The Colgate Scene
March 2000
Table of contents
So confusing and so clear
by Jim Terhune,
dean of first-year students
"I remember that I couldn't wait for my parents to leave. As soon as we got to campus my dad was chatting up all the upperclassmen who were helping us move in so I was totally embarrassed. Then my mom and I had an argument in the dorm because she wanted to make my bed and I just wanted to get my stuff in the room so my parents could go home. My dad gave me one of those, `Just do what your mother wants' looks, so I let it go.

     "Anyway, it finally came time for them to leave so I walked with them down to where the car was parked. Next thing I know my dad's shaking my hand and my mom's kissing me goodbye and I've got this huge lump in my throat and I can't say anything. My mother, who I was sure would be a puddle, was fine, but I was standing there half crying hoping that nobody was watching. It wasn't like I didn't want to be there. That was just when it hit me that everything was about to change."

     This story belongs to any number of the thousands of students who have arrived at Colgate over the years. Oh sure, maybe there were no tears, or perhaps that final goodbye came on the steps of the dorm, but the burning desire to have your parents go home juxtaposed by the first pangs of homesickness are a mainstay of the first day of college. The first-year experience for most college students is in many ways defined by such conflicting emotions: periods of exhilaration tempered by moments of feeling completely overwhelmed:

"I was free to decide almost everything about my life -- eating, sleeping, studying, partying, you name it. For the first time I was responsible for myself. I was excited, liberated, and probably a little more scared than I wanted to admit."
Katie Steele '99

     Add to the mix the reality of actually having to study several hours a day, the challenge of e-mail-ing your six best friends from high school on a regular basis, the gastric delight of eating all your meals in a dining hall with several hundred other 18-year-olds, and doing it all in a near-constant state of sleep deprivation and you've got the first year of college in a nutshell. Yet thankfully, if not inexplicably, the whole of the first-year experience almost always adds up to something far greater than the sum of its parts.

     Given my special relationship to first-years at Colgate, I'd like to believe that the fact that they manage to survive and actually progress to become successful students and functional adults is not completely a matter of chance. Colgate recognizes the unique aspects of being a first-year student and tries to provide support in a number of ways. The faculty and returning students generously give time to create an orientation program that helps first-years start to understand what it means to be a student at Colgate. The first-year seminar program ensures that every incoming student will have a small and personal classroom experience starting in the first semester. The dean of first-year students' office exists almost exclusively to guide and assist students in the entering class. As well, more than 100 upperclassmen serve as Links, and R.A.s offer invaluable peer support and guidance to first-years. These things matter. But, the first-year experience is really about students making their own way in a new place with new expectations and, as a result, there is only so much we can, or should, do.

     When I ask upperclassmen and alumni about their first year, they generally take on a nostalgic look and reminisce about eating popcorn with eight other friends crammed into a Curtis [KED] double at two o'clock in the morning, or playing snow football, or going to Sunday brunch at Frank Dining Hall. They talk about how excited they were when they got their first "good" grade on a paper, and they cringe at the thought of the midterm warning they got in calculus (no, it wasn't only you). They talk about losing elections and finding new directions:

"I got a call from one of the members of the SGA Executive Board who wanted me to be a part of a new organization she was starting called the Maroon Guide. Here I was stunned about my failure to win a leadership position and wondering where I was going to fit in and there was a call singling me out to become a member of a new student group."
Devon Skerritt '00

     They recount how the "geek" down the hall who no one wanted to talk to during the first week ended up being their closest friend by Thanksgiving. They remember parties and arguing with roommates and writing papers and a thousand other obscure moments that somehow came together to give meaning to this crazy year:

"One night in the West Hall study lounge a couple of us started in on a discussion about the effects of the Reagan era -- class structure, economics and the fall of communism. Nonstop for two hours, the four of us went back and forth hashing out our points. It did not matter that it was 10 below outside and class started at 8:30 the next morning. This seemed like the most important thing in the world."
Ron Varnum '00

     They vividly recall all-nighters, intramural games, and "Dear John" letters with a fondness that belies how much these things had mattered at the time. And, almost to a person, they tell me how much they learned and how different they were in May when they headed home for the summer than they had been in August when they arrived.

     What strikes me about the first-year experience is how indelibly and vividly particular moments from that year are etched in the minds of most students and graduates. The clarity and exacting detail they are able to recall about people and conversations that occurred, in some cases, decades ago, speaks to the significance of this time in people's lives.

     The extent to which the otherwise mundane experiences and encounters that first-year students have every day serve as bridges between the kids who went off to college and the people they eventually become is remarkable in many ways. Rarely is there any other point in life where so much is at once so confusing and so clear.

     At least that is how I felt standing in that parking lot in 1982, refusing to cry as my parents headed home.

At Colgate since 1991, Dean Terhune has also served as director of student activities.
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