People, Trees, and Buildings: My Vassar Adventure

The sun setting at 4:30 in the afternoon is really a bummer. That was one of the first things I learned my freshmen year. I didn’t like this place very much at first. It was very cold and very dark, and I couldn’t find anything to eat in ACDC besides chicken wraps and cheeseburgers. I was overwhelmed by new “friends,” people you were suddenly intimately close to-sharing a living space, sharing a bathroom-but who you did not know any real thing about. I felt surrounded and isolated all at once, and it was a feeling I didn’t quite know how to deal with. I wanted friends, and I wanted privacy. I wanted to be left alone, but I wanted someone to knock on my door. This tension I encountered in my new world was one I would learn to balance throughout my Vassar experience, socially, personally, intellectually, etc.; I was in a place where there was seemingly infinite possibilities-what to learn, where to go, who to know, what to play-which is at once thrilling and terrifying. Despite its dark beginnings, however, my Vassar experience has proved to be undoubtedly a thrill.

Those friends I fumbled so awkwardly with at the beginning are now my best teachers and my closest allies. The cockiness of experience that came with sophomore year united us-we knew this place now, and we knew each other. I learned what it meant to have and to be a “good friend.” At Vassar, your friends can be everything; you can grapple with an intellectual question while playing beer pong-a seamless integration of sport, smarts and fun. Vassar students, our friends, taught me the depth of what “being a friend” can, and ideally should, mean. The responsibility, patience, trust and love that are so integral to any relationship came to the fore as we were placed in the hectic social scene that is college and struggled with the subsequent suffocation and ironic isolation. The balance emerged in friendships deeper and stronger than I could have ever imagined on our rainy move-in day freshman year, and will undoubtedly be what stays with me as we all leave this place together.

These friends were also companions-partners on the excellent adventure that is life at Vassar. Time at Vassar offers endless opportunities for exploration. On campus, in Poughkeepsie and across the world, Vassar enabled me to explore, play and learn. What was never in question for me at Vassar is the beauty and wisdom of this physical place. Stomping around this campus for four years lead me into open spaces of play, secret nooks for prayer, sun-filled attic rooms, rooms of intense learning and on and on. Vassar’s campus is one that teaches by its presence, where you realize that the buildings themselves can instruct you as much on space, structure and beauty as any lecture. There are trees here that you can disappear into for a day, discovering a veritable home in their branches. Climbing these trees, finding these attics, filling these spaces with fellow adventurers are some of the strongest and happiest memories I have, and remind me to keep exploring, wherever I go.

Where will I go? That is the next question, the next step. Again I am (we are) faced with something simultaneously terrifying and thrilling. What’s exciting is that we know what to do now. Vassar is a place where we learned how to be in the world, where we learned how to keep on learning. Now, with new confidence, we can recall the awkwardness of freshman year and get through the awkwardness of our next “first day.” We can remember the inflated ego, the wise and foolish sophomore attitude, and carry confidence without forgetting a sense of humility into our endeavors. And, as junior year taught us, we can endeavor whatever we please, make places that seem foreign, whether across the world or across the street, seem like home, knowing that the friendships and place that has supported us so far remains supportive, no matter how removed we may feel. Finally, hopefully, we have learned too to take those moments of pause, to appreciate the trees we walk by everyday, so that at the end, we feel sense of completion, dare I say a bit of wisdom, as we, as seniors, as graduates, pack up our Vassar lives, and look, rain or shine, to the next move-in day.

Vassar on a Whim

I came to Vassar on a whim. No, really.

I applied here because Vassar would give me the option to study the subjects I was interested in, because I thought it would be cool to live in New York (even though I’d never been farther north than Missouri,) and because I liked the name. My dad and I were touring colleges and universities in Philadelphia when my mom called me to say, “You just got a big letter from Vassar College. Should I open it?” She read the acceptance letter to me and told me she was proud of me. My dad asked if I wanted to go see the place. So we took a four-hour side-trip up to Poughkeepsie. It was during Vassar’s Spring Break, and we’d come unannounced, so there weren’t any tour guides available to show us the campus. We wandered around in a warm downpour, comparing Vassar to the schools I had visited in my search for the perfect school. Less urban than the schools I had seen in Philadelphia. Less uptight than the schools I’d visited in Arkansas. Less of a swamp than the schools I’d toured in Florida.

My dad and I drove back to Philadelphia, and he dropped me off at the airport so I could catch a plane back to Hot Springs, Ark. I spent a great deal of the next week or so sitting on the floor of my dorm room at boarding school with admissions brochures from the colleges and universities that had accepted me and a legal pad filled with lists of pros and cons and headed with acceptance deadlines. I was nearly to the point that I was going to have to just throw the brochures in the air and pick the school that landed on top. I closed my eyes and recalled my walking tours of several campuses, and in what may be one of the rashest decisions I’ve ever made in my life, having never stayed overnight as a prospective student, nor sat in on a class, nor even spoken with a current student, that day I thought, “Yeah, I can see myself at Vassar.”

