In #SAcdn, Articles, Mixed-Media

by Melissa Warden Black

Drawing from my experiences from new student to Orientation, Transition and Retention professional, take a remarkable journey from the ancient world of 1998 to the modern world of 2018. Hear nightmarish tales of reading letters sent by mail and busy signals on phones, to the despairs of 45-minute orientation sessions, and the downfalls of not reading an email. Complete with tales of the surreal and wondrous, you, my listeners, will gain a better understanding of how communication has changed, how these changes have influenced Generation Z, and what we can do to better support them as they navigate the start of their university career.

In these posts, we will reflect on the evolution of student affairs in the last generation and begin to explore resilience strategies that you can integrate into life as an SA professional. We will discuss how particular strategies increase resilience, and offer suggestions for how to incorporate these strategies into your own individual wellbeing practices, as well as into supervision of staff and students. By the end of this blog series, you will be exposed to a wide range of tools- thoughts, behaviours, and actions- that will increase your personal resilience and the resilience of those you work with.





Confessions of an Orientation Coordinator: A Journey from New Student to OTR Professional

Podcast script (for accessibility) 

*intro music*

Drawing from my experiences from new student to Orientation, Transition and Retention professional, take a remarkable journey from the ancient world of 1998 to the modern world of 2018. Hear nightmarish tales of reading letters sent by mail and busy signals on phones, to the despairs of 45-minute orientation sessions, and the downfalls of not reading an email. Complete with tales of the surreal and wondrous, you, my listeners, will gain a better understanding of how communication has changed, how these changes have influenced Generation Z, and what we can do to better support them as they navigate the start of their university career.

*transition music*

As an Honours BA graduate in English and Communications, I have had a long-standing fascination with how people communicate, and the effects of our environments on our personal growth and development. This interest has carried through into my professional life of working on post-secondary campuses since 2008.

Many post-secondary institutions are used to the status quo in terms of how they communicate with new students through Orientation events and materials. While the Millennials forced us to re-examine some of our methods, our current Generation Z, or Gen Z, students are far more advanced technologically, and much more focused on instant (and concise) information. Their attention span is even shorter, and they are much more comfortable behind a screen than speaking with a real person.

Now, before I go any further, let’s break down what Generation Z is. We’ve all heard of Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials (or Gen Y). Those born after 1995 are classified as Gen Z. So what is Gen Z? Well, first, let me clarify that these are just generalized traits associated with those born since 1995. They are not a brush to paint every person with, nor does everyone born since then have all these traits. They are merely ways of understanding how young people now respond to and see the world, seek and understand information, and communicate.

Gen Z has grown up with cell phones, do not remember, or know, a time before the internet, and spend lot of time behind screens. They have Instagram accounts before high school. The oldest were pre-teens when the first iPhone was introduced in 2007, and just starting high school when the iPad came out. They’ve grown up more slowly, being protected by their parents, and hearing the word ‘safety’ used to explain and excuse situations. There are studies that the majority of these young people report feeling unhappy more than happy – a direct correlation, most likely, due to the increase in technology being used to communicate over doing so in-person. Gen Z’s prefer not talking in person over being able to text or look up information themselves. The generational differences with this group compared to others are getting larger and more broadly influential than previous generations, with the biggest being how they spend their free time with the popularity of the smartphone.

I should mention before I go further, I will be referencing Jean M. Twenge’s book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us). And for clarification, iGen is how she refers to Gen Z, much like how Millennials are sometimes referred to as Gen Y. For the purposes of this podcast, I’ll be using the term Gen Z.

While the examples of Gen Z traits can be found online, I drew the examples I mentioned from Twenge’s book. For a little comparison, Millennials have commonly been classified as being born between 1980 and 1999, though more recently it’s been shortened to 1983 to the mid-90s. It’s not an exact science, just general timeframes based on technological advances, societal impacts, and behavioural characteristics. Also, 1995 happens to also be the birth of the internet, so it makes sense Gen Z would start around that time, only knowing a world with the world wide web.

