I wish I was told
September 3, 2021
As the Class of 2022 begins our last year at Bowdoin, many of us find ourselves thinking back to how much has changed since first year. I’m no exception, despite feeling like an exception much of my time at Bowdoin. I arrived as a public school student who didn’t know what consulting was and will leave a graduate in economics who has learned how to pass the airport test.
Mostly, I’ve been thinking about what could have better prepared me for this place I’ve grown to feel a complicated, confusing love for. Following three years and a curriculum of conversations with friends, I’ve finally begun to understand the common feelings many less-privileged students share, feelings often compounded by race, gender, sexuality and more. I’ve also seen how processing these feelings allowed us to begin experiencing Bowdoin more fully and peacefully. Above all, I wish someone could have told me that other people were experiencing this as well. As such, this is for myself in my first year, and anyone else at Bowdoin experiencing culture shock on campus this fall. I hope it helps.
You may notice immediately that some actions perceived as normal at home elicit strange looks at Bowdoin. Examples include swearing or wearing the “wrong” clothes. You may often hear yourself saying, “where am I going for break? Just back home.” Frequent experiences of subtle, implied judgment will make you question if you’re weird or abnormal. It will make a few of your friends question their very perception of reality—“are people actually treating me differently, or is it all in my head? Am I suffering from paranoia?” After three years and many discussions, you’ll learn others were also experiencing this. After a few sociology classes, you may even learn the terms that describe what you were experiencing—you all lacked Bowdoin’s shared habitus and thus were struggling to follow your roles in the Bowdoin social script. You were not paranoid.
A key part of your role is academics. However, you may become exasperated, spending hours writing C+ papers while the student sitting next to you displays relative ease. In time, you may learn some of that ease is carefully contrived. Meanwhile, you should attend office hours, go to the Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT), work with a tutor and remember that it isn’t your fault if your high school was unable to appropriately prepare you for college—you are not alone in this feeling. Note that asking for things you need from deans is encouraged here. Yes, office hours actually are an open time to talk to a professor about class and sometimes life. Yes, people do study a lot, although by senior year you’ll still be unsure how truthful people are about how much or how little they study. If you find yourself having to remake your academic skill set, take solace in the fact that you are receiving a transformative education from Bowdoin. You will feel rewarded in the end.
As you learn the ‘script’, you may find yourself frustrated by others’ unwillingness to converse about personal relationships with class, race or other privileges. You may encounter uncomfortable silences when you speak about your everyday life outside of Bowdoin, silences that did not follow you at home. Do not let these silences intimidate you into your own silence.
Faced with the obvious tension between yourself and your role in the ‘script’, you may grow frustrated. Your frustration may compel you to withdraw from the Bowdoin community—to stay in on Friday and Saturday nights, to say no to social invitations that don’t represent comfort. Fight that compulsion. Later, you’ll wish you had fully engaged as a first year and sophomore, that despite discomfort and obstacles such as the need to work or catch up in microeconomics, you had participated in clubs, parties and other events. Nevertheless, it’s important to establish comfortable circles from which you can safely branch out. Keep looking for these, and as they develop, also put yourself in less comfortable places.
As you branch out, you’ll begin to comprehend previously mystical aspects of Bowdoin’s culture. You’ll hear someone nervously tell their parents they’ve dropped the major that was preselected for them. Suddenly, their apparent infatuation with investment banking and consulting will make more sense. You’ll see the seemingly comfortable student you sat next to first year abruptly take a leave of absence for mental health and be reminded of the duck metaphor: calm on the surface, kicking frantically underneath. That same student will truthfully tell you Bowdoin is the most relaxed, least competitive school they’ve attended. You’ll see that despite the immaculate exterior, your peers share the same human faults and fears that you do.
So, you’ll be more comfortable on campus. Yet, there may be a point where you discover that home no longer feels like home, but Bowdoin doesn’t either. You may feel you’ve developed the unfortunate privilege of living partly in two worlds and wholly in neither. By becoming a Bowdoin student, you may feel a part of you has been lost.
You and your friends will differ wildly in your responses to this last experience. Some will never experience it. But to you? Going through this process will allow you to newly create and discover yourself, and all the strengths, weaknesses and purposes within. And that just may result in the most fulfilling four years of your life.
Elijah Stitson is a member of the Class of 2022.
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