The Course of Reason

Fursdays wif Stef: Orientation Reflection

July 16, 2011

This past Monday, UNIFI President Cory Derringer and I gave each other an (god, I hate using this word, but) “epic” high five. And despite a few confused glances from around the room, we didn’t care what anyone thought. Because we deserved it. It was our way of celebrating that we had not only successfully collected our goal number of names, but just survived at all UNI’s freshman orientation.

For those not in or new to the group, here is what UNIFI does every summer for about six weeks: the freshman and parents involved in each session of orientation get about an hour to browse through some of UNI’s student organizations. Just like all the other groups, UNIFI sets up a table and display board and talks to the freshmen about who we are and what we do, with the hopes that they’ll opt to put their names and e-mails on our sign-up sheet (we call this “tabling”). Now, for a group like, say, the running club, tabling can be rather enjoyable. This is because although not everyone they talk to will decide to sign-up, those who don’t will still be friendly and respectful towards them. As an atheist group in Iowa, we don’t have such luck.

This is just a snippet of some of what went on these past six weeks:

  • A parent stood six feet from our board with his hands crossed just shaking his head for about a minute.
  • A student looked interested as he walked by, but his parent put their hand to his back and pushed him past our table.
  • A parent walked up and said, “Is this for real? Like, you guys really don’t believe in God.” We replied that that was correct, only to have her snort and mumble something under her breath as she walked away.
  • We were speaking with a student about the group, and she seemed interested until she saw her mother’s disapproving face. She then had to defeatedly walk away, but not before turning around and quickly whispering to Cory, “I’ll be back!” I’m assuming her mother is the reason she never actually returned.
  • A student walked up to our table asking what we were about, and as soon as we said “atheist,” he cut us off and said in a condescending manner, “uh, I’m Catholic, so yeah, bye!”
  • As a student was signing up, the parent turned to us and snapped, “You’re just trying to undo all those years we took him to church, huh?” (To which Cory replied, “Can I be honest? Yeah, we kind of are.”)
  • A parent and student were standing reading our mission statement, to which they simultaneously got disgusted expressions on their faces, looked at each other, shook their heads, and then whispered as they hastily walked off.
  • And of course, there’s always that parent who walks by and says, “I’ll pray for you!” 

And this is just a sample—there were countless more people who simply gave us dirty looks as they walked by and avoided coming near our table.  

We don't always have this much fun. As you may be able to imagine, this sort of behavior didn’t exactly encourage us or raise our spirits. The first few weeks especially, I absolutely loathed orientation, as all I could think about was how I would have to deal with this same old shit every time. While it didn’t bother Cory as much, I’m someone who doesn’t handle disapproval very well, and to be in a room where that was the primary opinion of my group and me made orientation difficult to deal with.

However, by the last session, my outlook was a bit more sunny. While I was still relieved to be done, I hadn’t loathed the last few orientations as I had the first. So what made my opinions change? A few things. First, not to be too cheesy here, but it all started with the CFI Student Leadership Conference. No, this is not a post I’m writing for CFI to make it look good—that’s how legitimately awesome this conference is. To be surrounded by so many like-minded people made me remember that even though in the orientation room there were maybe fifteen of us who were godless in a sea of hundreds of others, that outside those walls we do, in fact, have a large network of support. Second, I don’t know if was a self-fulfilling prophecy or what, but the session after we got back from CFI was when we got our highest number of sign-ups, which gave us the much needed reminder that people were truly interested in our group. Truthfully, it was probably more luck than anything regarding the number of atheists at that orientation, but we were definitely more enthusiastic at our table, which couldn’t hurt in attracting people who would maybe already have considered us. Third, to add to the chain of events, that orientation made me realize that I need to be focusing on something I should’ve been focusing on all along; even though the majority is against us, there are still many people who like our group and need a safe-haven like us to fit in at a largely religious university.

And finally, when I put all this together in my head, I came to the conclusion that there’s one thing I needed to keep in my mind as I tabled, and that was that I shouldn’t care so much about what other people think, because I know I’m doing a good thing. I’m helping to run a group that creates a community for people who are rejected in the larger society just because they don’t follow a dogmatic belief. I’m standing up against all the ways that religion harms. And I’m contributing in making the world a better place by promoting critical thought and inquiry. When I cognized all this, I learned to block out those who disapproved and not let them get to me.

This post originally appeared on the blog of the UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers and is part of an ongoing series “Fursdays wif Stef



About the Author: Stef McGraw

Stef McGraw's photo
Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers




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