Marlena Raines

Adapted from a letter the writer, a Hopper FroCo, sent to his FroCo group over winter break.

Dearest frosh,

I hope you all had lovely breaks and are excited to be back on campus (you might not be, but I hope you are)!

Before things kick off in earnest soon enough, and while you still have time for long emails, I wanted to offer some thoughts and reflections as you head into your second semester of college (and we FroCos into our last!).

Right now, the spring semester may seem scary or like a familiar challenge, super exciting or maybe the mundanest of the mundane. And it’s impossible to predict how it’s going to turn out.

But, remember, no matter what: you’ve already made it through a whole semester at Yale. And what an accomplishment that is. And I say that not because of the academic rigor, though that’s not to be discounted, but because this can be a crazy, wild, throw-you-upside-down-over-your-head-and-shake-you-back-and-forth-mess of a place.

Despite the running narrative and what that weird song says about bright college years, if college so far has been a little bit dark at times, let me tell you — you’re not alone. In fact, though you almost certainly don’t realize it, because Yale students — and yes, that includes your suitemates — are darn good at pretending that everything is going superbly no matter how much of a nightmare things might really be, last semester probably was quite a bit darker and messier than expected for many of you — most of you even. And on that front Yale is hardly alone either — I can confidently tell you from knowing more than a handful of them, students at other colleges don’t always love their first year either.

So, take this to heart. No matter what last semester was like, and what this coming semester holds, you aren’t alone.

It’s okay, and it’s not even unusual, if college has been anything less than utterly amazing so far, or if it continues to be that way — and it will get better.

I’m lingering on this because after I stumbled my way through my first semester (a bit unhappy, and a bit embarrassed I was unhappy), it took too many rounds of older friends telling me, “yeah, your first year can really suck, but it gets so much better” for me to understand that that really was true, and that even though things weren’t always great in the moment, there was much to look forward too.

I want you, though, to understand that now, if possible. So in the spirit of that, and the spirit of how much you might not realize others are going through (because they’re so good at holding it together) here’s a short story:

My first year was a ride on a rickety wooden roller coaster, built with tolerances that make my former MechE-self shudder (that is, to say, for you non-engineers, a poorly constructed roller coaster) and with not just the normal up and down movement of a typical proverbial roller coaster, but also enough side-to-side motion to leave me wondering if the car would come off the track.

I struggled with academic motivation, I couldn’t find extracurricular communities that felt right to me, I staggered through social groups with all the grace of a still-slightly-cold piece of chicken sliding slowly out of the back end of a fresh-made buttery Buff Chick Quesadilla, wiggling its way free of the cheese, squelching out of the tortilla, smearing a mix of ranch and Frank’s Red Hot all over the left leg of your favorite post-exam comfy sweatpants, and then finally splattering onto the floor. I made friends fast, lost friends faster, faced the reality of imperfect mental health for the first time, got to contemplate, as so many do (to the point it’s now made it into the national consciousness) what, if anything, alcohol has to do with college, tried and failed to navigate Yale Health, and balled my eyes out (while simultaneously using my last bit of mental energy to pray my roommate wouldn’t walk into our room right then) at least one time more than pre-college me would have predicted (side note, would recommend the shower for crying). And I did plenty, plenty of stupid things I whole-heartedly regret.

Now, there’s a temptation to say at the end of a summary like that, “and it was all beautiful.” But it wasn’t. It was ugly. Stupidly ugly. Watching a cockroach running up out of your Bingham bathroom drain and right through the crack in your hangered-open suite door towards the fridge your supposedly energy-conscious but actually just another forgetful Yalie suitemate left wide open ugly. (Seen that.) In other words, ugly.

But, while the ugliness was really ugly, there also really was beauty to follow. Even within my first year, I slept my way through my first semester of classes and had to postpone a fall final to February; but in the spring I had one or two classes I wouldn’t have missed a minute of even to watch my friend dance, I actually studied for and aced (a few of) my finals, and I even built this weird cool remote-control car thing I still have in my room. Beyond my first year though, I have found even more beauty. No extracurricular community became the utter, sheer joy of sliding across ice in sneakers as part of the Grace Hopper Intramural Broomball team. My splattered-piece-of-chicken social experience got kicked across the floor once or twice more, but then it got picked up, cleaned off, and to round out this weird metaphor, set down on top of a steaming, delicious plate filled with multiple scrumptious buttery goodies (that is to say, lots of great friends). Crying-alone me soon enough shared the ups and downs of junior year with 10 suitemates who were always there for each other, and found friends both in and outside of Hopper who’ve seen me cry tears of both sadness and joy. And yeah, I still did some stupid things. But fewer of them, and mostly with other people.

In short then (kinda), what I want to convey is that things really did get better — and they got better because I found communities. I found other people who would be there for me, who I could count on, and who I wanted to be there for too. I found them on the ice rink, I found them in a class or two, and I especially found them right here in Hopper. And once I did, when things were bad, at least I had friends to turn to. And that’s the brief message in all of this long-winded rambling. This place can be a mess! But there is a light at the end of whatever mess-tunnel you may at some point find yourself in, and that light is other people! Finding connection with others makes a world of difference—whether that’s through finding new people, or reconnecting with the people you already know, or even, especially, just deepening those existing connections. Because in addition to the note of hope it includes, you should also know about my story that your first years really don’t need to be like mine. Dark times in college are a common disease, but supportive community is the known cure. It just took me a while to find it.

One of the reasons I became a FroCo was because I didn’t want anyone else to have to make the poor choices I made, or go through the drudgery I went through my first year, or, more realistically, at very least, not make those choices or go through that drudgery alone. And regardless of whether it was motivated by their own experience, something similar is true of all of us FroCos. We are all living in Bingham with you not because we love the harsh hallway lights and weird popcorn walls you can’t stick command strips to, but because we want to help provide a supportive community to each of you. So, please, I implore you, if any of my story sounds like you (now, or later, or ever) reach out to someone. We’re certainly here, and we can do a lot.

But you’re also surrounded by a whole campus of compassionate, caring people (who share a lot more common struggles than you realize), and sometimes you just have to ask them to get that side. We won’t always be here, but your peers will. Build community with them—regardless of whether you need or can give support, or even if you and your friends are all just having fun together, it’s on all of us to build community together. That means share some things with each other. When things are good, celebrate together, and when things are bad, talk about it—break that Yale trend of pretending you’ve got everything worked out.

While the magic of residential college community is that no matter what it will always be here for all of you, it also might not be the one that fits you best. But don’t let that stop you. You just have to put yourself out there, and even if it sucks for a while, try long enough, and you will find one that sticks. And then I swear, your boring seminar and surprisingly hard gut won’t matter, because you’ll have people to ride things out with. And then things will be better.

So. Like I said, remember, you’ve already done this whole Yale semester thing once before. This is just round two. And who knows what this semester holds? It may be the best you’ve ever had, or it may be such a mess I really can’t capture it with my odd choices of metaphor. (I really hope it’s the best anyone’s ever had, that’d be nice!) But to make it all a little smoother no matter which way it goes, and to give you a nice goal to strive for, I suggest this: Go out there and find (and build) community this semester. We’ll all be better for it.

Eli Swab | eli.swab@yale.edu