When I arrived at Columbia University, I wore jeans, a dress shirt, and a backpack. I did my best to look like a deer in headlights to convey that I was a college freshman. I wasn’t, of course. But my disguise lacked both an access card to enter any of the buildings and a yellow orientation badge. Getting into Columbia is tough, but for a conservative journalist, getting into Freshman Orientation was tougher.
The main event was “Community Forum,” where first-year students get to “acknowledge the importance of social activism and diversity on campus.” The following day would bring a workshop on sexual health called “Consent and You.” Who would want to miss them? The orientation packet was reassuring in marketing both the events: “Required of all students.”
It’s fortunate that I always run into people I know in the strangest places. I bumped into an old friend from college who, amused at my mission, rolled her eyes and got me in. The event speaker, a spunky and “diverse” college veteran, knew the right formula for a multicultural speech. First, she acknowledged how differences have brought people together: “In light of our differences we have all arrived at the same point in time and space…” Then she emphasized the commonality: “…At an academically challenging institution in the heart of New York City…” Next, she passive-aggressively told us to get with the program: “We hope that by the end of the night you’ll be able to appreciate the ties that bind together…” She finished by assuring us that each of us was special: “…while celebrating the uniqueness of each individual in the room.”
A screen behind the speakers that had previously shown Maya Angelou quotes turned to a painfully earnest video chronicling Columbia’s admirable history of “social activism.” Highlights included the effort to admit women into the university and (un-ironically) a high-profile lecture featuring Iranian thinker and sometime dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The video also justified the campus’s famous 1960s protests as a response to the deterioration of life in the inner city, the rise of the women’s rights movement, and the Vietnam War. These protests, the narrator went on, were peaceful. That would have been a shock to my grandfather, who, on his way to work on the campus during those troubled times, donned riot gear. The lights came back on. The speaker returned to the podium and called our attention to the variously colored flyers distributed at the beginning of the program. “If you have a green flyer, please stand.” She explained that these were randomly distributed but there was enough of every color to represent the proportion of minority groups on campus. It would give students a good visual example of the diversity in the Class of 2012.
Obediently, a number of students stood, scattered across the auditorium, both male and female. “This group represents the number of lesbian students in your class.” Both sexes quirked their eyebrows. “And these are the number of Asian Americans in your class.” A large swath of the audience stood. Students laughed at a confirmed stereotype, but were told to shush. “And these are the number of African Americans.” White students stood sheepishly as a few seated black students cheered. Orientation leaders approached microphones next to the stage to read admissions essays of anonymous freshmen. One was a girl who self-identified as a boy because her parents didn’t want a daughter. Another was handicapped. Another was gay. And another was raised in war-torn Sarajevo, with a childhood marked by the struggle to survive. Faces in the audience continually grew serious. We may have been diverse, but we were united in our empathy for the hardships of those who were more diverse. One student told me during the freshman scavenger hunt following the program, “It was good to remind people of diversity.” Why? I asked. “Uh. Because it brings awareness about others’ experiences? That sounds corny, doesn’t it.” She then ran off to her assigned orientation group.
She was excited, though not by the diversity. She was excited by her new station in life. She had arrived “at this point in time and space” with a bunch of other 18-year-olds. Columbia could hold all the diversity workshops it wanted, but this was a four-year sleepover, and these students would enjoy every second of it.
Of course, the mandatory sexual health workshop was another story.
J. Peter Freire is managing editor of The American Spectator and a 2008 Phillips Foundation Fellow.