The year I was born was sometimes classified in Gen X, but for the most part was left out, but didn’t belong to Millennials either. Recently, a new classification emerged to grab those of us who didn’t really belong in Gen X or Millennials, as there was a micro-generation that didn’t quite fit in either category based on the ages we were when major events or advancements were marked. Those born between 1977 and 1983, including myself, are now classified as Xennials. Now, as a side note, I found the name a little anti-climactic, as it simply blends the names of the previous and subsequent generations, but, I am happy to have found a home, so to speak.

Xennials are classified by remembering a time before the internet and smartphones, living an analog childhood with rotary telephones, and a digital adulthood. (*start dial-up clip*) The internet wasn’t available until we were in our teens, and even then that didn’t mean you had it and if you did you endured the grating sound of a dial-up connection and yelled to everyone else in the house not to pick up the phone and disconnect you. We got the internet when I was 17, which also coincided with our first computer. I used a typewriter before that for all my high school assignments. Email wasn’t really used, so the mail system was still #1 for sending and receiving mail. We used card catalogues to research high school assignments, while gradually using the internet (just a little), along with the library, for post-secondary assignments. I remember asking professors how to cite internet resources and there was no consensus. We called people on the phone, walked to friend’s houses and spent free time outside or with friends. We learned social media in our 20s, and probably got our first cell phone then too. MP3 files were new in our late teens, as was a program called Napster, where you could download music for free to burn onto a CD to use in your discman or home stereo (but you still had your cherished mixed tapes). We’re a little pessimistic like Gen X, but a little optimistic like Millennials.

When preparing to write her book, Twenge compared large data surveys over years to be able to compare young people in previous generations to our current Gen Z to be able to learn what is truly different about Gen Z. She also interviewed 23 Gen Z’ers from ages 12 – 20, from various cultural and geographical backgrounds within the United States. This allowed her to use data and research along with her own findings in speaking directly with Gen Z’ers, asking questions about societal and political views, how they spend their free time, what they like and don’t like, and how they communicate.

Speaking of books, when I originally thought of the idea of looking at Gen Z students in post-secondaries through the lens of my own post-secondary experiences and now working at a university, I actually felt the comparisons fit very well with Thomas De Quincey’s 19th century novella Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. It’s an autobiographical account of DeQuincey’s opium addiction for his physical ailments, and the effects on his life. He goes into detail about the pleasures of it, and also the pains of it, and he meant it as an instructive book about opium. This book had influences on psychology, and abnormal psychology, as well as towards dreams.

Now, I did do a very informal survey of a few friends to make sure I wasn’t totally off kilter by comparing students with a story about an opium addict, but they all agreed in this sense it worked. And it worked because the novel is nuts, and is told with humour and surreal stories, and the protagonist trying to understand himself. He knows what he’s doing isn’t good for him, but he can’t quit it, and laid everything bare to the reader. And that is also what I hope to do here in some sense – share with you my experiences, with honesty, and hoping you will leave with a better understanding of our new students and how to best help them.

The story is broken up into five parts, and that is how I’ll be breaking up the rest of this podcast. And I should note, this comparison is a little tongue in cheek. I studied English and Communications in university, so it’s not really surprising I made this comparison, but also, I’ve had some pretty surreal and humourous experiences in my job, and, well, the comparison just worked. But, please know, I honestly love working with students. There are so many who have warmed my heart and made lasting impressions – and sometimes that’s just because of really bizarre, but funny, situations.

I’ve basically already fallen into the Preliminary Confessions, but will expand a little further on my experiences in university, on a basic level, and how that compares to the majority of our current students.

Waaaaaaaaaay back in 1998, I walked to my university, Wilfred Laurier, to stand in line to change a class. I looked forward to receiving my academic calendar, with all the course descriptions outlined, and flipping through it to pick my courses. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I registered by phone. I received mail, actual paper mail, about relevant information, because there wasn’t really another place to find it. The internet was still fairly new, and I actually wasn’t even given an email address until I think it was my 4th year. And even then, I was not required to use it as everything was still sent by mail. It was merely a secondary option. I activated mine, but didn’t use it. It wasn’t important. Isn’t that crazy? A mere 16 years ago, email wasn’t necessary or considered an integral communication method. I looked up phone numbers in phone books to call departments (sometimes to wrong one and had to be transferred) and ask questions. My parents didn’t do it. I left home to go to school. Both my parents had attended college, and my mom had taken a few university courses later in life, but I was the first one to go to university and graduate. And, *gasp* I figured it out on my own, which is very different from what happens with many new students today.

