This article was printed in mitZine/OPENWIDE Volume 12 Issue 2 (2012)
Imagine this: it’s your O-Week, brought to you by Microsoft and Vitamin Water. As the week winds down, that nervous feeling in your stomach subsides and you start to attend classes, you learn about something called “mediation” – that is, an experience managed by corporate forces. Western University (née University of Western Ontario) boasts the biggest orientation program of its kind in Canada. Everything about O-Week is grand: grand themes, grand spirit, and grand expectations. After dubbing the welcome week “Imaginarium,” you’d expect encouragement for first-year students to fully immerse themselves in the moment and make not only the week, but also their whole undergrad experience, inventive and distinct.
However, one of the most visible presences at O-Week wasn’t imagination, but corporate influence. For the sake of fitting in with the Talbot Bowl crowd, frosh were instructed to live tweet this and hashtag that as if their fun depended on it and encouraged to document their O-Week using pre-approved marketing strategies from the university. Last school year, “UWO” underwent a public relations facelift when it became “Western University” for branding purposes. A revolutionary first step for university promotion, students became more PR agents than wide-eyed freshman. Official school hashtags were tossed out into the crowd, creating the pressure to stop the world and write a blurb ending with #westernu.
A fourth-year FIMS soph who wishes to remain anonymous says, “The week is planned in such a way that you are experiencing ‘the university’ based on the way the university would like to show itself.” O-Week has been around since the halcyon days of paper registration, but the technology that we use and our relationship to that technology has evolved. “I think the most noticeable change is the widespread use of smart phones to document every waking moment of the week,” the FIMS soph continues. “I remember my week as a frosh and sending a few texts to friends back at home with my pink flip phone.” Now that the Information Age has become the Instagram Age, documenting a moment for the Internet archives is crucial – especially during the whirlwind of O-Week. Lest we forget the social media and corporate influences that shaped our first freshman experience.
FIMS, a faculty hyper-aware of the society of the spectacle, is known for putting its own unique spin on O-Week programming. However, this year the faculty soph team was asked to cut its own charitable event from the schedule. “Stache-a-rama,” a charity midway carnival tradition, raises funds for the Western’s two main causes: the Terry Fox Foundation and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (Shinerama). The consensus on the pre-O-Week organizing board was that frosh felt uncomfortable being asked to donate their limited funds once they had already shelled out for the O-Kit. It was an issue of accessibility. Once all was said and done, members of the soph team were surprised to see that the midway boasted several corporate sponsorships. “We usually fundraise $20,000 from Midway,” an anonymous source on the Charity soph team says. And up until this year, Western has always posted the number one post-secondary charity fundraising figures in Canada. The FIMS soph expressed her bewilderment with the branding. “It’s too much to ask frosh for a few dollars to support cancer and cystic fibrosis research, but it’s not too much to advertise $900 laptops to them.” Despite evident frustration, the soph community was grateful for the sponsors. With free entrance, the midway was more financially accessible for first-year students. However, the opportunity was missed to connect with students on a deeper level— one that promotes imagining a cure, not a new, easily replaceable PC.