The Tradition of Adopting
From our torch-lit processions to our bright red woolen robes, there is no denying that our university is, in many ways, somewhat cult-like. Eavesdropping on conversations around town may be disturbing for the average person who is unaware of our many sacred traditions.
“It happened! I committed incest!”
“Oh my God! Was it your Dad?”
“No, it was with my academic brother.”
- Taken from a real conversation, overheard in Pret.
Families. Or rather, Academic Families are an age-old tradition here at the University of St Andrews. Each year a fresh batch of freshers find themselves subjected to the pressures of social conformity and finding third-year ‘parents’ to adopt them. The construct of parents, siblings, and even aunties and uncles who ‘adopt’ you after just five weeks of knowing them is not nearly as awkward as it sounds, because everyone does it. However, this year's parents are a unique bunch in that many of them matriculated into uni during the height of the Pandemic, which certainly affected their Raisin experience (or lack thereof). Many students in the class of ‘24 were not even adopted at all, because they simply couldn’t make it to uni grounds, and spent the entirety of their first year learning everything online.
The Pandemic broke families apart. Strict regulations prevented children from openly congregating with their siblings and parents in person. As a result, many of the freshers who wished to be adopted in Candlemas of 2020 found themselves in dead group chats with inattentive parents.
Having experienced this myself, I wondered if other students in my year had experienced the same, and if maybe this affected their decision on whether to adopt and, if so, how to raise their children.
Third-year Kyle Morrison relayed to me that he still talks to his parents to this day,“My mums are great, I go over to their house sometimes, and I even hosted my birthday party there last week. I think it's a nice tradition to have”. However, Kyle’s story appears to be an exception to the many other experiences students have shared with me.
“My first parents kind of abandoned us, I see them in the street now and they don’t even say hi to me. There's literally no acknowledgement when we pass each other in town,” said another third-year student.
A Fessdrews post from October of 2021, captures this same sentiment:
[Don’t worry, we won’t be one of those families that never meets up after Raisin
*Never meets up after Raisin*]
Based on my own experience, this is not an uncommon occurrence. My parents were a tribe of third- and fourth-year mums, some of whom couldn’t adopt the previous year and decided to make up for it by planning an extremely elaborate Raisin. We were each paired with another sibling and made to walk in a three-legged race from their house in Lade Braes, all the way to the beach, where we performed a series of challenges which culminated with finally running into the frigid North Sea on East Sands. They later treated us to a warm breakfast at a house that overlooked the beach by the Cheese Toastie Shack, where one of our mum’s happened to live. Unfortunately, they had not arranged for us to dress up in costume and attend the foam fight. A few children messaged the family group chat on Monday asking what the plan was. They waited for a reply which never arrived. Unbeknownst to us, all our moms had flown the coop and gone on holiday for reading week. We later learned that they had spent the remainder of their Raisin week in Lithuania.
However, it is only now as a third year that I can better understand how much trouble they went through for us. A certain level of responsibility comes with safely herding a group of 8-12 intoxicated freshmen across campus, and most good parents would want to ensure that all of their children are having a good time. There's also the added time and costs of purchasing the ingredients to cook all of the food they made for us. On Sunday morning at 5am they treated all twenty-something of us kids to freshly baked cinnamon buns drizzled with icing, and a mountain of plain and chocolate croissants (this was to avoid the crisis of beginning the day drinking on an empty stomach). At our Mum’s house on East Sands they cooked one of the best breakfasts I've had in St Andrews, with eggs, veggie rolls and toast. While hanging out in the kitchen for a few minutes I noticed it seemed as though they’d made enough food to sustain a small army. Three of my siblings became incapacitated before noon, and it took four mums to bring them back to the flat and tuck them into bed. The dedication and effort they put into looking after us was remarkable. And yet they were all enrolled in honours’ modules! I am amazed that third year students adopt freshers when the pressure is on to excel in their classes and grades finally start to matter to their overall degree. Maria, a third year, tells me she would rather not adopt this year.
“I just don’t have the time,” she said, shrugging her shoulders, “I mean I have so much reading and uni work, and I was also considering getting a job this semester too. It's a lot of commitment! And I wouldn’t want to be a flaky mom.”
A similar response came from Eleanor, another third year who I interviewed about whether she was adopting. “I don’t have the time”, she told me bluntly, “but I wouldn’t mind helping out every once and while, you know, like being a cool aunt of the family”.
The more laid-back role of aunts and uncles seems to be a relatively common trend among those who are commitment-shy when it comes to parenthood. And when you think about it, there is logic behind this. Kids don’t want to feel abandoned by parents who are not all that into Raisin. And why half-heartedly attempt to start an academic family if you aren’t going to guide your children as best you can?
Curious to hear another perspective, I decided to interview a student of the class of ‘23 to hear what their experience of the tradition was during the Pandemic.
‘My academic siblings and I sadly never got to take our 'Raisin' revenge, so I feel we missed out on important family bonding time,’ says fourth year, Ally Addison. Ally admitted to me that while he occasionally saw his parents around town throughout his second year, tight restrictions prevented the family from ever fully reuniting in person.
‘Then my parents graduated and I haven’t seen them since… we got on really well and they were as nurturing and caring as any academic parents.’
He replied with an impassioned response when I posed the question of what adopting meant to him:
‘I think adoption is essentially about making the transition from school to university that much easier. The wisdom and guidance of third year students is really valuable when you're a clueless, bushy-tailed Fresher. The St Andrews family system is not only a bit of fun, but also part of the reason we have such a high level of student satisfaction. And if not for that, we would be miles behind Oxford and Cambridge in the rankings. It's also great for finding kindred spirits: I know countless people who met their best friends at family events. Heaven forbid they cross the line and commit incest though.’
Perhaps students who had the opportunity to experience the last authentic or normal experience of raisin retain stronger sentiments regarding the tradition. However, while current second and third years’ memories may remain slightly tainted by the effects of the pandemic, for the first time since 2019, this year's freshers will have Raisin entirely free of all restrictions.
Stories like Kyle’s, while common enough, are definitely not a universal experience. While it may be the family we all aspired to have, not all freshers bond with their parents so successfully, and some parents are definitely only in it for the obligation imposed by tradition. So why do it then? Why continue this strange tradition of pinning the most personal labels such as ‘mother’ and ‘father’ on a group of people you have only recently met in the space of five weeks? Of all the many traditions in St Andrews, why has this one endured so strongly? Maybe this comes from a desire to feel accepted, or to have a sense of belonging, in a place so new and far from home. Maybe forcefully simulating the relationships we have in our own homes helps us as first years to cultivate a sense of identity and comfort, in what for many students is their first time living on their own.
Photo: University of St. Andrews