The Inside History of ‘Disorientation’ Guides for College Students

The moniker of “disorientation” guide is particularly apt. Not only does disorientation describe the overwhelming experience of hearing harsh truths about a community you’re now part of, but it places the guides in direct opposition to the official orientation that accompanies the arrival of new students on campus. The implication is that the portrait painted of college life during those first few weeks of school may not be the whole truth.

Samantha Norman, a recent Fordham University alum who worked on her school’s 2018 guide, said to Teen Vogue that many schools attract students through “progressive, youthful appeal,” while ultimately having “a deeply conservative institutional core.” They rest, she says, on a foundation of “white supremacy, heteronormativity, and racial capitalism.”

If orientation is designed to get students accustomed to college life, disorientation does the opposite. Some students have organized in-person disorientation programming to accompany their guides. Others, like those at the University of Texas at Austin, have merged the distribution of their guides with on-campus protests. Occasionally, guides have prompted blowback from school administrations and skepticism from fellow classmates. Vassar’s 2018 guide was sent via mass email and prompted mixed reactions from students due to the inclusion of some incendiary language. Vassar even launched an investigation into the guide’s staff.

At their best, however, disorientation guides can offer some comfort to students by filling the gaps in orientation and embracing the hectic, complicated nature of college life. In addition to their historical content, guides often provide tips on how to safely use drugs and have sex on campus. The guides also offer a space to directly address the complexities of life as a marginalized student.

Lei Danielle Escobal, co-editor of the University of Maryland’s 2022 disorientation guide, explained to Teen Vogue: “My orientation process never detailed the feelings of imposter syndrome I’d feel as a queer Asian American student. My orientation process never detailed resources to abortion clinics. My orientation process never detailed the effects of colonization in normal academia.” She added, “The guide’s content may seem disorienting. It may seem awkward, unconventional, or unheard of, but that is the point and purpose of the guide. To get to the raw feelings, thoughts, and conversations in our communities that may leave us disoriented, but are essential nonetheless.”

The guides are often stylized in an overarching theme or aesthetic, which can range from the University of Texas at Austin’s pared-down, black-and-white guide to the University of Chicago’s 2020 Animal Crossing-inspired guide. The overall tone of a guide can reflect this playfulness. Guide editors want students to notice and engage with the publication while distinguishing them from official orientation guides. Ava Lamberty told Teen Vogue previous University of Maryland disorientation guides evoked the feeling of “talking to an older sibling.”

Technology has opened up the possibilities for the guides’ design. Disorientation groups have become increasingly reliant on the internet for distribution, sometimes forgoing physical copies altogether. Warren Wagner, who has worked on several disorientation guides for the University of Chicago, told Teen Vogue that without having to worry about the cost of printing, themes can be more elaborate and the guides can be longer, running over 40 pages. But the digitization of these publications increases the odds that they won’t be preserved for future generations.

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