On the night of my 21st birthday, I spent hours sitting in the back of the theater in the basement of Trumbull College. It wasn’t quite how I had imagined I’d spend that birthday, alone in a dark theater, but that night there was nowhere else I could be. I was the stage manager for a show and it was the dress rehearsal. We were all intent on our jobs — the director sat in the front, hunched over and scribbling notes wildly as the actors came in and out on their cues. My job was to run the lights, a task that required a few seconds of precise and swift action followed by many minutes of idleness. During those minutes, my mind wandered. Though I knew the show couldn’t go on with out me, I felt a strong sense of isolation creeping in.

For the cast and crew, what was happening in the theater that night seemed of the utmost importance. The play took precedence over schoolwork, spending time with friends — even milestone birthday celebrations. Though we’d closed the theater doors and were intent on our tasks, life at Yale continued, oblivious, around us. Just a few feet away in the Trumbull basement, students did their laundry and checked their e-mail in the computer cluster. Out on the street, people hurried to meetings, to the library, for late-night stops at Durfee’s.

During the next few nights, our little theater would fill up with appreciative audiences whose applause would reaffirm our sense of purpose, making all of the work we’d spent on the show seem worthwhile. A year later, when I pass members of the cast on the street, we nod in acknowledgement of the experience we shared. Most of us have gone our separate ways, taking to different stages, but the memory of the connection we’d felt when working intensely together remains.

During the first days of freshman year, Timothy Dwight College’s Dean John Loge told my class that the most important lessons we would learn at Yale would come from our fellow classmates. For a while, I didn’t believe him. I spent hours at the library, clocking in every night for a long shift of work at my books. After a while, my solitary studies in a school of such frenetic activity became extremely unsatisfying. Much as I loved what I was studying, I couldn’t block out the hum of activity around me.

Yale urges all of us to become invested in its community. It isn’t always easy — in a place full of big personalities and bigger dreams — to carve out a niche for oneself and feel successful in it. But the struggle to succeed and to win the respect of peers can be the most rewarding of challenges. This fall, after Sept. 11, professor John Gaddis reminded the hundreds of students in his class that our most important task was to find someone to love and share our lives with.

The birthday I spent in the back of the theater was one of the loneliest of my life, but it was also strangely cheering. As I watched the action, I was detached, yet shining the lights on the stage. I was a central part of this small pocket of Yale life, but I also knew that what I would take from it would be different from what everyone else did.

The same is true for all of us at Yale. No two people live remotely similar lives here, but in the future we will undoubtedly pass each other on the street and nod in acknowledgement of the experience we shared. The feeling of being so invested in that play proved to me that my career at Yale would largely be measured in terms of the triumphs — and falls — I have shared with others. The connections I have made with peers and the lessons I have learned from them will stay with me, even when I find myself alone in a dark place.

Siobhan Oat-Judge is graduating from Timothy Dwight College and was editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine.