Monday, May 6, 2013

An Open Letter to the Class of 2017

Dear Incoming First-Years,

I still find it a little nauseating to think that there's a Class of 2017.  Nothing personal, it's just a scary reminder that I'm actually graduating.  2017 feels so far away, but then again I said the same thing four years ago about my senior spring and now look where we are.  If you're wondering why I'm writing this, it's because panic is setting in as the clock ticks down to May 19th and it terrifies me to think that after four years of intense investments of time, emotion, energy, thought, advocacy, patience, and love, I have to leave Colgate in the hands of not only my peers but of hundreds of strangers who are starting right where I started four years ago.  And I think what scares me the most is how little I knew as first-year, and that I won't be there to pass on what I've learned to the newest incarnation of first-year me.  So since I won't be here to tell you in person, I'm writing you this letter.

Let me start over.  Hello!  You are about to start one of the most exciting, terrifying, frustrating, encouraging, enlightening, challenging, and beautiful adventures of your life.  I'm sure you've heard that a million times, but when I say it I don't mean it as some monolithic prescription for what your Colgate experience will be.  Some of you will love Colgate to pieces, as I've come to over the years, but I certainly didn't start there, and some of you will be a lot less satisfied with your experience.  Colgate harbours both streams of experience for several reasons, some of which I'll clue you into here, but others of which you must find for yourself.  But regardless of how you feel about your experience once that diploma's in your hands (or should you decide Colgate is not for you, when you've finally shut that proverbial door), this is your new home for the next four or so years.  Contrary to how we behave here sometimes, Colgate is the real world, just a highly distilled and particular specimen of the larger culture.  You will live here with about 3000 other people and as is the central issue of all human history, you must learn how not to destroy each other.

What I have to say might not apply to you.  It might apply to you more than you ever thought possible to ask.  You'll just have to find out.

I've prepared a list of 13 (of course) things that should you learn nothing else here, I hope you at least learn these:

1) YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  You'll meet people here who will genuinely care about you.  It might not always feel like it, and we like to hide behind our alcohol to avoid that fact, but everyone else is just as scared as you are of making connections, and the only way to overcome that particular fear is by letting yourself connect.  I know especially for minority students (believe me I know #tokentrannyproblems), this campus can be alienating, but you'll be surprised how nice people here are if you just ask.

2) NO means NO, and YES means YES.  The hook-up culture is frankly weird and it bleeds into how we interact with each other in the morning because this school is so small.  Whether you choose to participate or not (and there are people who don't, FYI), make sure you're respecting yourselves and each other.  Sexual assault is a huge issue on this campus, and it's created by a lot of power structures that we try to combat here at the Center for Women's Studies (see number 6).  But not only can we think about consent in the no-means-no paradigm (it really is that simple), but we can also think about it in a much more sex-positive way.  HINT: sex is soooo much better when both parties (or more if that's your pleasure) are a) not blackout (WARNING: PEOPLE WHO ARE BLACKOUT CAN'T CONSENT.  PERIOD.  DON'T EVEN TRY.) and b) actively interested in participating.  If you're not quite sure if hooking up is for you, don't feel pressured to do it anyway.  And if you maybe want to try some things but not others, absolutely let your potential partner know that (see number 1).

3) Check your privilege at the door.  Okay, so that's kind of cliche, but actually, get over yourself.  Probably the one thing that scares me most about first-years is maturity.  This is the first time that a lot of you might be exposed to people of different beliefs, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, socioeconomic stati, abilities, etc.  It's good to be curious; really good.  But it's even better to be respectful.  Some of us are absolutely gung-ho about sharing our experiences (you can literally ask me anything I swear), but don't assume that just because someone's identity is different from yours that you have a right to their life story.  Oh, and if they say this is who they are, this is who they are.  You are not the expert on their name or gender or other identity.  If I say I'm a girl, I'm a girl, and that's that.  Also, we all have something unique about us that makes us feel inadequate or misunderstood.  Similarly, all of us have privileges, they just might be different and in larger degrees for some.  Bottom line, be respectful, and try to see where your privileges and oppressions lie.  Chances are, you aren't alone in them.

4) Don't be polite; be kind.  There are few things I dislike more than polite people.  It is not because I think we should all be rude.  It's because it's fake.  I want to see people who are genuinely kind, who actively care about other people that are important to them.  If you really want to know, ask, but don't ask because you have to, ask because you want to know the answer.  If you ask how I am, I'm going to tell you, and you probably won't like what I have to say.  If you don't understand my identity, don't assume, but also don't ask and then make a big deal about how you're so enlightened now.  I'm a person just like you.  I do random boring stuff just like you.  Sometimes the best friends are those who don't care about the other stuff, they just see you the way you see you (emphasis on sometimes).

