For university towns, the beginning of September is a time of mass migration as students flock back to campus.

But if you listen closely, above the flap of van doors closing and dorm room furniture being rearranged, you may even hear the collective cries of the incoming frosh.

To spot this contingent of first-year students, look for bright colours — a rainbow of T-shirts, lanyards or dyed skin — and co-ordinated group behaviours that are anything but ordinary.

This exuberant vision of orientation week, which can include pub crawlszombie walks,  and water balloon wars, is deeply engrained into the lore of many universities.

But as a result of some severe overpartying in recent years, in which police have been called in and a 19-year-old Acadia student lost his life last year in a drinking game, several schools across Canada are expanding the list of activities associated with welcome week, and rethinking what it means to orient their often underage and increasingly diverse students arriving on campus.

"It used to be just a party. There's no question about that," says Susan Grindrod, the associate vice-president of housing and ancillary services at the University of Western Ontario, citing decades of experience with orientation week.

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Frosh leaders at York University's McLaughlin College show off makeshift shields while waiting for a water war against rival Winters College. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

Grindrod argues that there's nothing wrong with using silly events to break the ice, but adds that students are also showing up with serious questions about everything from sexuality to spirituality.

"Nothing's static. Students change, and we try to change with them."

"This is the first time many of them have lived away from home," she adds, which is why the London university wants to accommodate students from as many walks of life as possible.

For UWO, this means packing the week with events that were unheard of when she first started out — like workshops on mental health, sexual assault, LGBT issues, and First Nations culture and history.  

"I frankly don’t think there's anything wrong with wanting to do both," Grindrod says. A good frosh week should blend freedom and responsibility.

Proud — but not so loud?

Freedom, however, is usually the louder of the two. Frosh week seems to come with its own kind of soundtrack — one that involves chanting, clapping, stomping and otherwise making excitement audible.

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Students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver gather to watch a movie outdoors during frosh week. (AMS First Week)

"I absolutely love loud and unnecessary school spirit," says Faghya Shafiq of York's Schulich business school. "Showing spirit is something that unites people and allows them to represent themselves as a team.

"In my opinion, the louder the spirit, the better!"

But students who prefer a more relaxed environment may feel overwhelmed by the rowdy welcoming committees. University of Alberta student Ravanna Lawday, for instance, admits that she couldn't wait for her orientation week to end last year.

The English student described her annoyance at hearing LMFAO's hit song Party Rock Anthem in "almost every building I set foot in," not to mention learning four separate school cheers before lunch on her first day.

Prefer an alternative?

Several schools also have unofficial and alternative frosh weeks put together by students who don't feel the mainstream orientation week speaks to their needs and interests.

Here is a sample of the options:

  • The Mature Students’ Association (MatSA) at the University of Toronto hosts an annual mature students weekend in September.
  • Radical Frosh or Alt 101 is an alternative orientation series that offers a more city-focused experience to students in Halifax.
  • McGill students can choose from several non-faculty options, including Outdoors Frosh, Rad Frosh, Fish Frosh, Muslim Students Association Frosh, and the new Gefilte Frosh.

"What I could have used instead was a more thorough tour of this gigantic campus," she wrote in a recent post for Maclean's On Campus blog.

Feedback like Lawday's has inspired more events for those who don't necessarily enjoy the raucous and sometimes raunchy cheers meant to whip students into a frenzy of school pride.

"While we cannot plan all our events to appeal equally to each individual, we try to ensure that there is something for everyone in orientation week," said Queens University orientation coordinator Dmitri Tchebotarev.

"In my opinion, the best approach is to offer a balance between high intensity events, with house music blaring and several cheer-leading sessions, and low intensity events, like the clubs fair."

Outdoor movies, yoga lessons, poetry nights, board games and socially-conscientious events are also on the agenda at many schools, who are increasingly conscious of students who don't quite consider themselves party animals.

There is also more focus on events that celebrate diversity, like Western's fledgling One Love concert, which aims to give voice to a wider array of concerns during frosh week and promote tolerance on campus.

In its inaugural year, the concert featured gay activist Dan Choi and White Ribbon co-founder Michael Kaufman, who urged an end to violence against women.

"Western has worked hard to broaden the scope of orientation week by simply communicating to students that Western is a place that cares about the individual stories, journeys and experiences of its students," says student council president Adam Fearnall.

"The biggest thing from the student council perspective is that students feel that they're walking on to an inclusive and welcoming campus," adds Jeremy Santucci, the council's VP of communications.

Santucci was less concerned with cracking down on binge drinking at the school Playboy called Canada's top party school last year.

"We're one of the top academic schools in the country," he points out. "What students do on their own time is their own business."

Binge-drinking discouraged

Other schools, however, have taken a much stricter approach to high-risk alcohol consumption among their students.

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Drinking games like beer pong facilitate quick alcohol consumption. These games are popular at many university parties. ((iStock))

Nova's Scotia's chief public health officer Dr. Robert Strang recently completed a report on binge drinking at the request of Acadia University, spurred by the one Acadia student's death after heavy drinking last year.

This year, the school has banned drinking in dorm rooms during frosh week as well as certain activities that glorify alcohol consumption — like keeping a tower of empty bottles or cans as trophies.

"The tragedy that occurred last year shook everyone to the core," says student union president Matthew Rios. "This year, we're asking people to step up."

"Drunkorexia"

Simon Fraser University in B.C. is warning calorie-conscious young people, worried about gaining weight from binge drinking, not to cut out food in order to save space for alcohol.

The practice of foregoing food in order to binge drink and not gain weight — known as "drunkorexia" — surfaced several years ago, but the SFU study is the first to look at its long-term effects.

Read more.

Rios explained that one new strategy involves teaching students to identify the signs of "overintoxication" and to commit to looking out for each other at social events.

"If they see a student who looks to be in trouble, they're going to intervene," says Rios, adding that some are being trained in CPR and first aid.

Senior director of student affairs James Sanford added that the Nova Scotia university not only hopes to reduce underage drinking but also to "set a tone" for responsible drinking for all students.

"We're not about abstinence and prohibition, but we want to make sure we're not facilitating behaviour that may be risky," he says, adding that the approach has been largely well received at the closely-knit school.

In a letter to parents, Sanford stated that Acadia wants students to be "prepared for the freedom and responsibility associated with the start of their first academic year" and to create a climate in which those who choose not to drink are spared the "penalty and pressure" of alcohol-fueled events.

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McGill frosh run sport matching t-shirts as they sprint across a lawn. (susfrosh.com)

The University of Prince Edward Island, on the other hand, is largely leaving the onus on the individual students.

"Responsible drinking. That's the approach that we're looking for," said Tyler Dockendorff, a residence co-ordinator at UPEI.

"It's not about saying you can't drink. It's about understanding drinking and there's a responsibility to drinking properly. And they're going to be facing that for the rest of their lives."