After four long, yet simultaneously ephemeral years at Occidental, I will reap the fruits of my laborious days spent here, along with about 500 other seniors, in a little over two weeks. The two research papers standing between my Bachelor of Arts degree and me make it highly unlikely that I will cross off from an impossibly long list many of the things I meant to do and the food I meant to eat while on the sunny West Coast. In the course of my tenure at Occidental, my values and beliefs have evolved, I have gained incredible self-confidence and I can assuredly say I am leaving this place a better person. Yet I cannot help but wonder how much more I could have gained throughout my time here had I been more willing and able to stand out during my first year.
Most students begin college without a solid grasp of who they are, what
they want or what they really care about. They start their undergraduate
careers as malleable, eager balls of energy with the intention of
excelling academically and socially. Throughout students’ college years,
they adopt new ideas and concepts that resonate with them, shed
preconceptions that no longer hold water and deepen previously held
values. As cliched as it is to say, college really is a period of
transformation. Yet no one ever tells students that it is okay to feel
vulnerable, to be unsure and to struggle with their sense of self. Most
importantly, it is okay to talk to people about feeling vulnerable and insecure.
The first months of college tend to be as emotional and tumultuous as the final ones. From the momentous to the trifling, students make countless decisions during their first year of college that can shape, for better or worse, their undergraduate careers. Along with deciding what clubs to join, which people to become friends with and which classes to take, students make choices about how they want to present themselves and how open they want to be with others. When I became a student here in 2010, the biggest concern on my mind was whether I would fit in. I can laugh about the silliness of it now, but at the time, as a shy, contemplative 18-year-old from the Northeast, I genuinely feared the possibility of not making friends.
In an apparently self-fulfilling prophecy, I spent most of my first-year weekends in, Skyping with friends from high school and reading about whatever I was interested in at the time. Suffice to say, I did not make many friends that year. Introversion was a factor, sure, but I assumed that something was wrong with me because I hated small talk and because it took me longer than a night of drunken banter to want to befriend someone. Everyone around me seemed to bond over the most inconsequential details, like a shared hatred of the Marketplace’s weekend hours or a mutual affinity for the Mac and cheese bites at the Cooler. I agreed, but I could never articulate myself in a way that was not painfully forced. As my first year passed by, I became complacent with solitude and repetition.
At a place like Occidental, a lot of professors will tell students not to generalize — especially about large groups of people — because although we are all ultimately a lot more similar than different, our varied and diverse backgrounds, personalities and experiences make us distinct individuals. Yet as vulnerable, insecure teenagers, we sometimes sacrifice or conceal parts of ourselves that are essential to who we are when we start college in order to acculturate to the dominant assumptions and expectations about how people should behave. In my first year, I pined to be that gregarious, vivacious person that everyone warmed up to immediately, but I could never be that person because I was, and am, naturally more reserved until I get to know and like people. By aspiring to something I inherently was not, I became even more self-conscious in social situations.
Eventually, the desire to be extroverted subsided when I grew to accept that the way I socialize is part of what makes me who I am and is a pretty great quality. Looking back over the years, though, I feel a twinge of regret for not opening up to people sooner and for not being more transparent about feeling isolated that first year. A surprising number of seniors I have talked to this year related similar feelings of loneliness, inadequacy or seclusion earlier in their college careers. I cannot help but wonder how much richer all of our years would have been and how much more connected Occidental would be as a community if more students who felt alone or isolated decided to reach out to others when they experienced those feelings. If we looked to where our experiences overlap we could create a more empathetic culture here.
As my days as an undergraduate rapidly dwindle, feelings of anxiety, anticipation, relief and elation wash over me, sometimes all at once. The shy, self-conscious 18-year-old who started here is still a part of the grounded 22-year-old that will leave here in two weeks. But perhaps the greatest difference that divides those two people is the acceptance of being imperfect, of being vulnerable, of being human. With the induction of Active Minds and a growing emphasis on mental health, Occidental is poised to welcome the class of 2018 with the message that just as everybody poops, everybody sometimes feels alone and imperfect. Rather than try harder to be what we think we should be, Occidental students should feel comfortable speaking up and standing out.