As unpopular as it might be, there is something that I love about the end of the semester. Even in the face of the all-consuming stress of exams, papers and final projects, those last few weeks of both December and May last year were undoubtedly some of my favorites.
At the end of both terms last year, I remember being surprised at how grounded I felt, even dealing with the somewhat inevitable burnout of months of work. Reflecting back on my almost three semesters at Bowdoin, I’ve realized that as the term progresses, I feel more and more settled, comfortable and in sync with all aspects of my life.
On the other hand, the beginning of each semester has been a struggle for me. During a time when I feel I should be excited to simply enjoy reuniting with friends before the daily grind sets in, I have found myself with more stress, anxiety and confusion than at any other point. Of course, there are moments where this doesn’t hold perfectly true: as the semester ramps up, there are times (especially during midterms) when things seem to become more stressful every day. But for the most part, I find myself settling into a groove and finding some sort of rhythm to my life as the weeks pass by.
The process of starting anew each semester has been one of the larger challenges of my college experience. The beginning of each new term is in one sense insignificant, regular and mundane—a brief marker in the seemingly inevitable cycle of academic time, one of hundreds already gone by in Bowdoin’s history. Similar classes are offered by often the same professors, many of the same traditions and events happen in a nearly identical fashion to previous years. Most students from the previous semester will return. Even the campus itself, with its grand, monumental buildings, gives an air of permanence to life at Bowdoin.
But on another, more personal level, the change from semester to semester is definite, shocking and disorienting. As most, if not all, courses, activities and clubs follow the semester schedule, each new term represents a death and rebirth. Academically speaking, all the achievements, struggles and growth you have experienced are reduced to a letter or a number on a transcript, and you begin from a blank slate. Socially, hundreds of people leave each term, either graduating or going abroad: no two Bowdoin semesters have contained the same group of students.
Particularly, it is the act of returning to Bowdoin that becomes difficult. Coming back to a place you think you have figured out just to find that so much has changed in the new semester can be both exhausting and confusing. The very fact that so much feels the same obscures the often minute, but dramatic shifts in your life that can occur even over the month of winter break. While much of my life is filled with similar interests, classes and friends, my experience at Bowdoin this fall often feels completely unrelated to my life last spring.
While both in and out of college we are constantly redefining ourselves in relation to our friends, interests, beliefs and identities, I think that the abrupt and definitive fragmentation of life on the semester schedule forces us to do this in a particularly dramatic fashion. While most of who I am transcends it, I feel as if there are ways in which I become a slightly different version of myself with each term. Although this change would undoubtedly occur regardless of the semester schedule, the sharp distinction between one term to the other obscures certain activities, people, and interests from my psyche, placing them on the other side of what feels like an impassable barrier. A course, club, sports team or person that defined part of your life in one semester, may fall out of touch not from a lack of interest, but from the whims of your schedule.
As much as this may feel hopeless or despairing, I think it is equally hopeful and freeing. While certain people, things and pursuits may disappear, this creates room for new curiosities or beliefs. And while the sense of eternity and regularity that seems to dominate academic institutions like our own allows for stability and tradition, the constant revolving door of people, and with them, ideas, beliefs and passions, allows for the potential of change. These relationships between change and constancy, past and present and memory and experience are clearly not just limited to Bowdoin. However, I think that life at college, so defined by distinct ends and beginnings, helps bring this tension sharply into view.