“This is not your normal orientation,” Michela Weihl, BC ’17, said.
In fact, it’s the opposite. Weihl is one of a number of student activists who have created a Disorientation Guide for this year’s incoming students.
Instead of events promoting Columbia spirit and dance parties on aircraft carriers, the zine-style publication features contributions from campus activist groups that cover topics ranging from trans students at Barnard to the student protests of 1968.
Its authors say the goal is to draw attention to the intersectionality of student activism at Columbia.
“I think it’s helpful to show how a lot of the things we’re pushing for are connected,” another Disorientation organizer and Barnard-Columbia Divest member Alex Hastings, BC ’16, said. “Columbia has to be held accountable by all of us together.”
It’s not the first time a Disorientation guide has been created—similar booklets were released in 2000 and 2002. Weihl said that the impetus for this year’s project came from a talk given by trans advocate Dean Spade, BC ’97, at a Barnard Student Government Association meeting last spring.
“[Spade] spoke about various ways of organizing and changing culture at schools, and disorientation guides were one of those ways,” Weihl said.
Spade’s words turned into what Hastings described as “a summer of Facebook messages, email chains, and extended deadlines,” and the final product was released in late August.
“The idea is to give incoming as well as current students a sense of what’s really going on at this school,” Weihl said. “It was totally open to anyone who felt they had something to submit, but it’s specifically for perspectives you wouldn’t otherwise get.”
The guide includes introductions to various campus issues, guides to the Columbia administration, and a variety of alternative orientation events throughout the New Student Orientation Program and the first week of school. The events include a consent education session last Monday as well as a speak-out against sexual assault on Sept. 12.
There has been some negative feedback to the guide—some anonymous comments on Bwog expressed concern that the Disorientation guide was too confrontational and does not advocate trying to work with administrators.
One commenter pointed out significant differences in tone between this year’s ‘Smiles and Lies’ guide to “dealing with your administration” and the same section in the 2002 guide. The commenter called the section a “destructive, combative, and overall unhelpful document aimed at creating drama over an institution,” especially compared to the more “useful” advice in previous versions.
Still, some first-years said the guerilla nature of the guide made it a more genuine introduction to Columbia.
Ally Hand, BC ’18, who attended the Disorientation consent talk, said she felt it made an interesting counterpoint to the compulsory Sexual Violence and Gender-Based Misconduct session during NSOP.
“Disorientation was less diplomatic,” Hand said. “It really got to the point of the problems and they discussed more controversial matters. It felt more organic and less ambiguous.”
Hand also said that the event helped her make connections on campus. “It was only my second night at school, but after that [the consent talk] I felt really welcomed and comfortable,” she said.
Kira Tsougarakis, BC ’18, also attended the event, which she called “phenomenal.”
“If you’ll pardon my language, they really knew their shit,” she said. “It was so nice to ask questions to someone who knew it all.”
Tsougarakis said that the NSOP-sponsored consent education felt like it was “putting on a show,” while the Disorientation session felt like more of a safe space to talk about the issue.
“Everyone was really friendly and it felt like a little community,” she said. “It almost felt like we were meeting in secret, so, especially because I know [No] Red Tape and Columbia don’t always get along, I felt a little rebellious.”
Both Hand and Tsougarakis said they were already interested in activism during high school. And far from being disoriented, both plan to continue their activist involvement on campus.
“One of the complications of holding these events is that you end up with an audience that’s already interested or knowledgeable about these issues,” Weihl said. “We knew that going in, so it’s about training the trainer, getting freshmen who are already interested in the issues and giving them the tools to go into the community and talk about them in a more informed way.”
But at the end of the day, Weihl said it’s not all about the activism.
“It can be hard for freshmen to come to Columbia and be told during NSOP that Columbia’s great, we’re all friends, we’re all looking out for each other, and then having experiences over time that cause you to be disillusioned or make you think, ‘Wow, this place isn’t really looking out for me,’” Weihl said.
She said Disorientation aims to make first-years feel more comfortable on campus.
Disorientation “is about keeping that in mind and knowing that it’s not only you who feels this way,” Weihl said. “There is a community here that’s supportive.”