5) Be curious, be involved, be bold.  This campus is overprogrammed.  Which I find hilarious because I literally see the same 100 people participating in EVERYTHING.  Clearly there's a giant block of people on this campus who don't really do anything.  We need to find a way to condense our events so that we can actually go support each other, but we also actually need people to show up.  If you have an interest, follow it.  Don't be scared, the people in the organizations that you're looking at (most of the time) actively want you to be there.  If we don't get new members, we die.  And clubs dying is sad.  You'll be surprised who you meet when you try something new, and it might just end up being something you're really passionate about.  Don't worry about the first-year clique bullshit that I see all the time.  I know it's hard to step out of your friendship bubble, but there are some really cool people waiting to share something with you that both of you are equally fired up about.

6) Shameless plug: the Center for Women's Studies is NOT just for women.  If you're any sort of gender or sexual minority or are close to someone who is (or are just a curious ally), the Center for Women's Studies might just be your new home.  And it certainly feels like one.  We're actively invested in changing the culture of this school for the better, and we want you (all of you) to be part of that conversation.  It is one of the safest spaces on this campus and the various feminisms that go on there are absolutely interested in finding the intersections of many people in our community.  You just might be one of them.  The Center is for women, but also for men and other gender identities who want to talk about gender, and it's a broad conversation.  Chances are you'll be surprised at just how broad a net a gendered lens can cast.  Oh, and by the way, "Feminism" is probably NOT what you think it is.  The number of capital-F Feminists on this campus is very small, and even they're not as scary as you think they are.  We like to talk about feminisms (plural), because contrary to popular opinion, all of us see the road to gender equality differently and focus on different ways to get to the same goal.  My feminism looks way different than yours or someone else's might look.

7) Both Greek-affiliated and non-Greek-affiliated students go to school here.  Let's try to coexist (see number 1).  The Greek system needs reform.  Not disbanding, not continued reign over the social sphere, reform.  The hook-up culture, the drinking culture, and the patriarchal culture we inherited from pre-coeducation Colgate all reinforce each other to make this campus a pretty messed up place.  And try as we might, we can't change one without changing the other two.  (And until America gets its life in check and lowers the drinking age, we can't really do a whole lot about the drinking culture anyway.  see 9)  A huge piece of that puzzle is the Greek system.  There is already a petition in place to address the sexism in the number of sororities versus the number of fraternities on campus, which is a step in the right direction.  But more needs to be done.

There was a group of students last year who were invested in dismantling the Greek system, and this issue got tied into a larger discourse about racism, sexism, and homophobia that was circulating at the time (see number 8).  I don't think this will solve the problem, because these organizations don't go away; they go underground.  The bigger issue is that there is very little inter-fraternity or inter-sorority bonding, and these institutions of hegemonic masculinity and femininity reinforce compulsory heterosexuality.  I want to see a world where a guy treats me the same when he sees me one on one as when he sees me when he's with his brothers.  I don't see that very often.

My point is, Greek life has an obvious draw for some people.  Not so for others.  I don't think that means we can't be friends.

8) Colgate has a history, and it's chock full of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and a bunch of other -isms.  Don't let's sugar-coat it; Colgate's got a long way to go.  To quote This is Not a Play about Sex, "diversity on this campus is a bullet point on a pamphlet".  I have literally faced institutional discrimination every semester I've been here, and I'm not the only one.  It's gotten better since I first came here.  Your preferred name can now be used in official communications.  Gender neutral housing is (as far as I know) about to become a reality.  TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THESE ACCOMODATIONS.  Because those who came before you fought long and hard for everything that you now can take for granted.  ALANA and HRC are the result of intense social movement on this campus.  So was coeducation, and the Center for Women's Studies, and the response to the hate speech on the coming out doors.  Change is possible.  But let's also not forget that change was necessary in the first place.

9) At Colgate it's a typical Thursday.  In the 'real world', it's Alcoholism.  I didn't drink my first year.  Neither did a lot of my friends.  Now we're the center of the party, and oh yeah, my liver's already shot.  The pressure to drink on this campus is enormous.  So much so that it might surprise you that when Colgate students go to other schools and party, they get a reputation for being fricking insane.  According to the Princeton Review, we're ranked number 4 nationally in the category of "Lots of Beer" (why this is even a category is inherently fascinating to me).  In the rest of the states, let alone if you go abroad, we're kind of an anomaly in terms of drinking habits.

That's not to say don't drink.  I'm saying, it's hard not to, and I think that's not okay.  I remember the first time I was at a party (my second night of college), I felt like I lost something, a kind of innocence.  Because never again would it be enough to do things together sober.  Alcohol is not the center of the universe, and it shouldn't be the center of ours either.  There are plenty of dry events on this campus that are actually really fun (see 5), especially in groups of close friends that you feel comfortable being sober around (see 1).  Because that's the real issue.  We trust each other drunk implicitly; that's the only way we get away with half the shenanigans we do.  Sober, we don't trust each other at all.

