To the class of 2018:
The message you’ve been fed throughout these first two weeks is that whatever got you into Columbia is the most important part of you.
After all, your admission has won you the heaviest pampering you’ll receive in the course of your undergraduate career. Whole lobster tails and Ben & Jerry’s mini pints will never again be so freely available during your time at Columbia.
You’re now classmates—peers—with some of the most intimidating people you’ve ever met. Your year isn’t alone—we have a K-pop star and an Austrian royal in my class. Even your randomly-selected floormates are probably like mine were: people who wrote the Greek alphabet on their door’s whiteboards while they waited for the elevator; people who were both engineers and aspiring Olympic fencers.
The rah-rah programming doesn’t help, either. “You are the 6.8 percent,” a speaker opened with at one of my orientation assemblies, at which they also had the nerve to read chunks of our admissions essays.
Some of you may feel like you’ve already failed. Two years ago, I did. As I, this ridiculously small-town girl, walked by my floormate writing the Greek alphabet, as I met people from Phillips Exeter and Juilliard pre-college (it didn’t help that I was a deluded concert pianist-wannabe at the time), I started to think I had little in common with these characters to begin with. It was like there was an imaginary elite within the elite—that K-pop star, or the theater major who worked at J.P. Morgan—for whom the prestige of the Ivy League was not an act.
The message I needed to hear, and that I’m telling you now, is that everyone you see, as you walk across campus to Hamilton or stumble through Lerner’s turnstiles, is faking it. None of them is living inside this trumped-up, four-year dream that American college is advertised as being: four years in which you discover yourself and some lifelong friends while maintaining nutty standards of academic and career success on the side.
Sometimes I think the reason we come to hold such garish views of our peers is that we hardly know them. Sure, we have those idyllic 4 a.m. hallway conversations, we hug, we tag each other on Facebook. We are all the same age, had the same SAT scores. We give each other a great “college experience.”
But time spent and experiences shared with each other is not necessarily the means for real connections. You already know this; you will probably never again hang out with that group of three or four randos you hung around with during NSOP.
And that’s OK. This frenzy of smart young people cooped up together seems sure to produce real connection. Unfortunately, our blinding ambition can stifle it. It’s easier to see others as the sum of their accomplishments when we’re all performing—for grades, for future employers.
The truth is that Columbia will pass. You are a vessel passing through its waters. Take from here what you want and throw everything else overboard. Take failures more eagerly than success, because only they can facilitate self-discovery. And be thankful if you find just one person by the end of these four years who truly knows you, who will see through all your accomplishments and forgive your façades.
Sarah Durham is a Columbia College junior majoring in history with a concentration in philosophy. She is a board member for the Veritas forum and a staff editor for the Columbia Crown and Cross. The Imperfectionist runs alternate Wednesdays.
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