Assessing apathy

When I got to Williams, I was burnt out. I had spent four years juggling a rigorous academic schedule with extracurricular and athletic passions, all while keeping an eye on the future. We’re all familiar with the particular challenges of trying to be our very best, well-rounded selves. It’s exhausting. And that fall, as I unpacked my bags in a tiny Mission single, I vowed to just stop.

While some will regale you with tales of Purple Key Fair mishaps and listserv limbo, I can only shrug. I opted out of joining in during my first year at Williams, and while I made a few commitments that fall, they were half-hearted and soon expired. As a sophomore, everything changed; I forestalled any notion of a slump by throwing myself into committees and clubs, starting my campus jobs, and running for College Council in the spring. This is how I found my place at Williams, but I was always conscious that this wasn’t the only way to bleed purple and gold; it was just my way.

As a senior headed toward graduation, I do wonder about the decisions of my first year. Sometimes, it feels like I spent that year in suspended animation. I know now that I am at my best when I am hyper-engaged, when my planner is packed and my days are scheduled, but I can see the contradiction between my first year here and the rest of my time at Williams. Did I waste my first year? Was that a missed opportunity? Was it apathy?

Apathy is a peculiar thing. It’s an easy accusation to hurl when confronted with an absence. When we need to explain the dearth of contested races in the most recent College Council election, it’s tempting to blame apathy. When I look back at my first year at Williams, at days spent doing little but watching The West Wing with my entrymates and attending class, it’s tempting to call my lack of involvement apathetic.

And yes, apathy is partially about disinterest. You would be right in saying that the vast majority of Williams students are disinterested in running for College Council. You’d be right to say that I was largely disinterested in life outside my entry-sized purple bubble during my first year at Williams.

But apathy is also about a lack of emotional response, a lack of caring, and I’d like to give my younger self a bit more credit. I cared about Williams. I loved Williams from First Days, and I’ve never really stopped. I have never been apathetic about Williams. It’s just that as I’ve changed, so have the ways in which I express my enthusiasm for this place.

In my sophomore spring, I decided to run for College Council. This very evening, I’ll be ending that chapter of my life, and in the intervening two years, I have often wondered if our work really mattered. If no one showed up to our weekly meetings, were we relevant? If my friends didn’t know what resolution passed that week, were we making an impact? Is this what apathy looks like?

I’d like to give my fellow Williams students a lot more credit.

Here’s the thing. You can’t measure the worth of a school by the number of student organizations it boasts. You can’t measure the relevancy of College Council by the number of visitors to our meetings, and you can’t simply assess the apathy of the student body based on the number of uncontested races in this most recent election.

As someone who dedicated half her time at Williams to College Council, I am deeply concerned by that lack of contested races. But when I hear this explained away as the byproduct of an apathetic student body and an inaccessible student government, I have to shake my head.

Could the student body be more engaged with College Council? Of course. (And I’d love that!) Could the student government conduct more outreach to

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engage potential candidates? Absolutely. But is this apathy? Not necessarily.

We each take our own path at Williams. My path has included traditional forms of leadership; the extracurricular activities I devoted myself to reflect my personal ideals and passions. But finding my place at Williams was a process of prioritization. I had to rest and reboot. I had to decide how I wanted to engage with the Williams community, and I was never apathetic.

Similarly, while the majority of Williams students will never run for a College Council position, almost every student on this campus is engaged with the work that College Council does. I choose to measure their engagement by the petitions for new student organizations, the funding requests for all-campus events, the advice sought and the conversations started. College Council exists to make your ideas possible. If every student wanted a seat in Hopkins basement on Wednesday evenings, then we’d be out of a job. We wouldn’t have anyone to support. So keep creating new clubs, keep winning your tournaments, keep planning your concerts and keep asking for us for money. Let us know how we can help make this campus your community.

Simply existing here requires a level of engagement with the Williams community, from attending your classes to cheering on your entrymates to hiking on Mountain Day. But you know, in my four years here, I’ve never participated in a Mountain Day. It’s not that I’m apathetic about donuts and a cappella. It’s just that my Williams looks different from your Williams.

Kate Flanagan ’14 is a history and comparative literature double major from New Bern, N.C. She lives in Wood.

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