A lot of the things I’ve done on whims or without much careful forethought since coming to Vassar have worked out surprisingly well. Freshman year, in a moment of little-sister vindictiveness, I signed up for the rowing team. (Anything my big sister can do, I can do better, right?) I can’t count the number of times I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, but my teammates kept me coming back, and four years later, that whim was justified when my boat got a gold medal at the nation’s largest collegiate regatta. (Sorry, I can’t help but mention it; I’m still coming down from that high, and my friends have told me I need to brag about it more.) My sophomore year whim came from a panic-stricken moment when I realized I was half a credit short of being a full-time student one semester and hastily added Stagecraft. Not only did I absolutely love the course, I left it with two work-study job offers. I took a job in the scene shop, working for Technical Director Paul O’Connor, who let us play kickball and play with power tools and cut out tiny giraffes with band saws, who told the best stories and who didn’t mind that I treated him more like a big brother than an employer. At the end of sophomore year, my next whim was to declare a double major in psychology and cognitive science, even though I was kind of advised against it due to a potentially frustrating amount of overlap. That ended up not working out so well, mostly due to my inability to be decisive when it came to crunch time for the cognitive science thesis, and I ended up dropping the cognitive science major so I could still retain at least a little bit of my sanity-but hey, I learned something about myself, so it wasn’t a total loss. My big whim at the end of my junior year was to run for president of the South Commons because it didn’t look like anyone else was going to do it. While I ended up maybe not being the most effective or inspiring leader, I did get to learn more about how best to work with people (figuring out quickly that I needed to include a “too long; didn’t read” option on important e-mails). My big whim for this year will come when I decide what to do with my life after graduation. As I’m writing this, I have no idea what I’m doing in the fall, and my decision strategy might be to play “employment roulette,” but I’m hoping my whims will continue to work for me.

Developing a Hunger for the Arts

I came to Vassar planning to double-major in drama and political science, take the LSAT during my senior year, head to law school next fall and be a practicing attorney by the time I was 25. Along the way the poli-sci major fizzled to a passionless correlate (culminating in its complete dissolution courtesy of the Registrar’s office last week), I took no LSATS, applied to no law schools, and am graduating with a bachelor’s degree in drama with no real life plan other than financial instability and artistic uncertainty. And I couldn’t be happier.

Such is the beauty of my Vassar education. I have been taught that what’s most important is for me to be able to look into the mirror each morning-at my bald head, grizzly beard, and (very, very cute) dimples-and be proud of the choices I have made. I have been taught to value passion over wealth and, as difficult as it might be to cope with the thought that I will never own a penthouse in lower-Manhattan, I’ve been sure to befriend a few econ majors along the way.

At Vassar I’ve had the opportunity to try many things: student government, carnival rides, star-gazing, math classes, dancing, writing long papers, Jesus’s chili, to name several. I’ve realized that, though I like to do many things, there are only two things in the world that I love: food and theater. From winning the Big Sauce Challenge freshman year (and the odd combination of pride and embarrassment that came with seeing “Nate Silver Sauce” as a special in the Retreat), to chairing the Food Committee and helping the Aramark’s Chinese guest chefs make noodles my sophomore year, to writing a weekly food column for The Miscellany News and launching my very own catering company this fall, my College experience was fundamental in harnessing my passion for cooking.

Falling in love with theater was unexpected, or at least, the extent to which I have made it a part of my life is. I came to theater relatively late in life, not having been in a play until I was 16, and though finding a college with a great theater program was part of my college search, it was not the most important factor. Twelve plays later I must say that theater has defined my college experience. I was told I had limited space for this retrospective, so after contemplating how I could say all the things I want to say to the Vassar Drama Department in this column (my idea to write this whole thing in size 7.5 font didn’t fly), let me just say this: I have never worked harder, failed more miserably, been more proud or strived to be a better person more than I have under your guidance. I am grateful for every second I have spent in the Center for Drama and Film, and though I will miss Sunset Lake, the Library lawn and the outdoor amphitheater, it is on the floor of the drama building that my feet will have the hardest time getting used to not being.

Sentimentality aside, what Vassar has truly prepared me for is to begin a life beyond its walls. I have been given the tools I need, an unbreakable support structure if I fail, and a beautiful community of intellectuals to return to when I’m ready. Though the future remains delightfully uncertain, my Vassar education is my empowerment and, at least for now, when I look into the mirror each morning, I am proud of the man this college has made me.

