Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Frosh Week: Student Peer Pressure, and Stupidity Abound--Cross-Culturally

It's Frosh Week on many campuses in North America. While this can be a fun time of adjusting to a new place, and meeting friends, it can also be a time of seriously negative peer pressure and stupidity. Most excesses have been disallowed, sometimes after deaths (blindfold removed, left naked in the woods 200 miles from anywhere, dies of exposure trying to walk out), injuries, or suicides.

Some activities, while humiliating, are mitigated by group uniformity and anonymity. Others are just plain stupid. They are also not particularly voluntary due to: peer pressure, greater peer pressure on those who don't fit the norm (eg visible minority, international student, female, introverted), academic experience and later performance tied to group cohesion begun during Frosh Week.

While I am (somewhat) inured to the annual disruption of marauding gangs (yes marauding, and yes gangs) singing "We Are the Engineers", and can even feel sorry for the ones coerced into this rite of passage by virtue of their university registration--especially the women, and especially the one wearing hijab (methinks her parents REALLY didn't have this in mind), I do think there should be limits on how far a faculty is willing to degrade itself publicly.

I draw the limit at what I saw yesterday at lunchtime.

I was entering the campus at one of its 4 corners, when I saw a number of young people milling around a city lamppost. Up on the lamppost at about 6 feet high was a young woman with her hands tied behind her back and her head hanging down (in submission, shame, perdurance?), being tied to the pole with duct tape around the legs, and now around the waist. I couldn't help but approach. 2 rather nervous first year students identified themselves as frosh from the Faculty of Engineering, and said that as part of their initiation they had to earn money, and this is how they thought to do it, though the sign wasn't up yet. Did I want to contribute?

I said "No, because I don't approve, and you are lucky I don't call the police". They both look shocked and the young man said "Oh!?".  I said, "Psychiatrist...and that is not a good idea", looking up at the woman on the lamppost.  He looked more shocked and nodded.

Then I walked 2 blocks to the Campus Security Office (on my route) and reported them. I made it clear I don't think there is any true voluntariness in such actions, and that the experience was likely to be more traumatizing to the frosh on the lamppost than anticipated. The policewoman on the desk seemed calm to the point of too calm, but when I looked back after walking out of there, 2 male officers were already dispatched and heading towards the appropriate corner.

Will anyone say anything to the Dean of Engineering? I doubt it. Ah, and what if the local news crews had gotten involved in this one? Edifying? Improving "town and gown" relations? Hopefully not the leftist news crews--because the woman on the lamppost was a visible minority, East Asian, and looking rather like a prisoner of war, refugee, boat people descendant, newly arrived international student, whatever. Not good. Leftists love to run with this sort of thing.

The only "saving grace" is that some of the people tying her up were from her same racial group--though the 2 of East Asian descent, male and female, who spoke to me were audibly Canadian. Please don't misunderstand, I think this is appalling for anyone to do to others, no matter what race, ethnic or interfaith combination. At least the woman was clothed. Men tend to do this kind of thing to each other with the subject/ target/ victim disrobed.

When I recommended, in my post, Advice to Saudi and Other Foreign Students Studying Abroad--Part I Chiara's 10 Recommendations and 10 Tips, to be engaged in university life, I didn't mean to suggest this level of mindless adherence to group pressure by any student. One can be off campus for Frosh Week with a nice rehearsed excuse, and faked remorse for missing out on all the "fun". I know. I did it annually for undergrad. I made friends, and had positive experiences anyway. For new students including foreign ones, the rest of the first month of university is also prime time for getting involved on campus and meeting new people. Where group participation is necessary for academic success it is better to have been legitimately absent than to refuse to participate, or to do so obviously over-reluctantly.

My apologies to sane engineers, including those who are friends and family, but this is the faculty that happens to be most wedded to this type of thing currently, and the "offending one" yesterday. Med students do stupid things--usually involving inappropriate "borrowing" of cadavers--but legal action has put a damper on that.

I did get caught in the annual initiation of the 1st years by the 2nd years in the medical faculty of my university in France. This was more an ambush during class (biochem? right in the middle of "les acides aminés"?), and a battle of warring sides--one armed with their wits, and the other with rotten fruit and talc. Somehow I wound up in a stairwell with a group whose self-appointed leader did an excellent job of having us man the barricades and plan an escape route. All was good, until the walk home along the tree-lined boulevard. Still marauding 2nd years caught me and others with talc.

I proceeded on my various shopping errands dressed in a lovely talc shawl, and with talc-coiffed hair. Très chic! I was more fortunate than others, however. One little old lady was upended and fractured her wrist; a few people got talc in their eyes and needed urgent treatment. The faculty and the police put an end to future "bisoutage" (initiation) of this particular sort.

What are your impressions of this action I witnessed by students, and mine?
What experiences of initiation or Frosh Week have you had?
What is/was Frosh Week like on your campus?
What is your general attitude towards such activities?
Do you agree that there is greater peer pressure by their necessity to prove belonging on some?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Related Posts:

Advice to Saudi and Other Foreign Students Studying Abroad--Part I Chiara's 10 Recommendations and 10 Tips
Speaking of Condoms: Responsibility for HIV Transmission--Self or Shared? Gender Bias?
Advice to Saudi and Other Foreign Students Studying Abroad: Part II Fouad Alfarhan's Advice and Typology: The Fool, The Fearful, and The Hero *Newly edited, with Introduction added.


Susanne said...

I'm all for people having fun and even being a bit goofy, but when it comes to making people do things they aren't comfortable with by heightened peer pressure or whatever, I don't like it. Some activities are just plain dangerous. I think that lady was probably glad you stepped in to say something to her peers. It's hurtful to think of what people will do or allow to be done in order to be accepted.

Chiara said...

Susanne-thanks very much for your comment, and your reassurance. I went to the Campus Security office just to follow up, and they couldn't reveal what happened due to confidentiality reasons, but the new officers who spoke with me were appalled and ready to head out again until they were clear it was past tense. They assured me that the service was pleased that it had been reported, it was appropriate to do so, and there probably was follow-up with the Faculty of Engineering. I hope there was, because it is denigrating to the Faculty image as well as being harmful to individual students. Thanks again for your comment!


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