On Campus

Craving community connections beyond campus?

Welcome to Alt 101

About eight years ago, Sebastien Labelle found himself hunched over a massive sheet of paper, plunging his tongue into globs of paint and smearing the non-toxic mess around in the name of art.

And so began Labelle’s university experience.

The goal of the unsavoury exercise was to be part of the winning team that painted with the most imaginative body part.

Labelle’s team won. But it was some posterior posturing that ultimately clinched the victory.

“My teammate painted with his butt,” says Labelle with a chuckle, adding quickly, “on two different ends of the paper.”

This questionable version of preschool fingerpainting was part of frosh week at the Universite du Quebec, where Labelle eventually earned a BA in visual arts.

“(Frosh week) certainly allowed a chance to meet and make friends within the group of students who were also studying arts,” says Labelle, now 30.

“But it never really offered me a chance to get to know Hull – the town where I was studying – very well, and it took me a long time to get to know the community itself.”

Now studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Labelle is showing like-minded students how to make meaningful connections beyond their “isolated” campuses through Alt 101 – an alternative to frosh week he helps organize.

Unlike its traditional counterpart, Alt 101 runs for an entire month and is open to all students from universities throughout Halifax, regardless of whether they’re freshmen.

An initiative of NSPIRG – a non-profit, social and environmental justice organization – Alt 101 describes itself as a “gateway to the diversity of Halifax” that highlights student and community groups.

So, rather than play a game of dodgeball on campus, Alt 101 students can take a bike tour of the city’s community gardens.

Casino-style games night? Try a vegan baking class instead.

Also on the alternative agenda, a tenancy rights seminar, a series of discussions put on by a local women’s rights group and a workshop on LGTBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer) identities.

A number of universities across Canada offer their own versions of Alt 101, including Radical Frosh at Carleton University in Ottawa and Mount Allison University’s alternative orientation in Sackville, N.B., which includes nature hikes and a board games-and-tea night.

“(Alternative frosh) is a great experience for those that are a little bit more diverse and have more of a focus on those sort of things,” says Jess Geddes, a second-year student at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

Geddes was eager to explore Halifax when she moved to the city last year from Upper Stewiacke, N.S., to study English and gender and women’s studies.

She took in the typical frosh offerings: pizza parties, scavenger hunts and a retro night. There was a tour of the city, too, but the self-described feminist said something was missing.

“It was wonderful to meet all the new people in my year … but it just seemed rather general,” says Geddes, who turns 19 this month.

“Now that I’m starting to see all the sights that (Halifax has) to offer, I’m definitely going to get more into the community. I think that sense of belonging is probably one of the best experiences you can have in university.”

The culture of universities tends to be “insular” in nature, making it more important to get involved outside of campus, says Jean Steinberg, a student at Dalhousie and Alt 101 organizer.

“It’s important to recognize that campus isn’t a vacuum,” says Steinberg, who’s in the second year of a health promotion degree.

“Being someone who’s active in the community, (I) have noticed from talking to other students that (they have) no idea about what happens outside university.”

Labelle, who’s now in his fourth year studying international studies and theatre at Dalhousie, says it’s easy for students – many of whom live on or near campus – to become “simple, transient passersby.”

“A kind of habit sets in to stay isolated within the immediate group of people you’re with,” says Labelle, who eventually began exploring Hull on his own before he graduated.

Memories of frosh week still make him laugh, but Labelle says the connections he’s made with his adopted communities will stay with him long after graduation.

“Having that head start later on helps you understand how you can really make a change or get involved,” he says.

– The Canadian Press

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