Orientation Week requires more equitable volunteerism

O-Week is too demanding of volunteers’ time and money

Mariah believes Orientation is inaccessible and unequitable for volunteers.
Photo by Curtis Heinzl

5000 incoming students, 130 Orientation executives, and 1000 Orientation leaders. This is the person-power needed to plan and execute one of Canada’s most extensive student-run university Orientation Weeks.

The labour and financial burden of Orientation call into question the integrity of the systems in place that praise volunteerism and censor talk of compensation.

Orientation Week consists of five activity-filled days meant to welcome the incoming class to their faculty and the university. From sunrise to sunset, leaders and executives gear up in their identifiable outfits to greet the incoming students with a smile on their face.

The Orientation leaders are the heart of this operation. They engage with their groups and directly facilitate the activities that have been meticulously planned by the executives over the previous 10 months.

The Orientation committees’ passion is infatuating, generating a family of memories and connections to carry with you for a lifetime—but at what cost? 

Executive members are informed prior to signing up that this is a nearly year-long commitment and will be their raison d’être once the four-month summer countdown to O-Week begins.

Love and reminiscence of one’s own Orientation often drives the commitment required for this level of volunteer dedication—the operative word here being ‘volunteer.’ All Orientation leaders and most executives are unpaid volunteers, which calls into question the sustainability and equitability of these demanding positions.

Financials, logistics, communications, equity work, and team management are all key components of any well-organized business. These are in the hands of unpaid students.

The inconvenient truth is that this isn’t feasible. The glamour and sensationalizing of Orientation come at a hidden cost shouldered by the Orientation executives.

For those who keep track, volunteers put in a range of 25 hours per week and up to 17 hours per day in the summer leading up to Orientation. This makes holding a job nearly impossible.

Executives are expected to be on-campus two weeks prior to O-Week, while leaders are expected to arrive one week later, causing conflicts with one of two solutions: be present or resign.

Plane, bus, rescinded work contracts—volunteers are expected to do whatever it takes to be present with a smile and ready to promote the inclusivity that was not equitably accorded to them. This lost time is essential to train all stakeholders but is not compensated.

The numbers, as so diligently tracked for all visible Orientation matters, are not so carefully examined when it comes to executives’ roles and responsibilities during O-Week.

130 executives covering the costs of 1000 volunteers does not generate an atmosphere that is all-welcoming. Those who can afford to train and support their leaders for those few weeks are praised for their volunteerism, while those unable to afford this practice are deemed ineligible.

The cohesiveness generating this environment is curated throughout the year prior to Orientation through social gatherings: faculty families come together to meet those who will be their co-leaders and executives for the next nine months. This is a time to find friendships and outline the Orientation goals for the year as a unified body.

All faculties participate in their own Pre-Week, which are events prior to Orientation to strengthen teams and decompress before kicking into overdrive. However, inconsistency during this time poses problems. Some faculties choose to make everything “bring your own,” or plan activities requiring only attendance to cut costs. These are band-aid solutions.

This year has marked a milestone in the return of in-person activities and recognition of more equitable practices for Orientation. Traditional Orientation activities are being revamped to become more accessible and accountable, while Orientation leaders are provided with more subsidies for uniforms by faculties that have been able to advocate on their behalf.

With two steps forward comes one step back as Orientation preparation becomes that much more rigorous, requiring more time and sacrifice from the Orientation committees.

There is no singular antagonist to blame; this is a systemic issue. We can’t keep relying on volunteer dedication and the privileged to support Orientation financially.

This is a call to action to address the systemic challenges faced by Orientation committees.

The momentum that drives faculties to uphold traditions and appearances are the result of off-the-record investments of time, money, and effort that sacrifice the personal and professional lives of the committees.

Orientation is a testament to the love and pride these individuals have for their university, but it is exactly this love that is needed to effect real change and implement a sustainable system of compensation for future volunteers.

ArtSci, how do you feel? Nursing, is this a code red? NEWTs, why aren’t you cheering?

We must demand the same accessibility and equitability for Orientation executives and leaders that was afforded to the incoming class.


Mariah Keeling is a third-year Health Sciences student.

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