Dear fellow first-years, you are not alone

Have you ever felt introducing yourself to new friends this semester is more awkward than it was last semester? Have you ever crossed list after list of activities you find unappealing? Have you ever forced yourself to remain in a club, organization, or a social group because you are afraid to quit? If yes, you are not alone. These thoughts occured to me multiple times this semester as well. Freshman spring is the tipping point for many Swarthmore students because this is the time they must decide how to proceed forward with these conundrums. Here’s why.


First, pass-fail is over. Last semester, every time I performed poorly on a test, the phrase “Nevermind, it’s pass-fail” always soothed my anxiety because it cushioned me from the pressure of maintaining decent grades and thus allowed me to explore subjects I am interested in but not strong at.

Now, every score I receive in any class, be it from a quiz or a problem set, will be reflected on my final transcript. Indeed, learning is valuable for its own sake; what one learns matters more than the grade one obtains. However, grades can affect one’s career prospect and, more importantly, one’s self-esteem. Personally, even though I believe grade reflects how well I perform in certain classes rather than who I am, I still have the urge to study more merely because this is my first graded semester.


Moreover, because professors expect most students to have already adjusted themselves to Swarthmore’s academic rigor, many classes demand more from their students. To elaborate, I once asked a sophomore which semester I should sign up for Intro to Education, because the class is offered every semester, I thought I should take other first-year seminars that are offered only in the fall. The sophomore suggested I take the first-year seminar version. Whereas first-year seminars are “designed” to help first-year students adjust, other classes expect students to have adjusted to Swarthmore’s rigor already. In retrospect, had it not been for pass-fail, I would have had a rougher time taking Intro to Education. Now, the pressure to perform well academically intensifies. Although some students can manage the increased stress, some cannot. For the latter, they must devote more time to studying and thus have less time for other endeavors. No more cushion.


Second, as many friend groups have been formed at this point of the semester, there are fewer interactions between students who do not know one another. Established friend groups tend to hang out within the group more frequently and less with other peers. Therefore, newcomers face more difficulty fitting in. To elaborate, imagine seeing a group of close friends studying together. You want to know every one of them. However, you are mildly acquainted with one person in that group and are complete strangers to the rest. The question is: would you approach them, introduce yourself, and hang out with them? Personally, I would not. The more tight-knit that group is, the more out of place I feel when I hang out with them and the less I dare talk to them.


Even if every established group is totally welcoming, newcomers still face challenges since many people have already determined their schedule, the activities they enjoy, and the cliques they prefer to socialize with. Recall when you first met a friend at Swarthmore. How did you initiate a conversation? You probably asked that friend’s name, where they were from, their majors or minors, clubs, and so on.

Once you have this basic information, you can initiate further conversation. The point is, one of the easiest ways to get to know someone else is through having shared experience (e.g. classes, clubs, or interests). Without shared experiences, it is difficult to foster new relationships. However, now that many have students committed themselves and devoted more hours to certain clubs or friend groups, it becomes less likely for people whose classes, clubs, or interests do not intersect to interact. Thus, fewer shared experiences. To put this into perspective, compare how many free hours and new friends you have when a semester begins and you have not committed yourself to any activities to now. Notice the stark difference.


Third, it becomes more awkward to initiate a conversation with the people. Swarthmore is a tight-knit community with around 1,500 students. We have one dining hall, and our campus geography enables students to travel between most buildings within five minutes. This means that many students, whether or not they know one another personally, can recognize many faces already. In some cases, however, if I have seen a person several times but never introduced myself, I do not dare introduce myself now. For instance, last semester, I sat next to a person  in my Intro to Computer Science lecture almost every class. We usually saw each other at Sharples as well. However, because I did not know his name (and he probably did not know mine), I was afraid to initiate a conversation: he might think “We have seen each other for months but never talked to each other. Why now?”. For some classmates whom I took class with last semester but do not this semester, there are even fewer opportunities for me to know them.


With these constraints in mind, it is clear that many important decisions have to be made: which clubs one should join, which friend groups one should invest more in, how to balance the demands of college  (e.g. friendship, academics, extracurriculars), and so on. There is simply not enough time for one to become involved in every club and nurture a relationship with every person one meets while trying to maintain one’s academic performance.


To complicate these issues, these decisions have many options  and are reversible. While having the option to quit, switch, or stay can be a blessing, having to decide how to proceed with the aforementioned questions every day is vexing. Barry Schwartz, a former Swarthmore professor, once put in his book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” “Keeping options open seems to extract a psychological price. When we can change our minds, apparently we do less psychological work to justify the decision we’ve made.” Relating Professor Schwartz’s quote to our case, because college life offers us many reversible options, we blame ourselves more if our decision does not satisfy us as much as we thought it would. When I disliked some clubs I joined, I blamed myself for not choosing wisely. When I invested time in a friend group I thought I would blend well with but realized later I did not, I blamed myself for being “socially awkward.” When I skipped a party to study for a test, I blamed myself for failing to balance academic and social life. Even if I performed well on tests, I sometimes felt guilty, wondering whether the extra time I spent cramming lessons worth the cost (i.e. “When I graduate, I will forget my grades, but I will remember the friendships I create here.”). Postponing these questions does not help. The tension still lingers.   


However, every cloud has a silver lining. The stress of academics, the fear of not belonging, the doubt of making an incorrect decision do not apply uniquely to any person. Therefore, let’s not internalize the blame so much that we fail to notice others who are in the same boat. The first step to solving any problem is realizing the problem exists and addressing it. After all, college is where you can shape your experience. If you reach out, I believe many people are willing to listen to you and sympathize with your experience. Please remember: just because stress, fears, and doubts occur to you does not mean you are alone. You are not alone.

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