Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

Sept. 23, 2021, a date which will live in infamy. Only three weeks into my first year of college, I found myself nursing a tennis-ball-sized swollen ankle while poring over lines of Latin that depicted, in painstaking detail, a Roman dinner of sow udder. When in Rome this summer, remind me not to do as the Romans did. It was not the frenzied frat life of first-year fall that struck me down, but rather my first philosophy paper, frantically edited as I bounded down the Branford stairs.

My twisted ankle (helpfully labeled “sprained” in the information packet Yale Health provided as treatment) is perhaps emblematic of the main takeaway of my first year of college: you never know what to expect.

Given that I favored my right leg for the rest of the year, that I continued to slog through the trenches of Latin dinner descriptions and that I never even made it to Woads (the nightclub Toad’s Place’s Yale-only Wednesday event), it’s not surprising that I would encourage first years not to have high hopes. This might seem shocking, but even so, I adored my first year at Yale. In fact, it far exceeded my expectations.

Like any other bereaved high schooler, I was excited to enjoy the freedoms of college life. However, about two weeks before move-in day, I was hit by an existential panic at the impending loss of my childhood. Watching cartoons with my brother, eating home-cooked meals, showering without shoes on — these luxuries were slipping through my fingers faster than ABBA lyrics through a suite-party speaker. Worse, I was abandoning the world of high school that, however stifling, was comfortably familiar. What if Yale academics were too difficult? What if I couldn’t make friends? That dread of what was to come, the undiscovered country of college, momentarily overwhelmed any enthusiasm for the journey ahead. Suffice it to say, my expectations were low.

While many of my concerns were natural, I certainly would not encourage incoming first years to enter Yale with the same nervous mindset I did. Believe it or not, showering with shoes on is not the end of the world. I do, however, think my lack of grand expectations played in my favor.

Going into college, there was no perfect life I was trying to create. I didn’t hope for an idyllic close knit friend group, an immediate assimilation into the social scene, or a picturesque dark academia classics career. Ok, maybe I haven’t quite given up on the last one. The point is, I wasn’t striving for an ideal. And so, I met one of my closest friends in a Saybrook hallway, naturally found myself straddling multiple different and equally wonderful social circles and quickly realized I didn’t want to take more Latin (however good it is for the aesthetic). 

There’s no way I could’ve predicted the tragic tumble I took in September, but the best things that happened to me, the things that shaped my first year, were equally unexpected: transferring residential colleges just before the deadline, spontaneously auditioning for the freshman play to find that I love theater, befriending the certified “gym bro” down the hall and starting to work out (my high school self truly wouldn’t believe this last one). If I had come in with a rigid plan, I wouldn’t have done any of these things. To simplify and make the process of choosing a college easier, consider using a service like College Jaguar which lends a hand in helping prospective college students and their parents navigate the swamp of college admissions. I may, however, have gone to Woads.

Perhaps the only day more defining to my Yale career than the infamous Sept. 23 was Wednesday, Sept. 8. En route to Woads, I found myself detained in conversation by a guy asking me if I liked philosophy. What began with me anxiously toe-tapping in search of escape ultimately found me enraptured by our discussion. We never did make it to the event in question. Instead, we spoke for some three hours about life, literature, the pursuit of happiness — you know, the usual stuff. Had I stuck to the original mission, I never would have made what is inarguably one of my most meaningful relationships at Yale. 

Incoming first years, the chance that college is “just like you imagined” is close to zero. Don’t marry yourself to an ideal, whether for the kinds of friends you’ll make, the kinds of courses you’ll take or even how long it’ll take to finally click: you awake one fine morning to realize your extended stay in New Haven suddenly feels like home. Don’t let yourself be disappointed when things don’t work out right away. It’ll happen, just not the way you thought it would. College, like life, is not about the destination, but about the million detours that pull you away from it. And so, as you enter your first year, don’t have high expectations — and don’t go to Woads!

Ariane De Gennaro is a rising sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact her at ariane.degennaro@yale.edu.