People use “reinvent” so often when discussing the college experience—contrasting it with high school and all earlier academic institutions—that the process transcends the imperative into the territory of ordinary. I remember the waning days of summer before Columbia, watching each lifelong friend packing up his bags or shipping her boxes, in preparation for the impenetrable newness myself. Who would College Ben be? What would he enjoy, reject, study, and explore? What about High School Ben, vitally, could he ditch? And what role would I play in this unpredictable constellation?
During NSOP and its succeeding weeks, we bright-eyed freshmen held a perspective on this place that we can never regain. Standing outside of John Jay occasionally evokes an imprinted memory—but after a few months, we all have figured out the proportions of campus, made thematic links between buildings, and imbued every staircase with a sensation of repetition. Before that, though, Columbia felt flipped inside out—I had traversed a frontier and pretended to understand it. For me, a kid who moved only once in his life (in between preschool and elementary), and then only a mile away, total unfamiliarity felt totally unfamiliar. How do I move, act, and speak? “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” goes the adage. The problem was, all of us were in Rome, but where were the Romans?
Without an anchor on the outside to keep me steady—friends to call me out on my veneers, family to hold me to heritage, even well-trod places to recall my precedents—I was floating. High-seas adventure and lonely danger met in those first few weeks of freshman year as we all effaced ourselves in favor of who we thought we wanted to be. The excitement of pure choice clashed with the relapsing realization that, no, you cannot escape yourself by ignoring it. Eager to share and ambitious in self-fashioning, we befriended each other in elevators and introduced ourselves on the foreign floors of distant (well, according to Columbia) residence halls. “NSOP friends” were quickly made—most just as quickly lost.
Regarding the often-unbelievable gregariousness of an entire class without ties to the school or each other—linked only by scholastic ambition, skill, and luck—I have found two typical reactions: Some lament, while others sneer. (Naturally a gradient exists—as nothing real admits binary condensation—but generally these two sentiments encapsulate the extremes.) The former wish for easier days, smaller workloads perhaps, a fluid, sociable, and interwoven culture, and the acceptable nonchalance of identity. The latter remonstrate with the naiveté and false confidence of early freshmen, emphasize their transience in all dynamics and relationships, and even warn against destructive misjudgments. Certainly many, like myself, might fall into both camps.
Thus far we have probed what the beginning of college does, but not yet why it is important. What purpose is there in emptying yourself out, striving to “reinvent” in a strange land? What might we glean from this unavoidable life moment? Happy or disappointing, fun or lonely, dream-fulfilling or hope-skewering, and ultimately good or bad: These value judgments do not serve us much. Rather, let us examine how to learn from whatever happened.
The first lesson echoes a great deal of what college demonstrates: What people taught us as children was pretty much wrong. Just as the colonials hardly won the American Revolution through sheer grit and moral piety, the notion that “reinvention” might be such a facile task is an oversimplified lie. After a few weeks, months even, you find yourself drifting back to veteran habits and worn-in patterns. Change takes time. Why reinvent, even if you can? You are here to be yourself, not someone else.
The second lesson encourages negative feedback, painfully though it may reverberate. NSOP does not teach you who you might be—rather, and in my opinion, crucially, it vividly lets you see who you are not. College Ben does not enjoy this activity or spending his time that way. College Ben still has a slight Yonkers accent when agitated. College Ben continues to lie to his doctor about how often he goes to the gym (but not by that much, ladies!). College Ben, in other words, can trace his elements genealogically to High School Ben, to Junior High Ben, and to Elementary School Ben. He enjoys continuance, which brings satisfaction in self-knowledge and assurance. He does not force himself into a warped persona.
The third lesson, optimistically, grants us the chance at growth. Freshman year can illuminate and expose the areas we might want to push into—the blank spaces we can inscribe ourselves upon. Growth requires change, a time-consuming motion—but also directed effort and perspicacious, inward scrutiny. The first two lessons synthesize here: our first year blinds us so that we may recover our eyes and see ourselves all the better.
Ben Rashkovich is a Columbia College junior majoring in creative writing. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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