Tips for college freshmen avoiding the “red zone”

It’s the beginning of September, and you’ve likely been on campus for a week (or three). The first six weeks of college can be a big adjustment, especially for college freshmen. I’d been a relatively sheltered teen from a small town in Iowa when I started college in Western Massachusetts on a campus with a far more liberal culture than I’d previously experienced, and with a much more diverse student body.

There are big discussions going on about how college students engage with new ideas and opinions that challenge their assumptions about the world: pundits debate the merit of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” as in the letter the University of Chicago Dean of Students sent out to incoming freshmen recently. How can you best adjust to college life and avoid the dangers of the so called “red zone” of the first six weeks of school? Take a look at what’s being said and decide how you should react to it.

University of Chicago’s no safe spaces

If you’re overwhelmed by college culture in those first few weeks, where do you turn? It’s natural to seek out students with similar interests and life experiences, whether those are at a women’s center, a Christian fellowship, the Black or Latin students’ organizations or an LGBT and allies group. Some people consider that tendency to seek out familiar groups as a way to create safe spaces. While some schools actively embrace that term, others, like the University of Chicago, “do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’” according to the dean’s letter.

Some writers take this to mean only that the school doesn’t want students to exist in their own comfort zones, without taking any risks, which is a good thing: college is all about getting out of your comfort zone and learning new perspectives on the world. Jesse Singal pointed out in “Why the University of Chicago’s Anti-‘Safe Space’ Letter Is Important” for New York Magazine that using the phrase is really poking at recent trends of campuses to go overboard on limiting their own language, rather than actually prohibiting safe spaces.

“Obviously, the university ‘condones’ Christian students’ ability to set up times and places where atheists won’t harangue them, or for LGBT students to set up a place where conservative Christians won’t harangue them. That’s all a ‘safe space’ is in the classical sense of the word.” To Singal, the letter symbolizes a return to prioritizing one of the things that liberal arts colleges have long been known for supporting: free speech and a free exchange of ideas.

But Jay Michaelson of The Daily Beast, in “University of Chicago’s P.C. Crackdown Is Really About Keeping Right-Wing Donors Happy,” thought that the letter was more about trying to keep donors giving the school money than actually changing any campus philosophies. “’Safe spaces’ … are generally declared by student groups, not universities,” he wrote. “And what are safe spaces, really? They’re temporary zones where the usual privileges of being, yes, a straight, white, relatively rich, empowered male are turned on their heads, and other people’s sensitivities come first. If, like me, you’re in that demographic, you’re meant to feel uncomfortable.”

Michaelson’s idea seems to be that the group that most needs to experience getting out of their comfort zone in college is the group of students with the most societal power–and college should be where other voices are given enough volume to be heard. Likewise, trigger warnings aren’t meant to protect the sheepish from discomfort, but to prevent survivors of trauma from having to relive their experiences.

Avoiding trauma during the first six weeks

So now that you’re out of your comfort zone, how do you avoid the “red zone,” or the period during the new year when college freshmen encounter the most danger, particularly of sexual assault? Don’t assume that parties are the only way to meet people, for a start. Some campus parties can get out of hand, leaving you with regret and facing a rocky transition to college life. Some good advice for those first few weeks?

  • Get involved with a registered student organization or with a campus club in order to meet people with similar extracurricular interests.
  • Don’t be shy about getting tutoring. Your college has a tutoring center for a reason, and group studying can be more fun.
  • Meet with your advisor early on and plan ahead for next semester to keep next semester’s transition smooth.
  • Try something new! That’s what college is all about.

What advice would you give college freshmen for their first six weeks?

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