Field Trip

Let’s go on a field trip. Have you ever been to Bonticou Crag? Nope? That’s rough. Everyone should visit Bonticou Crag before they graduate, which is why this is an opportune moment for a field trip. You don’t have much time left!

I think Bonticou Crag is the perfect hike. Let me fly you through it. We start with a little-mile-or-so-uphill warm up, which is followed by a tantalizing boulder scramble up the cliff face. It’s just strenuous enough to feel legit, but short enough to do it twice if you’re at the top and a member of your group is throwing up at the bottom, and he really wants to get to the top.

The best part is the view from the top. No, that’s a lie. The best part is the view from the top at sunrise. Which is why the Bonticou Crag Sunrise Hike remains the most popular Outing Club adventure, despite its 4 a.m. departure on Thursday mornings. The advantage of the 4 a.m. departure is that we’re back in time for 9 a.m. classes and ready to take on the day (perhaps with a nap around 3 p.m.?).

Despite the more than four times I’ve done this exact hike, each time is wonderful, a little different and totally worth it. I know what I’m getting into when I go to Bonticou Crag, just like I know what I’m getting into when I start a new year at Vassar. Each year is exciting, a little different, totally worth it and yet strangely the same.

Freshman year was a like that uphill warm up; we were just getting into our zones. It was hard enough, it is college after all, but it was nothing compared to sophomore year (trip one up that boulder scramble), junior year (that’d be trip two), or senior year (that wonderful sunrise coupled with the viewless, and at times steep, descent).

By the end of senior year, we’ve had that time to warm up and feel out our friends groups and ourselves, then we pushed the limit, partied a lot, worked even more, got out and came back. Now, instead of being that weird outdoorsy freshman with a bad post-Locks-of-Love haircut and an apologizing personality, I’m that weird outdoorsy senior with long unruly hair and a personality to match. We haven’t fundamentally changed, but now we own our eccentricities, our styles and our opinions. We’ve freaked over theses, then finished them. We’ve fought and made up. We’ve studied for tests, passed and failed them. We’ve had the adventures, put in the work, seen the sunrise, and now we’re back in time for graduation and ready to take on the world.

The Call to Serve

When I came to Vassar, I wasn’t sure what a college education was supposed to do, and now upon leaving, I am only sure of the magnitude of what I’ve received. The coursework I took over the past four years has destroyed my conceptions and presuppositions about the world, challenging me in ways I hadn’t thought possible or necessary. The community I found in the Vassar Christian Fellowship, in my professors and friends, helped me construct a vision of what I thought the world could be and how hard I was willing to work for it. While I intellectually confronted problems of modernity, post-colonial race relations, and theorist after theorist telling me I was inescapably trapped in myself, in my culture and biases, I was surrounded by a community of friends that loved me and pointed me to God with unwavering faith. In the face of issues that look insurmountable, partly because I am implicated in all of them, I have a concrete hope for my personal transformation and a unyielding faithfulness that I hope can lead to global transformation.

I acknowledge that my time at Vassar has been unique to me in many ways, but I only know how to be as nakedly honest as I can: My streaking is best done in writing. In my time at Vassar, I saw a community of people in the Vassar Christian Fellowship experience God individually, together and grow as a result. We became less selfishly ourselves and less inhibited by our biases and failures. If we, who are so immovably stubborn could change, albeit slowly, perhaps the world (world is not an abstract concept, but made up of individual people) could change. Perhaps God was big enough for that. I’ve also learned that God delights to use us screwed up people, so God’s glory becomes all the more evident in a slow and irresistibly beautiful revolution. Dare I say it, but we have just become too selfish, lazy and too instant-result oriented to see a revolution through. I shudder to think what the world would be like if people like Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Burmese Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi decided that committing a lifetime for the sake of change would be too taxing. Perhaps it would be easier to just hunker down, earn some money and pass a lifetime without risk. However, in all the late nights I’ve spent with friends wandering around a dark campus dreaming for our fellowship, in all the papers I’ve procrastinated on because I needed to lovingly talk to someone more than I needed a good grade, I’ve seen that change is too feasible, palpable and addicting to be abandoned for an easier life.

Revolution (if you’re into that kind of thing, and dammit I’ve fallen in love) happens slowly. A prayer attributed to El Salvadorian Bishop Oscar Romero concludes saying, “We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.” I guess what I’ve learned most at my time at Vassar is that I’m a worker and a prophet. We prophesize a future that has not come and that we may not live to see. Then, we work, cry and bleed for it. Simply said, I want to be part of a generation that does not sell out. I want to see a generation, who radically practices the things we’ve been taught to their full implications, better than our teachers have. I can only wonder what could happen if we all communally committed to a lifetime of faithful, constant service of others.

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