“Phoenix” is not a color. No one includes it in the color wheel or the spectrum of colors. Yet, the Student Parent Orientation Program (SPOP) at the University of California, Irvine insists that the color “phoenix” marks the summer and the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year.
The orientation program, known for its non-traditional initiation of incoming freshmen, transfers and international students into the university’s culture, defines every summer of orientation with a color. Five years ago, the orientation leaders, or “staffers” as they call themselves, were royal blue. Since then, the colors have diverged from the conventional set to more creative ones (light, tie dye and now phoenix), such that the use of the color mint two years ago surprised the student population.
But the unconventional categorization of colors is not the only thing that sets UC Irvine’s orientation program apart from other universities. SPOP boasts of a two day program that exposes incoming students to more than just campus resources, classes and academic opportunities. Instead, the orientation program consists of diversity trainings and debriefings that enable students to question their identities and preconceived notions.
One of the games that incoming Anteaters participate in is called “Cross the Line.” Used in diversity trainings across the campus, Cross the Line serves as an opportunity to start a conversation about topics such as race, religion and family history without developing the level of comfort that most require to engage in such discussions. Through these activities, SPOP attempts to “challenge [participants] — no matter where they are coming from — to get in an open-minded mentality for college,” Elizabeth Thai, one of the five student SPOP coordinators, said.
Although the program started on July 9 with its first Transfer Success Orientation of the summer, most believe that SPOP does not start until the first freshmen orientation. That is because, historically, the program emphasizes the freshmen orientation with more elaborate enthusiasm than any of its other components. In preparation for the freshmen orientations, the SPOP staffers undergo a ten-week training during spring quarter of 2013 and then a weekend-long training during the summer.
During their trainings, which took place on Wednesday nights for two to three hours, staffers learned about campus resources and prepared themselves for various situations. These trainings, in turn, often impact staffers deeply, and most consider the program to have changed their lives. In fact, the already competitive application process — where only one out of every seven applicants gets accepted — is even more competitive for those hoping to return a second time to the program and earn the status of a “returner.”
Most returners admit, however, that their experience centers around the first year staff members more than the freshmen themselves. The returners’ responsibilities lie in ensuring that the first year staffers feel comfortable enough in their own skin to encourage the participants of the program to act as themselves.
“I felt that first year staff was a lot about finding who you are. I felt extremely awkward and out of place. It was uncomfortable, but it definitely pushed me to find out who I was and what I was capable of. Being a returner, I feel that it’s now my responsibility to make a space for first-year staffers where they can discover who they are,” Nick Neel, a senior and second year staffer, said.
In order to create a space for first-year staffers to explore their own identities, the orientation staff trainings are conducted largely as part of “SP-families,” or groups of six to 10 first year staffers and two returners. The returners act as the heads of the families by calling themselves “sparents,” and the first year staffers become “spchildren.”
By dividing training into smaller groups, the orientation program allows the staff members to navigate controversial and difficult situations in more comfortable settings.
Third year student and first year staffer, Alicia Diaz, considers the “biggest purpose [of training] to be awareness about different issues on campus.” She suggests that for staffers, “It’s important to become aware because these issues are universal, and whether we are staffing a SPOP, or just walking down the street, we’re surrounded by them.”
Despite the emphasis on diversity, identity and comfort, the orientation program faces countless criticisms. Most often, UCI students claim that the program packs the days with irrelevant diversity trainings and fails to expose participants to clubs and academic opportunities.
SPOP coordinator Colbie Miliken asserts that the program has undergone so much evolution over the last few years, that that is no longer the case.
“Every peer education group will be tabling on Ring Road. For example, CARE and CHAMPS and ASUCI will all be there for the participants this year.”
To counter another common critique that SPOP is too childish, coordinator Alex Han says, “Are there some childish aspects? Sure. But the reality is, we’re still pretty young.” Although the coordinators present responses to most common criticisms, they also spend countless hours revising and improving the program.
And from year to year, the program continues to not just survive, but thrive. Approximately 700 students apply every year to become a part of the orientation program as staffers and thousands of freshmen, transfers and international students sign up to participate in orientation and actually partake in the entirety of the program. In that way, perhaps, the story of SPOP, not unlike that of the freshmen, can best be explained in the words of Daft Punk: “Like the legend of the Phoenix. All ends with new beginnings.”