There we were in convocation hall on a sunny afternoon during Frosh Week: 1,000 new students from Victoria and St. Michael’s colleges, university officials and one curious magazine editor. As I gazed at these fractious first-years, the notorious double cohort, I wondered how they would fit into the proud traditions of U of T.
Frankly, they didn’t look promising. Some had just come in from running around King’s College Circle trying to steal the engineers’ hard hats. Many had twisted their T-shirts (light blue for St. Mike’s, royal blue for Vic) into head scarves or tank tops. Others were aiming paper airplanes at the scholars on the dais. A tough crowd, indeed.
This Orientation Convocation is one of many events held each year to welcome new U of T students. While some orientations are informal briefings, St. Mike’s and Vic go all out. The academic officials wore full academic gowns, and they offered a big-name guest speaker: former Ontario premier David Peterson.
Principal Mark McGowan of St. Mike’s welcomed the Class of 2007, reminding the students that they were joining a community of scholars. “If you ever feel lost or forgotten, don’t,” he said. “Seek out counsel. Going to the principal’s office at the university is not the same thing as at the place where you’ve been.”
Alexandra Johnson, Victoria’s acting principal, noted that many students in the room thought they knew exactly what studies and careers they would be pursuing. In a few months, she promised, their futures would be much less certain: “You’re going to find so many subjects, ideas, things to think about.” She urged them to find their own academic path – and to seek help if they needed it.
The students seemed puzzled. You could almost hear them wondering, Is this the huge, impersonal U of T we’ve heard about? Many were probably just starting to understand the benefits of a supportive college system and their own responsibility for making the most of their university experience.
President Robert J. Birgeneau reminded the students that they were not only the largest class in their colleges’ history, but also the smartest, since they had qualified for U of T against higher odds than ever before. Then David Peterson (LLB 1967, LLD Hon. 1994) offered this advice to aspiring scholars:
• “Keep your idealism,” he said. “You can’t let the cynics run the world.”
• “Live your life with passion. Whatever you do, do it with energy and commitment.”
• “Drink deeply from the cup of life at U of T…. You will be exposed to the finest minds that not just this country, but this world, has to offer.”
The students groaned when they found they would have to sing “O Canada” in both official languages. But then a strange thing happened. At first, the assembly sang faintly, in the familiar Canadian way. But as the anthem went on, the voices grew louder. The students who had shuffled into the hall as nervous outsiders were now glowing with pride. The ceremony ended with the sort of cheers you hear in a hockey game just before the puck is dropped. As in a way it had been.