For most of us, they were the first beaming faces to beckon us onto campus, and the people responsible for our primary impression of the Boston College brand. They were the authentic, if not well-selected, stories of life and growth at BC, intended to be relatable and down-to-earth.
Still, the people behind these stories were shrouded by some kind of untouchable mystique, an aura of all-knowing, put-together seniority that blinded our unadjusted, freshman eyes. Until now.
It would seem that upon closer examination, Orientation Leaders are people too, and as real-life Orientation Leader Marwa Eltahir, MCAS ’17, tells it, orientation is just as formative an experience for OLs as it is for the freshmen they lead – and no, they are not always that impossibly cheery in real life.
At 6:30 a.m. on the Monday morning of an orientation week, Marwa’s day begins frantically scrambling for a nametag and ironing her “infamous khaki shorts and polo.” She grabs a roster of her freshman group members’ names, her script for the day’s informative sketch performances and a change of clothes for a Plexy evening of dodgeball.
The sprint from her summer housing in Vanderslice Hall to Lower for an early morning staff meeting is a jarring start to the day, but is entirely necessary considering, “one of the most repeated mottos of orientation goes, early is on time and on time is late.”
As Marwa puts it simply, “Orientation serves as the only collective experience that all students are exposed to when they first enter Boston College.” It marks a time before students set out on their divergent paths, exploring clubs and sports and excelling in a multitude of courses and majors; for the time being, they are all just jittery, anonymous people.
Details that Marwa recalls from her own freshman orientation include “awkward small talk with [her] roommate on Sunday,” and receiving her very own bright yellow SuperFan shirt. Among the week’s strongest takeaways was “the assumption that all of the Orientation Leaders [she] saw and met… were a perfect embodiment of a Boston College student.”
As the leaders rattled off impressive lists of clubs and activities, and maintained an astonishingly constant veneer of cheer and enthusiasm, Marwa says, “Something left me thinking I had both a lot to look forward to, but also that a lot would be expected out of me.”
Two years later, a wiser, orientation-leading Marwa still says, “I by no means would consider myself a perfect representation of BC.” Three weeks of arduous training in preparation for the first orientation session “definitely helped with my knowledge of BC trivia,” she says, but in reflection, “I gained just as much from my freshmen as they have gained from me.”
Marwa and the other OLs use their nearly over-the-top energetic personalities to instill confidence in even the most timid freshmen and encourage them “to share something that will connect them with their peers and the community that they will hopefully call home for the next four years.”
Even more basically, they see it as their job to diffuse the “inevitable awkwardness of being placed in a group of nine other strangers and a seemingly always-peppy leader,” to the best of their ability. Beyond that, sharing poignant collegiate wisdom is more of an added bonus.
“I expected to be handing down a lot of the wisdom that I have gained from past failures and mistakes,” confesses Marwa, “but being an OL was a much more reciprocal experience that I could have ever foreseen.”
Whether being reminded of how to be a better listener, how to better express her extroverted tendencies, or how to perfect her one-liner icebreakers, Marwa and the other OLs were not only imparting wisdom upon their freshmen, but receiving lessons from the very people they had been charged with guiding.
Aside from the interactions and relationships she shared with her freshmen, Marwa credits the incomparable friendship amongst the OLs as a hugely influential element in making the OL experience so magical.
“Although my initial perception that all of the OLs seemed like the closest of friends wasn’t too far-fetched,” she explains, “I think it’s important to understand that the foundation of our friendship stems from a very unique, shared experience in which we spend two months living in the same space... and striving toward common goals.”
Like a gradually bronzing tan, throughout the summer this exceptional yet seemingly random patchwork of BC students evolves into a tight-knit group that Marwa now has the pleasure of calling her “BC family.”
Still, even the closest relationships have their insecurities, and as the OLs prepare to return to a regular schedule of classes, to their previous friends and familiar routines, there lies some uncertainty about how their relationships with one another will develop and evolve throughout the upcoming year.
Each of the Orientation Leaders had his or her own reasons for applying, and each leader will pursue their own individual passions as they return to a more familiar lifestyle, but Marwa identifies a common theme amongst the leaders: “Many of us greatly struggled as freshmen… but somewhere along the way learned from our various experiences and used them as motivation to find our respective passions on campus and find the communities that have made BC a second home.”
Perhaps the power of the OL program is not only its stated purpose of welcoming freshmen into the BC fold, but rather its uncanny ability to challenge and further unite a group of people who already seem to have their feet so firmly planted on the Heights.
“For anyone who would ask me about my summer job, I’d say that it has been the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting occupation I have ever held,” Marwa admits, “but also the most rewarding.”
And finally, “even as I write out these words I realize that there is no exact combination of letters, words, or sentences that could do justice in capturing the experience that is being an Orientation Leader at Boston College.”
So perhaps the Orientation Leader experience can’t be demystified after all.