I have a very dear former student staff who I know thinks of me as old, despite the fact we aren’t actually that far apart in age, but the differences between the worlds we grew up in become very apparent when we get into certain topics. I often need to remind her to google things (Google, by the way, was not the thing it is now when internet came around. It was AOL searches, or Yahoo!). And I find this funny because she’s right at the end of the Millennial cusp, and hinging on the beginnings of Gen Z, and she uses the internet for everything, and yet I remind her to use, what is now, one of the most basic ways of searching for information. And that’s another huge generational difference. While I went to libraries and was a pro at the dewey decimal system and using card catalogues, now, you can find anything you want basically right at your fingertips. And again, this isn’t a huge amount of time we’re talking about. When I was a kid, I learned to use computers with giant, black, floppy discs, and fifteen years later was using smaller hard discs with a dial up internet, but still relying on libraries for information. In the last fifteen years we’ve had smartphones that fit in your pocket, endless amounts of information available by typing a few words on your computer, the internet as a reliable source for assignments, touch screens, social media, internet on your phone, texting and video communications as the norm, and a sharp decrease in tangible forms of information since so much has moved online.

The advancements of technology that Gen Z have grown up with as the norm has created a vastly different world for them than anyone born before. A few years ago, two of my nephews who were about five and four, wanted me to fast forward through the commercials of a show we were watching. I tried to explain that we were watching the show live, so we couldn’t do that. They didn’t really get it, so I just started telling them a ‘When I was your age…..” story about how I had to walk to the TV to change channels or use VHS tapes to record shows to watch later and what fast forwarding meant then. Needless to say, they didn’t really get that either. But, that moment has stuck with me, as I sometimes think about how their facetiming me or messaging me is just how you communicate with someone far away in their world. That’s the world Gen Z knows. They expect quick solutions, and to fast forward through the parts of life they don’t like. I didn’t have the luxury as a student, and had to research, ask questions, show up in person, pick up the phone and dial a number, battle busy signals, or figure things out on my own.

Twenge points out in her book that the word ‘safety’ is overused now, and when you start to think about it, you’ll begin to notice it. So much of life is framed around safety, with an emotional and social safety, and while some of it is perfectly valid, it’s also used to describe situations that can be better described with other words. For instance, many young people are simply shielded from things that might offend or upset them, so it’s framed in a safety sense of why it’s better to avoid it. But is that a good thing? Depression and anxiety are at all-time highs with young people, in part likely because of their growing up in a world where they don’t need to encounter anything that will further cause anxiety, and that can lead to basic situations becoming scary, when they aren’t. A perfect example of this is what I see every year at Orientation, with parents calling on behalf of their students to ask questions, or seek clarification, or students wanting to ensure they can stay with friends for the day because it’s too scary otherwise as a new, unknown, situation.

And this brings me to my second part – The Pleasures of Orientation. And I say pleasures partly in a realistic sense, but also in a sarcastic sense.

First though, I should cover off a little student development theory, because this plays a huge role in why Orientation programming exists, but it’s also important as a frame of reference for new students starting their post-secondary education.

There are a few go-to theories on student development, the biggest being from Arthur Chickering, who defined Seven Vectors of development. Basically, Chickering’s theory, first developed in 1969, and re-visited in 1993, defines the psychological stages new students go through as they start their post-secondary education.

First, they develop competence, which is broken down into intellectual competence, manual competence and interpersonal competence. Intellectual competence is defined as the ability to understand, analyze and synthesize. Now, I would argue that right off the hop, some of our new students are not being given the opportunity to complete even this basic competency because of family helping so much to the point of taking over. Now, I’m not bashing parents, because I know they’re just trying to help their students, but merely pointing out that it happens.  

