Starting college is a profound transition for young people—and their families. I have numerous friends who are sending off kids to college, for the first time this year, and I marvel at their resilience and capacity to “let go.” Likewise, students leaving for a new school away from home, in my view, are required to muster considerable confidence and bravery in facing the world, more or less, on their own.
In my experience many schools, particularly large universities, offer little in the way of honoring the emotional potency of this milestone. There are, of course, the requisite freshman orientation events and widely heralded customs such as Rush for Greek sororities and fraternities, but many students are left out of such activities. Sure, most young people will find their way, but I, like my Celebrant colleagues, believe that honoring this rite of passage is a wonderfully beneficial endeavor.
As someone who works a lot with college students, I spend a good deal of time perusing college websites, and today I came across a lovely custom at Oklahoma State University. The OSU College of Human Sciences (it would have been the Home Economics College in the old days) hosted the “Your First Tradition” Ceremony just before the semester kicked off, welcoming more than 400 of their freshmen and transfer students. According to the OSU website, each student was presented with a black and orange medallion (school colors, of course) embellished with a horseshoe emblazoned with “Cowboy Luck.” Like any good fellowship or society, this welcoming gathering shared a secret—in the case of the OSU First Tradition Ceremony, they actually shared five secrets of Cowboy Luck.
As I was so impressed with this effort at Oklahoma State, I decided to write a “fan letter” to the Dean of the College of Consumer Sciences, which hosted the ceremony. I was delighted to receive an enthusiastic response from Dean Stephan Wilson who explained more about their efforts:
We invest a great deal of time and attention and caring in a fairly large university (actually over 25,000 in Stillwater and over 35,000 in the OSU system). We are convinced that the human touch helps our students (often from towns smaller than the population of their dormitories to persist and be successful). The College of Human Sciences has the highest retention of freshmen who return in the sophomore year and one of the highest graduation rates of all colleges at OSU. We are proud of that but it comes down to “touch;” we have freshmen reading programs (the book is often something like The Last Lecture but the book is not as important as being in a small group often in someone’s living room – current staff or faculty, retired faculty or alumni who reaches out and makes an early and personal connection). We have a Living Learning Community within a dormitory where freshmen take classes together and share a great deal of social time together with faculty mentors, etc. In short, we do try to systematically create rituals and traditions that help build community and one’s place in that shared culture.
I went on to learn from Dean Wilson that he has had a long connection with Africa, particularly Kenya, where, as he says, “I learned frist hand, from a different cultural perspective, about using the power of ritual to organize human development across generations and time.”
I thank Dean Wilson for sharing his thoughts and perspectives with me, and I am sure, your income students thank you, as well.