Coming to Amherst as a first-year, I expected the awkwardness. I remembered those initial glances and weird handshakes well from my experience at a residential boarding school. The first few hellos and name exchanges are destined to be encounters that make both parties cringe, at least a little. Even with this level of discomfort in mind, I noticed a subtle difference between those beginning moments at my high school and the ones at Amherst. In college, categorizations seem to threaten to warp the interactions and perspectives that we have with people even before we had finished our introductions.
As a society, we tend to stereotype individuals to fit into the clichés that we have seen in various parts of the population. It is actually an easily damaging trend that I believe everyone has been guilty of at some point in time, but it becomes painfully visible when we are thrown into new social environments, such as the first week in college. For Amherst’s fresh new class of 2020, there is an endless stream of unfamiliar faces, and sometimes we forget just how different the people behind those faces can be from what we have dealt with before.
Before I explain exactly how we fall into the traps of stereotyping, I want to delve briefly into how the awkward intros at Amherst differ from the awkward intros at my high school. Though it is obviously prevalent here too, social media (specifically Facebook) at my old school was the centerpiece of the school’s society. Even before we had arrived on campus for high school, my peers and I had aligned ourselves within complex social circles all online. Social media was such a strong presence that when it was time to meet everyone in real life, our first conversations were less introductions and more tests of character. We wanted to see if the digital and physical identities synced, if whom we had chatted with over social media for the past few months truly was the same in the flesh.
Though this brought up a whole mess of social issues, it removed the need to jump to conclusions on campus. The conclusions had already been made, solely based on rather extensive online interaction. When it was time to meet on campus, there was not much to assume since that aspect of the “awkward introduction” phase had been artificially skipped over.
On the other hand, there is Amherst. The buildup to school starting for the first-years was still a very anxious and exciting time, with students reaching out over social media to interact and learn about their new classmates. Nevertheless, many of the initial interactions between students at the college happened when we arrived on campus. With a larger class body than my high school and more diverse social media presences (not using exclusively Facebook for every online interaction), this led to us approaching each other, in person, with many less concrete expectations.
The assumptions that we made while meeting people at Amherst do not necessarily have to be harmful. For example, meeting someone who you assume after a nice conversation is a really cool person is far from bad. Unfortunately, it is never usually so clearly defined in reality. Often times, we judge people on aspects of their personalities that we have not even come into contact yet, subtly altering our interactions with them to fit the image that we have formed in our head. From assumptions about the typical behavior of a STEM-oriented individual to an athlete, we use labels to try to understand our peers. Unfortunately, the only thing we achieve by perpetuating these definitions is limiting the possibilities in which we can interact with each other.
This is especially dangerous at a liberal arts institution like Amherst. The liberal arts thrive on the kind of interdisciplinary thought that you can find in many of the students here. Obviously it is not just the academic sides of our peers that we are diverse. When you have multifaceted, vibrant personalities all around you, the last thing you want to do is try to check them off into your own mental boxes.
Next time when you find yourself in that awkward introduction yet again with that kid you met literally three days ago, let them do the talking for themselves. Do not expect anything except for what your peers reveal to you.