An incident at Carleton University involving orientation leaders wearing offensive T-shirts that appeared to speak out against the university’s Safe Space program has led to a heightened awareness of how orientation weeks are treated at universities across the country.
On Sept. 7, students from Carleton University, including orientation facilitators, engaged in an off-campus gathering where many of the attendees wore T-shirts that read “Fuck Safe Space.”
The gathering did not happen during orientation week and was off-campus, but there were orientation team leaders in attendance.
In a statement posted online, the orientation team leaders who participated in the gathering apologized for their behaviour and promised to engage in community service.
“While our intentions were not to harm or disrespect anyone, the T-shirts in question were without a doubt inappropriate, inconsiderate, offensive and disgraceful,” they wrote.
“Intent is not an excuse for impact and we take full responsibility for the seriousness of our actions.”
The Carleton University Safe-Space Program, a branch of their equity services, has been running at the university for over 10 years. Their website describes the project as “an important university-wide initiative to reduce the impact of homophobia and heterosexism on campus.”
“We hope that the misguided actions of a small group of students will not bring into question the hard work of these individuals and organizations,” said the orientation team leaders in their statement.
The incident at Carleton has drawn attention to what regulations Canadian universities have in place to ensure a welcoming and inclusive orientation week for new students.
At the University of New Brunswick, orientation week leaders – who are hand-picked and endorsed by members of the university community – receive extensive training prior to the start of the new school year.
“We do a number of things on our campus to foster a safe and inclusive environment for all students during fall orientation week and beyond,” said Sara Rothman, senior director of academic success at UNB.
“Our Student Union orientation leaders are required to attend three days of training. This training is designed to help student leaders understand their role, be prepared for emergencies and explore ways to welcome and include all new UNB students.”
Some of these initiatives include cutting out words that may be offensive to incoming students.
“We eliminated [the word ‘frosh’] out of the UNB culture. We don’t even call them ‘first years’ anymore because when we’re going up to a new student during orientation week, they could be a transfer student, they could be an international student,” said Devan Gunaseelan, this year’s orientation chair.
“So we actually just call them ‘new students.’ It’s easy and then we don’t really offend anybody that way.”
Leaders can also wear a pin to promote inclusiveness. The pin is black and has a rainbow triangle, the symbol of Safe Spaces, with the words “enjoy your orientation.”
“It is a subtle but tangible welcome to all students, regardless of sexual or gender identity, that they are welcome on our campus. Student leaders are not required to wear this pin but rather they self-select to do so, if they wish,” Rothman said.
All of this is a part of UNB’s overarching goal of inclusiveness and the expectation of its students to promote it.
“UNB is committed to creating a positive learning and working environment. The university expects that students will make responsible decisions about their own behaviour and abide by university regulations. These regulations apply to all UNB affiliated events, both on- and off-campus,” Rothman said.
UNB also has a Safe Spaces Project where students can display stickers to indicate that that space is one where people are free to express their gender identity and sexual orientation.
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