The first month of freshman fall gives an awfully skewed view of college. One of college’s sweetest joys is that no matter what challenges come — the struggle for an essay; the race for a job — we are always just a few minutes’ walk from good friends. A small campus frees us from commutes. Physical closeness aids emotional closeness. It takes the work out of having fun, getting to know people and, in the words of one of my AEPi brothers, “appreciating each other’s existence.”
Freshman fall puts much of that work back in. I’m not talking about the natural, poignant, universal anxieties: thinking, “After a year of praying for this time, here it is, and it’s not perfect”; feeling a small longing for the way things used to be; and having hardly any idea what comes next. All of these feelings are age-old — going back, maybe, to when the first caveman moved out of his parents’ cave.
Our era has ushered in a new slew of fears to saturate freshman fall. Each of us arrives on campus, suddenly overwhelmed by thousands of new people, any of whom could change us: become the best man at our wedding, or maybe even a spouse. This shock too has always been a freshman tradition. But in our generation, we’re overwhelmed in ways our parents never were.
One catalyst is Facebook. Not so long ago — forget our parents’ time; try our siblings’ — people met people in college by, you know, meeting them. Now, freshmen arrive on campus with dozens or even hundreds of “friends,” made through bond-forging activities like virtual poking. One has people to text smiley faces to at the Freshman Bazaar, and a pre-fab crew for attending, in well-hidden nervousness, the Baker’s Dozen house party.
I remember just before my freshman year, when I saw how many Facebook friends other freshmen had. “It’s not just a nervous freshman’s illusion!” I thought. “They do all know each other already!”
Consider the Bazaar itself. A gargantuan college gym brims with tables, placards and well-meaning Yalies in colorful shirts cornering bewildered freshmen and shouting, over the crowd’s din, “Have you heard of [such-and-such]?”
Not long ago, there was no Freshman Bazaar. As one alum from the ‘70s relates, Yalies picked up copies of the Yale Bulletin and Calendar and perused them at their leisure. Now, the Bazaar’s frenzy of good intentions is the path to activities, a main way to meet people, or to fear, “Everyone is meeting people — am I falling behind?”
In 1976, Yale had eight a cappella groups. Now, one can “rush” up to 16 ensembles. Allowing more people to sing is good; I myself sang for a year in Magevet, an a cappella group founded in 1993. Still, one might identify the explosion of the singing group “rush” process as an example of the social and extracurricular ratcheting-up of freshman fall.
“The very word ‘rush’ raises your blood pressure,” the alum says. “It was never in our vocabulary.”
Now, prospective singers enter a deluge of tryouts, concerts, after-parties and “rush meals,” which compose the defining set of social encounters of their first college month. Meanwhile, those who might like to try singing, but who did not plan on it during their first week in college, eventually hear about “rush,” and wonder what it is they are not part of. (This year, the last day to audition for a group in the Singing Group Council is September 10th, according to the Council’s Web site.)
A cappella rush is not alone, or even to blame. It is part of a broader trend of pressure to plan and arrange the perfect social life from the first day on campus. Consider fraternity “rush,” or the preseason social bonds formed among varsity athletes, or the crowded September calendars of almost any other group on campus.
Earlier generations used the phrase, “give it the old college try” to talk about trying something you might not have planned to do, and might not do well, but that everyone deserves the chance to do. In the “real world,” such spontaneity is impractical (hence another phrase, “Don’t quit your day job, kid”). The idea behind the liberal arts college was to create time when such spontaneity — what former Yale President Kingman Brewster called “the privilege of doubt” — would not be a distraction from one’s day job. It would be one’s day job. By it, one could become an adult. But today’s pressures to specialize, prepare and excel make it hard even in college to “give it the old college try.”
Amid fears of grades and scores, friends shouldn’t be the part that unnerves us. We have plenty of those. Yet these academic and extracurricular pressures have a twin for social interactions. We are all afraid to be the only person without a crew at the Baker’s Dozen house party.
This situation helps nobody. If we deny these pressures, we may still live in their shadow, enjoying our days less than we might, fearful of “falling behind.” But if we seek to smooth over what is troubling about this time — a fair desire — we risk losing what is beautiful: the chance, as we are forced to depend on ourselves, to learn who that “self” is; and the opportunity, since we are freed from high school ruts, to meet people who surprise us.
Neither path is particularly appealing. How do we stake out the middle ground? I will offer some ideas in my next column.
Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College.