Now, this is a safe space, so we can talk about helicopter parents in a way that recognizes their role in a student’s life, and some of the, let’s say, challenges, that sometimes arise. Every year, after I’ve sent out Orientation invites, I get calls from parents. When I worked out of a previous office, it was quite public, so many moms, and I say moms because it’s always the moms (not that dads don’t get involved) would come into the office with their student. My absolute favourite helicopter parent was one who came in with her twin sons. At this time, we were dividing students into small groups to spend the day with at Orientation, and the brothers happened to have been assigned different groups. Their mom came in because she was adamant, and would not leave, until they were put into the same group to be able to stay together. All the while her sons stood behind her, completely quiet, with their heads lowered. I’d never seen anything like it! Our front desk staff bravely took on the situation, explaining why it might be helpful for her sons to meet new people and have individual experiences, but she was not having it. In this situation, a more helpful way to approach the situation would have been to allow her sons to stay in their individual groups. If we can’t allow our students to succeed on the very first stage of identity development before they’ve even step foot on campus, we’re doing them a disservice.

As mentioned earlier, when I started university, I was pretty much on my own for figuring everything out. And that’s an important first step, because it’s the student coming to classes and taking the classes, getting the grades, needing to take the exams. In 20 years we’ve effectively taken away opportunities for some basic critical thinking.

I won’t get into much detail on the remaining vectors. Chickering also talks about establishing identity and developing a sense of comfort with yourself and how others see you, as well as developing a purpose and developing integrity. I want to delve into developing integrity, as it involves personalizing humanizing values and applying them to your own behaviour, but first I want to touch on the other two vectors I mentioned.

Establishing your identity is a huge part of being in post-secondary settings. There are so many ways to be involved and learn, and it provides so many opportunities. And with previous generations, that was a little more of a given I think, in the way that kids were allowed to fail. That’s not entirely the world our young people live in anymore. As I referenced before, the word ‘safety’ is used a lot. Just listen for it, or variations of it, and you’ll pick up on it. It’s not to say that no young person knows the bittersweet taste of failure these days, but more that how they fail can be a little more cushioned than before. For myself, I made my choices for what to study and stuck with them. And trust me, 20 years ago, saying you wanted to study communications wasn’t something met with tons of applause, but rather skepticism and a questioning look because I’m a quiet person, and they thought communication studies somehow would mean me talking on end about whatever they thought I’d have to talk about. With Gen Z, many come in without knowing what they want to do, and that is TOTALLY ok! But many come in with the idea of doing what their parent thinks they should do, and that isn’t really ok. There is no ability to establish identity if you aren’t given the freedom to make that choice. And this is something that is purposely talked about now on Orientation days – that it’s ok to not know, but if you have a secret passion, or even a passing interest in say, literature or political philosophies, then we need to encourage our students to explore these interests, and in turn, discover more about who they are. We provide a disservice if after four, five, or six years we have students graduating who are now faced with increased anxiety of entering the world with a degree and future that doesn’t make them smile. And this ties directly to the vector of developing a purpose. If our young people are dealing with more mental health distress than previous generations, then don’t we owe it to them to help ease the burden in a way that will lead to their success rather than coddle them?

The last vector I want to talk about is the development of integrity. This vector involves the ability to personalize humanizing values. So here’s my conundrum – if our young people are more isolated than previous generations, and are lacking key interpersonal skills because of a lack of social interaction and an increase in texting, snapchatting and abbreviations for just about everything, than can we expect future generations to have a true sense of integrity and understanding of basic human behaviours, or even reading emotion on a person’s face?

Now, I’ve ventured off-course a little from the Pleasures of Orientation, so let me steer back onto that road for a moment. The reality is, as much as OTR professionals stress out, get frustrated and question their career choice in August every year, the reality is that Orientation ultimately makes us happy, because providing an environment for new students to receive the information and skills they need to succeed is extremely satisfying. Without fail, every Orientation day, I am completely exhausted, mentally and physically, but seeing, and feeling, the excitement of new students descending on campus is amazing. And it warms up a heart that got a little cold in those last few weeks of August.

The vectors I’ve discussed will be woven into the rest of what I’ll be talking about, but it’s time to move on to a brief Introduction to the Pains of Orientation.

Basically my introduction is asking ‘Why?’. Why is Orientation so nuts? Why helicopter parents? Why don’t students read relevant information sent directly to their own personal email account? Why do parents use their own email address, disguised as their students’, and sometimes pretend to be their student? In what other scenario does it make sense for a parent to pretend to be their child?

