Undergraduate Culture As A Liminal Space

When babies take their first steps, their walk is often unsteady. They take each step hesitantly, staggering as they move one foot forward as well as pushing themselves back up when they trip. As kids explore this new sensation of mobility, they become aware about their ability to do things and acknowledge their surroundings. This transition ends as soon as they start walking without lurching, advancing from infancy to a toddler.

The deviation between the two stages, infancy and toddler, is applicable to the undergraduate culture of University of Toronto. I agree with Cathy Small describing the undergraduate culture as a liminal space, because undergraduate students suffer from a phase of uncertainty and hardships, whilst letting go of their prescribed rituals and forms of conduct to redefine themselves and their future. Let’s first look at the definition of liminal space and how it applies to the undergraduate culture. Liminality is derived from the Latin word “limen” which means “threshold” to express the state of ambiguity between two rites. This middle stage usually consists of preconceived notions and ideas being challenged and the continuity of radical changes due to the lack of order. Undergraduate students are considered to be in this middle stage because they are not only introduced to a new stage of life but also are forced to leave their sense of order and familiarity behind. In particular, students of University of Toronto come from all social statuses.

A student, from an upper-class family, who had gone to a private school his entire life and had always driven luxury cars, attends lectures alongside a student who had gone to a public school using public transportation. Social hierarchies are challenged or dissolved; every student is considered to be equal even with different backgrounds and statuses. Undergraduate culture is where students are exposed to a new environment with varying ideals, ambitions and traditions that creates this state of perturbation that’s described to be the “liminal space”. Students are unfamiliar with all these changes, thus resulting in a dissolution of order which is evident during liminal periods. Correspondingly, when order ceases to exist, new form institutions and ideals must be formed to maintain a sense of stability in a student’s life. Students tend to explore the possibilities of what they can or cannot do. Their identities are questioned, and future goals are challenged as they continue to navigate through years of undergraduate programs. People I have observed and spoken to, who came into University determined, have often mentioned their struggle to find their interests and goals in life as they keep discovering weaknesses and skills.

To support that, I entered UofT to study Social sciences with fixed majors but after first year, I realized social sciences were not for me. Before stepping into my undergraduate program, I had created a plan that laid out every detail and every step I needed to take for my future to be shaped the way I wanted it to be. Nonetheless, all of my plans got thrown into a state of uncertainty as I got introduced to new opportunities in school and life. I was not aware of how deeply I was interested in learning about the human body and its functions.

Therefore, I switched to life sciences for my second year at UofT. Unlike previous years, I do not have a plan laid out to dictate my future steps as I am still unsure of what career to pick. Similarly, many students experience this phase of uncertainty throughout their undergraduate years as they are constantly exploring and discovering themselves and the world. Contrary to Small’s findings, some may argue that undergraduate culture cannot be defined as a liminal space due to some determined who may not spend their undergraduate years in a state of hardships and ambiguity.

For instance, an Engineering student named Rupanti, who is currently studying Mechanical Engineering at UofT, has always wanted to become an engineer since I have known her. We went to high school together and she always seemed resolute in terms of school and future careers. She enjoys her chosen path of studies and does not seem to face any challenges other than the usual hardships of any student. However, Rupanti is facing obstacles in other aspects of her life. Every difficulty encountered by an undergraduate student does not have to be directly related to school to be considered in a period of liminality. Liminality refers to a phase of disorientation where the students struggle to apply previous rituals as well as to establish new ones. In relation to that, Rupanti was socially inactive throughout high school, she mostly adhered to the academics of school than its social aspects. This characteristic did not serve her well in her undergraduate program as networking is a significant part of university. Socializing leads to multiple benefits like key information on lectures, school’s offerings, internship opportunities etc. She passed up on opportunities due to her lack of social and communication skills that she avoided to practice during high school.

Fortunately, University of Toronto is aware of the transitional struggles that students go through, hence, they offer various workshops or resources to help out and ease us into it. Rupanti is slowly improving herself and learning more about networking for her own benefit. Thus, I believe students, like Rupanti and I, will be able to reach a stage of clarity at the end of our undergraduate years due to the time spent in re-evaluating and discerning our environment and ourselves. In conclusion, during liminal periods, prescribed rituals or traditions may become uncertain, social hierarchies may be dissolved along with identities and plans being thrown into doubt. This results in a lack of order which makes liminality so malleable that different forms of conduct, customs and rules may need to be inaugurated.

According to Small’s observations, undergraduate students are considered to be in this middle stage because they are introduced to a new environment where they are inclined to leave behind their sense of order and develop new institutions to prepare themselves for their next rite of passage. Student life and culture is fluid and malleable where students “stand at threshold” and have to uncover new belief systems and institutions, particularly to each their own, for their upcoming rite.

18 May 2020
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