10) The goal of the game is not to see who's the most stressed.  It's to get a degree.  Literally every one I know does it.  It's the Busy Olympics.  We out-do each other trying to show just how much we have going on at once and complaining how stressed we are.  In the very same breath, we joke about how we haven't done our homework in a month, how many classes we skipped, and the fact that we're not starting our paper until the morning it's do (I'm guilty of all of these).  Part of it is cultural.  A few years ago, author Liz Funk came to Colgate and talked about "Supergirls", girls who feel like they have to do everything just to get a foothold in a patriarchal culture.  We're killing ourselves trying to overachieve because we don't eat, don't sleep, and don't believe we deserve to take a break.  And when we do indulge in 'me'-time, it's an indulgence, not a part of mental health.

This is bass ackwards.  You shouldn't have to double major and take five and a half classes and be president of two clubs with mono in order to be seen as a success.  And you shouldn't have to drink yourself to death four nights in a row to be seen as socially well-adjusted (for the irony of that, see 9).  There is a joke that in college you have to pick two of the following: good grades, a social life, and sleep.  But I did the math.  If the recommended daily amount of sleep is 8 hours, that leaves 8 hours for school work and 8 hours for a social life.  A DAY.  That means even if you have four classes on one day of the week, you can spend four more doing homework, get a good night's sleep, be involved in clubs for 4 hours straight, and still have time to get your party on.

By the way, procrastinating on facebook is only partial credit for "social life" (see 1)

11) You're here to learn.  My dad has said this to me nonstop since I was in elementary school.  "You're there to learn."  And yeah, on the basic definitional level, I'm at school to get an education.  Duh.  And obviously what he means is, "you're there to learn, not goof off and waste your time doing whatever it is you do" (see 10, and also 3).  But I think there's more to it than that.  I think on a cosmic level, we're all at Colgate to learn something.  Maybe we'll learn it in a classroom.  Maybe we'll learn it vomiting into a toilet at 3am.  Maybe we'll learn it when a friend is a victim of sexual assault.  Maybe we'll learn it when we inherit a group from the seniors.  Maybe we'll learn it when we meet our best friend.  Maybe we'll learn it when we have to leave.  All I know is I've learned more here in the past four years than I ever thought possible, and I shudder to think of the person I would have become had I not come here.  I think, the thing I learned most here is myself.  Xavia Publius didn't exist four years ago.  Ze's here now.  I learned to be proud of that.

12) DON'T PANIC  Chances are, you're gonna do something stupid in college.  That's what it's here for.  Just fix it and move on, and learn from it (see 11).  That something stupid might be your major.  If you're one of those, congratulations!  Welcome to the very very large club.  Turns out, this is an economy for a certain type of person.  If you went to Colgate, you're either absolutely that type of person (see 3, but not necessarily), or you're absolutely not.  By the time 2017 rolls around (and it will roll around), you might be wondering why you didn't choose a more 'sensible' major.  DON'T PANIC.  I'm panicing, but that's because we live in a transphobic society (okay, fine, minority students, you're allowed to panic a little.  This is 'Murica after all).  But I've realized that panicing won't help me.  You know what will?  Feeling something.  I hate to out everyone on campus simultaneously, but we're ALL. NERDS.  We're some of the best and brightest from our high schools.  Even the most brain-dead-seeming person at this school got the grades to get in here.  And furthermore, despite the fact that we all look like there was an attractiveness portion of the application, we're really, really smart, and that made getting through high-school a little bit more difficult.  Each of us has a kryptonite, that one thing that we will fangirl about for hours if you let us.  It's the thing we love most about this little planet we call home.

DON'T PANIC.  According to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the way to fly is to throw yourself at the ground and miss.  Not sure how to miss the ground?  Think of that thing you love, the thing you want to live the rest of your life loving.  If you let yourself get distracted enough in your favourite thing, you'll forget how stressful being a real person can be.  There's a place for us, somewhere.  We just have to find it.  And it's scary, but you've got your towel with you, cleverly disguised as a Colgate diploma that holds within it everything you've ever learned here.  And trust me, compared to some of the crazies we keep hearing about on the news?  You'll be just fine.

13) TL;DR  You live here now.  This is your home.  Respect it and each other like your life depends on it (it does).  Remember how I said Colgate has a history?  (see 8 if you don't)  Part of the danger of forgetting history is to repeat it.  But the blessing of forgetting history is the ability to think outside of it, to forge new alliances based not on old hatreds, but on the simple human desire to connect.  The future of Colgate is in your hands now.  It no longer matters if you are capable or not; admissions seems to think so.  The time has come, (as we say in the drag world) for you to lip sync for your life.  Don't f*** it up.  (see 12)

Take care of each other.

Xavia Publius '13

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