Around this time last year, I wrote an email to the freshmen I worked with as a FroCo. As commencement approaches and the year comes to a close, I thought it might be of use to begin asking some of the difficult questions …
To my freshmen:
As your freshman counselor, I was humbled by the trust that you showed in me this year. You asked me many of the same questions that I remember asking my freshman counselor, questions related to every area of Yale life: academic advice, majors, fellowships, summer opportunities, relationship advice, family concerns. But none of you asked me the main question that I’ll be thinking about as I sit on Old Campus during commencement on May 20:
“What is this all about?” And to be clear, I’m not talking about college. I’m talking about life.
As Yalies, we are very adept at hiding from this question — and justifying this evasion to ourselves by throwing ourselves at our classes, entrenching ourselves in extracurricular activities, drinking too much and doing what we think we should be doing to “set ourselves up” for when we leave Yale. No matter how compelling it may seem to barricade yourself from the existential question from time-to-time, that won’t make the question go away. It will be waiting for you on Monday morning and during each shopping period and at commencement. And it will only become more salient as you look for the “right” answers to your other questions in the coming years.
If you have a sophomore slump next year, it will not be caused by any difficulties you have settling on a major, or being the middle child in your residential college, or beginning to see certain elements of the Yale extracurricular and party scene become stale, even though these may seem like the immediate challenges. Instead, it will be caused by your first true blinding contact with the direct question “What is this all about?”
This same question applies to my senior friends who are about to embark on their first steps post-college. Regardless of whether my friends have opportunities lined up for next year or are still undecided about next steps, I find that they most often discuss broader visions and desires of what their ideal future would look like. All of these discussions are fundamentally informed by how one responds to and engages with the question, “What is this all about?”
As is the case with any 22-year-old, I don’t pretend to have a great answer to this existential question yet, but I also don’t believe that ignoring it is the appropriate response. I too find comfort in putting my head down and plowing forward with day-to-day necessities, yet I often stop and think, “If I don’t know why my specific goals are worthwhile, then how will I know if I’ll be happy when I achieve them?”
I challenge each of you to surround yourself with and learn from people who answer the question “What is this all about?” differently than you do. Talk to your deans, masters, relatives, professors, friends, the Elm Street Kettle Corn guy. Challenge them to defend their answers and be open to changing yours. What does that random person in the next entryway think? Go find out. In the process, you might just learn more about yourself.
I may be your freshman counselor but that doesn’t mean that I’m terribly different from each of you. Sure, I may have different interests and I’ve had unique experiences in my life that have shaped my thinking, but nonetheless many of the challenges I have faced here at the Yale are the same as your own. I too struggled academically freshman year, found it daunting to choose a major, wrestled with family issues and had difficulty forming close bonds with my peers initially. But I made it through Yale and so will you. No matter how dark the day — regardless of housing draw friction, embarrassing moments last weekend, the draining all-nighter, final exams — always remember that you are going to make it through Yale. And as I can attest, your last semester at Yale will come sooner than you could imagine. My only hope is that you will begin to discover your purpose somewhere along the way.
And if you ever find a great answer to “What is it all about?” by all means, give me a call.
Andrew Goldstein is a 2013 graduate of Jonathan Edwards College. He originally shared this letter with his freshmen while a freshman counselor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.