When arriving at any new place, unfamiliarity and disorientation are expected. These feelings are both imagined and physical. Here you are, with unfamiliar thoughts, hallways and buildings. There’s a nervousness that comes with the mystery, but also a thrill. There’s an implicit promise that the corners will unfold themselves and that this place will lose its mystique and become a home.
Many people might concern themselves with your sense of belonging here at Amherst. Parents, friends, professors and administrators may ask you about how you are fitting in and whether you feel comfortable yet. Though posed with the best of intentions, this questioning can sometimes become overwhelming. This article itself is overly preoccupied with your belonging, though hopefully it can also draw you away from individual rumination to consider a broader view.
Whether we are seniors or first years, we often continue to experience an ongoing process of adjustment to our college. It is helpful to remember that most of us — if not all — still feel like we haven’t quite figured it out. You’ll likely hear many stories from people about how they met their best friend during an orientation event or on their first-year floor. But it’s comforting to know that this is not true for everyone and that orientation is not the be-all and end-all of establishing your roots. Take your time and don’t worry if your college experience doesn’t look or feel like a fairytale or Animal House.
Full-time adults who attended college often discuss it with a sense of yearning or nostalgia, perhaps claiming that these are “the best four years of our lives.” Perhaps this raw partial adulthood may make first-year fall feel steeped in invisibility and scrutiny as you gain your bearings. Maybe your home environment has grown, maybe it has shrunk, but the indefinite intimacy and the pressure of these years that should be the most fun and experimental are not always easy.
In fact, it is critical to resist this kind of nostalgic imagination because it can be restrictive or single-minded. The American imagination of “college student” has shifted drastically in recent history, but there are lapses and delays in progress. It can be difficult for some — first-generation students or students of color, for instance — to feel as if they belong, because of a history of their absence. To feel absent can lead to attempting to assimilate or code-switch into the body of the ideal, embodied student as portrayed in popular film, advertisements or old class photos. We are all vulnerable to the single story, the desire to fit neatly into life or to fit others neatly into their lives. We all need to resist this tendency.
Given Amherst’s historical and present-day context, you may run into problems here — including systematic ones. Know that it is fair to be critical of Amherst. It is okay to still desire to belong and succeed here while also holding tenuous or difficult opinions about Amherst. It is healthy to be able to view the college with a critical lens — which is arguably better for this school, anyway. Uncritical support for anything or anyone will fail to generate any productive ideas. The structure of criticism is more intimate by virtue of its honesty.
In that vein, learn to challenge your beliefs and others. Be wary of advice that appears seemingly polished and finished. There is no easy or secret way to do Amherst. While adapting to the school, make it yours and not someone else’s.
Our homes are not our homes because we love them, but because we know them. For the class of 2021, this marks the beginning of your time learning about Amherst. By the end of your time here, you are sure to know this place in great detail. You’ll know the corners of your first-year dorm room, the most efficient shortcuts across campus, your favorite food in town, certain rooftops, favorite professors and close friends. These memories and relationships — the literal and metaphorical paths you trace through campus — are what will make Amherst your home.
Hopefully, as you get to know Amherst, you will come to love it. But love should not be an obligation, and it always takes time.