O-Week volunteer training in review

After concerns were raised about aspects of Orientation Week training, Students’ Union look for improvement

Graphic by Joshua Awolade
Graphic by Joshua Awolade

Every summer, Wilfrid Laurier University volunteers and leaders attend a series of training conferences to equip them for the year ahead. After a complaint from a student about the way a new aspect of training was conducted, the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union is currently looking at strategies for improvement.

This year was Frank Cirinna’s third time as an icebreaker. He said he has always been okay with the diversity and awareness training in the past.

“What I didn’t like this year was the way they approached privilege training,” Cirinna, a fourth-year business student, said.

The privilege training was a new feature at the volunteer summer conference in July.

“Basically the idea is to understand that most of your students come from diverse backgrounds and you’re not going to know the stories of everyone, you’re not going to know what they’ve dealt with before they got here,” explained Kaipa Bharucha, the director of Orientation Week.

“So you have to be sensitive in different situations.”

The training exercise involved the facilitators reading different statements aloud and having volunteers step forward or back over a line depending on whether they identified with it. Afterward, they debriefed.

“My main issue was the way they approached it because the training didn’t feel like it was for awareness, the training felt like it was to put us down,” Cirinna said. “It was very aggressive. I don’t think they meant it to be that way, but that’s how it came off.”

Cirinna elaborated on one of the instances in which he felt uncomfortable. One of the statements the facilitators read was ‘step forward if the main language in your family is English.’ Cirinna didn’t step forward.

“Then someone looked at me like, ‘But you’re white.’ I’m like, ‘I’m first generation. My parents are immigrants. Who are you to say that I’m privileged in a way that other people aren’t just because I’m white?’”

In fact, Cirinna said he doesn’t even identify as being Caucasian.

He explained that he comes from southern Europe and considers himself to be Mediterranean. As his family is from a large Italian area, Cirinna found that when he first came to Laurier, he was victimized for this and had to change the way he spoke to fit the culture.

“We talked about that — how you can’t always see problems skin deep, you can’t see everything from the outside,” Cirinna continued. “But it seems to have been ignored. It seems like they were putting emphasis on explaining to white males that we are privileged.”

When he asked some of his fellow volunteers, Cirinna said many of them felt the same way.

“My main issue is that I felt a bit attacked and I felt like I was being looked at differently because I perceived myself differently,” Cirinna said.

“People don’t know I have a learning disability because that’s a skin-deep thing. But all of a sudden, literally because I’m a white male, I felt I couldn’t step back or forward other than what was stereotypically thought of me.”

He said that he values the training, but felt the exercise in particular was approached the wrong way.

Cirinna and Samantha Deeming, vice-president of finance and administration at the Students’ Union, met on Tuesday so he could provide his feedback, which Deeming said she appreciated.

The professional training and development team facilitated the privilege training. Deeming explained that part of the problem could have been they didn’t make sure the facilitators were 100 per cent comfortable with running the exercise.

In addition, other minor aspects of the day could have impacted the way volunteers perceived the activity.

“I think a large part of the overall discomfort, the room they were in was really hot — there were 76 people in a small arts classroom,” Deeming said.

“So I don’t think the environment was right either and that I think had everyone heightened as well.”

Bharucha added that a privilege activity in general can often be uncomfortable, since it is such a sensitive topic.

Deeming said she did sense some discomfort in the rooms she checked in on during the privilege training, but that she was not present for all of it.

At the end of April, new individuals will be entering the roles of those who plan Orientation Week. Deeming and Bharucha explained that they will be including feedback on the privilege exercise in their reports to their predecessors. Going forward, Deeming said they want to make sure facilitators are “equipped with the right tools and feel 100 per cent comfortable.”

“I definitely do feel there is value behind that training,” Deeming said. “Maybe the way it was executed and the way we will move forward from it is ensuring again that we make it as comfortable as possible for the student leaders who are participating in it because it is a touchier subject.”

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