A few days ago, I was in the first earthquake of my life. Something started rumbling, loudly and abruptly. The next thing I knew, I was dodging flying books, watching the walls jolt back and forth, wondering “nuclear bomb?” and running downstairs for fear that my house would soon come tumbling down.
Yes, Californians, I now know that’s not the right thing to do in an earthquake. I was supposed to stand in a doorway or crouch under a desk or something. But what could I, a life-long Washingtonian, possibly be expected to know about standard earthquake procedures?
An earthquake in D.C. was pretty much unfathomable.
Freshmen, as you begin your first semester, remember the earthquake.
Lesson one: The ground can shake. The beginning of college is a wholly new experience for everyone. Whether you’re coming from a high school you were itching to leave or one where you’d happily have spent the rest of your life, what you used to know as the solid footing you stood on—the facts that defined your life, the daily routines and people you could count on seeing—is all changed.
Post-earthquake, you know what you thought was immovable is not. This is unsettling, but it’s a great opportunity to see the world as slightly more malleable. Take a class you never thought would interest you. Make a friend you’d have written off at home. If the earth feels like it’s tilting, tilt with it, and see if you find anything buried on the other side.
In vulnerability, you can find great foundations. Look at California: Civilization could not progress if it didn’t adapt to the hostile environment. So people learned how to build stronger buildings that could withstand trauma.
If at any point this year you feel knocked to the ground, build a new foundation. Learn what stabilizes you, whether it’s exploring New Haven on a run or shirking off sleep to talk with friends or wandering through Sterling’s stacks until half an afternoon has passed. You’ll also discover old foundations—friendships, favorite songs, routines you’ll live by til you die—that stand strong through any earthquake.
Lesson two: The world looks a little different after an earthquake, but it’s really the same. After a quake, I discovered, the ground is still there; it just feels strange to step on it at first, as if it could easily drop away under your foot. For Californians, the world is always moving. (Scary.)
The force of Yale may liberate you from old, hardened ways. I didn’t really think of myself as someone who would forego my homework to build a six-foot wall of snow in front of the library’s main door at midnight—until, one day, I did just that, because here, at Yale, now, it seemed like the most important thing to do.
Yale won’t make you a radically new person. It will allow you to act in new ways; try out new combinations, and choose wisely which ones to adopt. And know that even if it shakes, the ground is still, now and always, the ground.
Lesson three: Everyone has different ways of handling earthquakes. Some people panic and think it’s a terrorist attack. Though their worries are not unfounded, they’re surely wrong. Other people somehow barely notice anything’s happened. Some are shaken but want to move on. Some people are Californians and pretend it’s completely normal for the ground to spontaneously wreak havoc with the order of things. They’re wrong, too.
It’s the same with freshman year. Everyone comes to Yale with some mixture of glee and dread. Be aware, though, that the proportions may be wildly different for different people. Some will rush repeatedly to Toad’s during Camp Yale just because they can (can they?). Others will have no idea what to do and spend some time quietly getting to know their suitemates.
The important thing, though, is that everyone is facing something new; in that sense, the whole class of 2015 is in this together. If someone seems to be from a different planet, remember that he’s not and that even the people who seem most practiced at the ways of Yale are really just making it all up as they go along.
Lesson four: Earthquakes are exciting! Seriously. At Disney World, there’s a ride that simulates an earthquake. That means people pay buckets of money and stand in line for hours because they want to be in an earthquake. So enjoy this one, which comes to you for free (except for that $52,000 cover charge).
Don’t buckle up, because that’s not how earthquakes work. Earthquakes are both more fun and more unsettling if they’re completely unexpected.
But that’s exactly what makes Yale as great as it is. If you know what to expect, you’ll miss out on all the moments here that defy all expectation. No one can tell you what those moments will be. They’ll happen upon you suddenly and stop you in your tracks the way the beauty of Old Campus does when the leaves start to fall.
Yale, really, is unfathomable. Here it is. You can’t quite know this place until you let it consume you and shock you and toss you around and batter you and pick you up again, lift you up and let you fall and deposit you lying in a hammock on a Friday afternoon, reading the New Yorker and watching kids play Frisbee as the sun sets over Cross Campus.
Julia Fisher is a junior in Berkeley College.