I’ve received many reactions from other students when they find out I am a freshman counselor. Most are phrased as questions that let you know exactly how they feel about the subject, but one proved particularly thought-provoking: “Are you really willing to live on Old Campus, away from all your friends during your final year at Yale?” The cute answer is: “But I will have 100 new friends by the end of the year!” In reality, the idea of living away from everyone did concern me.
The residential college system is pretty great. You can eat, sleep, work out, study, party — pretty much do everything except light a fire in a fireplace — all in the same location, in close proximity to your friends. However, in the pursuit of creating an all-inclusive community, the crafters of the residential college system left out a critical component: The ability to be alone.
Dormitory-style living confers new character on every living space. For the average American, your bedroom, at least during adolescence and early adulthood, takes on the role of a solitary space. Beyond sleeping, you can write, sing, dance or even just relax in silence. You can enjoy the absence of others.
But that’s all upended during freshman year when your roommate is packed in. Suddenly you lose those moments away from even your closest friends. Add in three suitemates and personal space becomes even scarcer. It’s difficult to resist company when everyone is in the common room laughing and hamming it up. For better and for worse, we are forced into social settings a remarkable portion of the time.
Residential college life takes this transformation even further. Your inability to be alone is not confined to your room. Eating alone has long been stigmatized, reinforced by get-ahead-in-life book titles like Never Eat Alone. But we wouldn’t be able to play the lunchroom outcast even if we wanted to. Someone is always likely to show up. This is true whether it is in the bathroom, in the gym or on the street. And while there is a comfort in being surrounded by friendly people, it is ultimately unhealthy and unsustainable; it adds to the self-imposed busyness of Yale life.
As an underclassman this seemed like a blessing. I hated being alone. I wanted to surround myself with fun and excitement, and if I wanted to study, that’s what libraries were for. However, now removed from Saybrook College and taking up residence in Vanderbilt Hall, it is clear that the only times I was ever alone was when I was studying or sleeping.
While freshmen counselors technically still live in a community environment, being a froco has given me more space than I have enjoyed in all my time at Yale. This is mostly due to the fact that the freshmen are pretty low maintenance, but also partly because I am too lazy to walk the 200 yards to Saybrook. Friends don’t just pop into my room at random, and I spend significantly less time with my classmates despite my insistence that I wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen. But I realized this is a good thing.
The demands of campus and the lack of personal space prevent us from engaging in a healthy form of self-care simply called “alone time.” Not downtime, not useless-hobby time —alone time. Pushed into a world that is frequently externalized, we all too easily begin to ignore ourselves. It is incredibly difficult to hear what one needs — one’s desires or ingredients for growth in life — if we are increasingly burdened by excessive, though not unwanted, stimuli.
It is therefore no surprise that many students find themselves without a sense of direction upon graduation. I certainly wouldn’t say that spending an afternoon alone is enough to determine your calling in life. But the occasional solitary evening provides space for self-reflection. If we are denying ourselves time for introspection and silence, we have to ask: When is the last time you sat down and asked yourself what it is you want, whether it be about your career, your next week or your time at Yale? The answer, I would venture a guess, is not recent enough.
There is no need to burn down the residential colleges to address this lack of space. Rather, we should encourage one another to remove ourselves both physically and mentally every now and then from the college setting, giving ourselves the opportunity to be alone. Lounge under a tree far away. Hide in the stacks. Sit and stare at a wall in the basement if that is what you are into. But by all means, don’t confuse alone time with loneliness. Make time and find a place in your life for yourself.
Kyle Tramonte is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns run on Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.