So let’s just dive right in to the Pains of Orientation; rip that band aid right off. When I was a new student, I had to endure busy signals when calling people for information. I had to actually walk to the campus, find the office I needed, and walk into it and speak to a person, or stand in line and wait to speak to a person. Or I had to search through the academic calendar to find the answer. I received paper mail and had to open it, read it, and keep that paper somewhere safe so as not to misplace critical information.

Today, new students get information sent directly to their email, where you can open it, keep it safe, and click on links leading you directly to the details you need. And you can open it anywhere there’s wifi if you aren’t even at home. There were no links in 1998. Yet, with this personalized service, I can tell you exactly where students stopped reading the invite I emailed them based on the responses and reactions I get. One year I had a student email me to say they know they received something from me, but didn’t read it, so can I just tell them what it says? I get students panicking about where to arrive on campus, when it’s literally in the invite they are replying to me with. And it’s not just one, its multiple students. Every. Single. Year. Students register in the wrong faculty. And I’m talking completely wrong. Not even close. How does that happen?!

And, I’d be remiss not to mention the number of unread emails that result in panicked calls or emails after the registration deadline, with hopes of still being able to come.

Information is so much easier to find versus 20 years ago, and we’re here with the most tech savvy young people ever, and yet the world we created for them where so much information is instantaneous, the ironic effect is not all students want to search for information that isn’t right in front of them. People of a certain age, and I’ll use myself for this example, generally don’t think twice about solving the issue themselves. But here I was being asked to tell someone what was in an email they just didn’t want to open. Also, my name and contact information is at the bottom of the invite, so I’m being found there, but all that stuff in between ‘hello’ and my name? Apparently irrelevant. It’s sincerely baffling to me.

But, the flip side of this is that it gets my creative brain flowing with ideas on how to combat this. Is it because I’m of a certain age? Why am I programmed to do that critical thinking? And, I want to be clear, I am not saying that our young people don’t have critical thinking, but I am saying it’s different. And it’s not their fault, it’s a world we’ve helped create where they just don’t need to develop the same skills as previous generations. I mean, I don’t need to know how to cook chicken liver and ration it for the week because we’re in a world war. But can the ability to ration help with financial planning and organization? Absolutely.

We’ve created the environment for echo chambers to exist where you can stay in your hive with your like-minded peers. Despite the news at our fingertips, Twenge points out that Gen Z doesn’t, as a whole, know what’s going on in the world. It’s not to say they don’t care, but if there’s going to be a cause to fight for, it might be changing a profile photo on social media, or only allowing in as much information as you want into your safe zone. And, heck, I know it, reading email after email can get a little boring, and we send students a lot of email. We need to keep up with them much better. Email isn’t working the same way anymore. So, 20 years ago, email wasn’t necessary, and now, in some instances, it’s no longer relevant. Will it become the fax machine of the future? Quite possibly. We’re clearly reliant on internet and wifi these days, because we all know how life comes to a halt without it, but given the advances in the last 10 years even, where our digital communications are heading is likely to even faster and shorter styles.

The seemingly ever shorter attention spans creates quite the unique challenge of planning in-person Orientation events. I wish I remember where, as I’d reference it, but I read once that young people now have an attention span of less than a goldfish – which is six seconds. While online orientation is important, and something my institution dipped our toe into this year, we still need human interaction, so in-person events are here to stay. But feedback I’ve gotten the last two years is that the sessions, which are about 45 minutes, are too long. Um, what do they think happens in lectures the next day? There’s clearly a disconnect happening, but how do we fix that? It’s something I’ve been mulling since this last Orientation, and I’ve got a few options, including leaning more towards storytelling for learning, which can help in decolonizing our systems, but also opens a lot of doors for what an event become, instead of looking at what it’s been – but that does not include incorporating six-second-long sessions. And that’s another thing, what works one year, or is recommended, doesn’t always play out as intended the next year, which relates back to one of my early comments that there is no general brush to paint our students with. And while you can’t ever please everyone anyway, I still always aim for the majority. I’ve heard students say they want to hear from other students about their experiences, so this year I had a student-led session with upper year students sharing their first year experiences and interacting with the audience. And what was the result? While overall it seemed a success, I also dealt with students getting up and leaving after 20 minutes, and feedback that 45 minutes was far too long, but also hearing students say they want to hear from upper year students and didn’t get that this year. Um, huh? I totally had a whole session with six students sharing their experiences! So ok, so I can work with a shorter session, but then that leads to more questions of what the majority of students want to hear about, and that ranges from a generalized overview of what to expect starting classes, to wanting to know exactly what courses to take for their own specific degree. One piece of feedback was to have a scavenger hunt because they saw another faculty doing it. Well, I’ve been planning events for a very long time, and I can promise you taking on a scavenger hunt for 3000 people is not going to happen. Ever.

