STERN: Come on, Irene

A Stern Perspective

As Hurricane Isaac blows its (his?) way through the Gulf Coast, the pundits have been whipped into their own storm of epic proportions, pontificating about the environmental and political impacts of the rain. Yet I urge Yalies to resist this speculation for the moment and to try to think back nearly one year to the day — to another hurricane, one that had profound effects on the class of 2015’s freshman experience.

Last year, hours after helping me move in, my parents fled New Haven, trying desperately to outrun Hurricane Irene. Irene was the first major storm of the 2011 hurricane season, and it was expected to devastate Connecticut and Yale. Members of the Yale administration sent urgent emails to freshmen, warning us of Irene’s projected repercussions. Freshman orientation events were cancelled, and food was doled out like provisions at the Super Dome. FroCos warned us about what to do in the event that rooms flooded or furniture started blowing about. (For those who missed the lesson: Get into the halls, stay away from the windows and cower.)

Abandoned by our parents, locked in our dorms, warned of apocalyptic weather, the freshmen — many away from home for the first time — could have been terrified. But we weren’t. Instead, liberated by our captivity, we bonded.

Shut in our dorms, stocked up for the storm, freshmen finally began getting to know one another. I’m not talking about the ice cream social hey-where-are-you-from getting to know someone — but true bonding. In Vanderbilt Hall, where Branford and Saybrook freshmen lived, the emergency doors between entryways were unlocked, and, with nothing else to do, freshmen ventured forth and just hung out.

In the days before Irene, Summer Baxter ’15 spent most of her time in Bingham, hanging out with friends she had made during Cultural Connections. The night of the hurricane was the first she spent in Vanderbilt, where she actually lived. Two different entryways — previously separated by locked emergency doors — held a party that night. While playing games at the party, Baxter was paired with someone she had never met before from a different Vanderbilt entryway.

“We started just making casual chitchat, and we had so much in common,” she said. It turned out she and her partner were taking essentially the same classes and had the same angst about prospective majors. Today they are best friends. “I probably never would have had that experience if I had not been stuck in Vandy,” Baxter said. “That was the beginning of my Yale socialization.”

Monica Chen ’15 was also living in Vanderbilt, but her suite didn’t venture out across entryways. Instead, because they couldn’t go out that night, “we just sat down and shared secrets with each other.” For about an hour, Chen’s suite discussed life stories, past crushes and the sort of confidences that drew them closer. Later, freshmen from other entryways came to them. There were also practical advantages to being locked inside: Chen’s suite had time to build Ikea furniture — a feat for which a long, uninterrupted block of time can come in handy.

Mitt Romney may not have enjoyed the repercussions of this week’s hurricane, but under certain circumstances, hurricanes do have their upsides. To Yale and to the class of 2016 in particular, I say: We need another hurricane!

Obviously, I am not proposing a literal hurricane — during which, it should be remembered, people across Connecticut lost their lives. Instead, I am prescribing an altered state of mind among the freshmen. It seems unlikely that Yale will choose one night during which all freshmen are placed in their dorms, loaded up with food and not allowed to leave. However, if freshmen are more willing to stray from their comfort zones and have actual conversations, venture across entryways and even across colleges, they might have the same bonding experience my class did during Irene.

We upperclassmen, in our infinite wisdom, can recall what it felt like to be brand-new freshmen. It was terrifying as it was exhilarating. Even with all the new people and institutionalized meetings, friendships can form slowly. We inevitably resort to shallow, single-sentence conversations, and we have a tendency to turn inward — to our FOOT groups or friends from high school.

A hurricane mentality — a drive to stray beyond your comfort zone, meet new people and have real conversations — will help make the freshman experience that much better. Maybe the class of 2016 doesn’t even need a hurricane for this to happen. And maybe the rest of us — older and wiser though we are assuredly are — should adopt this mentality as well.

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