So try everything, or even nothing at all. No one’s forcing you to make the most of it.

Off the Beat columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion columnists have been selected.