Overwhelmingly I heard the desire for more interactive activities. And for this old gal, it’s a matter of rethinking and reimagining what interactive looks like now, because it’s clearly not the same as what it looked like for me in university.

*transition music*

Well, it’s been a fun ride, but it’s time to bring this train into the station and end with some concluding thoughts.

Every year, when I read the survey comments from students there is always a favourite. Last year, when asked what their takeaway was from the day, a student replied “Don’t be afraid to seek help, even if I don’t look smart.”

I love this quote. For one, because of my many hopes for takeaways from Orientation is that students know they can ask for help, and to feel safe doing so, but also because it’s just really good life advice. It’s also a really great takeaway of how we can help our Gen Z students. Encourage them to ask questions. If a student shows interest in what you do, ask them to sit down and chat for 20 minutes at some point. If you see potential in a student, help them nurture it. This is actually one of the many things I love about working with students – seeing them blossom over the years into a sense of themselves. I love when a student inspires me or gives me the feels. It speaks to the power of change and transition, which is what a post-secondary environment should be nurturing; and it’s changed and transformed me too. While the generational differences can rear their frustrating heads at times, there are also many similarities we share with our students. We love learning. We love creativity. We love exploring.

As my parting thoughts, I’d like to leave you with this. I sincerely hope that the Gen Z traits I talked about are not seen as negative. Millennials often felt, and still feel, a lot of flack over how they feel they are viewed, and, to be honest, all the generations have had negative traits associated with them. Gen X was seen as rebellious and pessimistic, and Baby Boomers are taking heat now for being told they are draining our future pensions and have ruined the world with their polluting ways way back when. And of course, Millennials are also referred to as the ‘Me Generation’, and generally described as being the most self-centred of these generations. But, if that’s the world we handed them, to celebrate every small achievement, then why are we then chastising them for wanting that recognition to continue throughout life? Xennials are still a fairly new defined group, and a micro-generation, so nothing negative, or glowingly positive for that matter, has really come out about them yet. What bits exist are mostly matter-of-fact, but I’m sure in time someone will study this group more and find something that can be considered negative.

In 1964, professor and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, coined his famous phrase “the medium is the message” when he published his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Decades before the internet (which McLuhan predicted), McLuhan argued how the delivery of a message is what should be the focus, not the message itself. And this was long before the explosion of technology we’ve seen since. I mean, in 1964, the photocopier was only five years old, and computers filled up entire rooms.

Being a generation that finds themselves behind screens so much can obviously be seen as a negative for Gen Z, but in reality, this is a product of the world we’ve all created for them. We have consumed the technological advancements and demanded more. And the biggest way, personally, I think we can help take away the negative connotations, and perhaps help influence whatever generation comes next, is by encouraging more in-person communication and interaction. It’s a slippery slope if digital communication continuously wins out over in-person communications, and McLuhan’s message is just as important today as it was 54 years ago – a world where digital communication wins out over face-to-face carries a lot of implications in how we move forward and connect as a society. It’s something I’ve given some thought to, but that’s a whole other discussion. But the truth is we need that human interaction, where we can touch the person, have audio stimulus from what’s going on around us, and be a part of life. And this is coming from someone who is very much an introvert and enjoys being at home with her husband and our two cats and a dog. But the truth is, we need to ask those questions in person, sometimes we should stand in the line we don’t want to, or even just take the time to sit down with someone to chat. So, it’s important for us, in previous generations, to help teach Gen Z the worlds the roads passed through before arriving here in 2018, and the common threads that weaved through them that led to our successes. Not to change them, but to help them as they travel their own roads.

Thank you for listening.


*exit music*

Music by Avantgarde Ambient and OMFG

And special thanks to my campus radio station UMFM for helping me record my first podcast. You can check them out at




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