Introducing New Students to Quirky Orientation Week Traditions

When I plopped down into a pew in Finney Chapel last Sunday, halfway through Robert Post’s one-man variety show, I was soaked from the rain outside, exhausted, and confused by what was happening in front of me. Post is a physical comedian, and one whose dubbed-over acts felt at times reminiscent of something like CLUE or The Rocky Horror Picture Show — dated, achingly meme-able, and only partially self-aware. My generation chases ironic humor — I think our of everything in Post’s show, a de-contextualized video segment where he vlogged his travels through Cowboy Town, IN— an excerpt from his “POST from the Road” series — drew the most laughs. This was Post’s fourth show on campus, and a was an effort to end orientation on a light note.

Sitting there, feeling cynical about another sure-to-be-grueling-yet-also-rewarding semester, I was also reminded of how I felt during my own new student orientation. Events specifically intended to orient newcomers to the college environment spark a sense of wonder in upperclass students that tends to fade over time, but is so fresh during the first week on campus. Orientation week and the time that follows provides an opportunity for the new students to experience collegiate wackiness as brand new and brimming with opportunities, rather than a perpetual mad dash between meetings in fevered anticipation of imminent classes.

As Director of Orientation and Student Activities and Associate Director of the Student Union Tina Zwegat put it, there’s a particular whimsy to wandering through the many campus events post-Wednesday’s Connect Cleveland initiative and seeing all of “the purple shirts” huddled in groups, talking with their new friends. These events in particular were well-attended — one of them included the quirky Bob Ross painting night, which had handed out 190 canvases by 8:15 p.m. Meanwhile, the Cat in the Cream’s game night saw traffic between 300 and 350 people. 

“I consciously plan events in each venue,” Zwegat said. Much of her job during orientation involves making sure that students feel comfortable in campus hang-out spots before upperclassmen come surging back in. “What I’m trying to do is put [types] of music in the spaces that are a little bit more indicative of what normally happens in that space. … I want them to feel comfortable coming in.” 

Dizzy Fae’s orientation concert at the Cat in the Cream drew a crowd of over 300. 

“Because [Dizzy Fae] was so enthusiastic, that made me really enthusiastic,” said College first-year Jooske Van Houten. “I think I’m going to go back there again.” 

Van Houten was also charmed by the avant-garde nature of the Bob Ross painting night at the ’Sco, which was a fun place for her to paint with friends. 

Waldman expressed a similar sentiment, especially in her role as a Resident Assistant.

“As soon as I walked into Wilder, the walls were shaking with the low calming sounds of Bob Ross’s voice,” she said. “Going to your typical talks and community meeting sessions and resource fairs is expected, but a Bob Ross paint night is definitely pretty unconventional. It’s nice to bond with your peers over that.”

The bike-in movie on Friday night, Surf’s Up, drew 140 students to spread out on the lawn in front of Mudd Center. If Robert Post’s show was anachronistic, Surf’s Up felt similarly so. Though it’s a kid’s movie, it mimics documentary style filmmaking. 

“It kind of captures the zaniness of the mid-2000s and what it was like to grow up in that age,” said Waldman. This sort of strangeness is another opportunity for students to participate together in a shared unorthodox activity. It’s nice to have something to laugh at, to make fun of, and to bond over. Zwegat likes to keep it light when scheduling these events — hence the wacky comedy. 

“When we bring in new students I would just like to hope that returning students … reach out to those new students here,” Zwegat said. “Oberlin’s a great place to be, and you want them to feel included by everybody.”

And of course, there is something to be said for the return of upperclassmen as bringing its own sort of magic back to campus. 

“It was nice to see everyone meeting up again from over the summer,” Van Houten said of last weekend. “I was imagining doing that with my friends [in the future].”

The whimsy of Post’s show, while perhaps unwelcome to my tired mind, was nonetheless a reminder of the energizing force of passionate work. Post was first brought to Zwegat’s attention by dance and theater faculty who knew about the classes he taught in physical comedy — it is invigorating to see such work play out in practice, and a refreshing start to a new semester.