What I wish I had known: Reflections and advice on settling in at the College

Dominic Madera

There’s a lot I wish I knew before it happened. This thought seems to reappear in my life over and over again. What would I have done if I had known differently? What would life look like? Who would I be? What pain would I save myself? The “it” changes in different stages of my life.

It is easy to look back and know what could have been fixed, and what couldn’t have been. The truth is, my first year was new and beautiful and painful all at once. Reassembling my life was a process of growth and transition. That meant finding a new community, accepting myself more fully than at any other point in my life and trying to open myself up to others.

There was an abundance of high points where I lived fully: I went to Boston with my environmental studies class, went to the New York Women’s march during Winter Study and had a multi-hour conversation with Professor of German Gail Newman about adjusting to New England. On top of this, I had friends who stayed up late with me, who talked and discussed things I had never discussed before. I had people who held me, in every sense of the word, when I needed them.

It also (not to frighten any current first-year readers) brought me to my lowest of lows, to the depths of my own grief and, at times, a deep-seated depression. Coming from the year-round heat and sunshine of Texas, the cold debilitated me. I was used to wearing open-toed shoes and walking around outside. To be in a space where I could not do that, to be confined to my dorm room, Tunnel or the library, was hard. On top of this, in reassembling myself, I also felt lost: I felt like I spoke another language when I left the terminal for Christmas at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. My family and I clashed (which I regret), and I found myself being frustrated at all the small conversations that seem to happen naturally when you’re in a Texas supermarket (I also regret this). Williams had changed me in so many ways. I was too New England for Texas and too Texas for New England.

This feeling of dislocation was paired with a feeling of grief I have never experienced before or since: spring semester was academically, socially and generally intense. It left me debilitated. I once called my mom to tell her it felt like I was perpetually falling. I remember darting from class to dining hall to dorm room, not wanting to see anyone. The snow and the weather and a feeling of not belonging were weighing me down like sand. When I look back on who I was and how I felt, I realize how alone I was. I was lost and could not get help. I also couldn’t receive it. It’s possible that some of you have felt this way. It’s possible that you are feeling this right now. Here are a few of the things I wish I had known:

Let your heart be open — It is easy for us to give up and in, allowing ourselves to self-compartmentalize and dissociate from different social circles on campus. I did this — perhaps I still do? Instead, see others fully, with compassion and empathy.

But you owe no one your vulnerability — There’s a tendency at this place to demand that you be vulnerable and raw and “real.” I think that’s bullshit. Be who you are, but don’t let others make you share things that you are not ready to share. Your vulnerability is a gift that should be treasured and gained with trust, not given out to anyone and everyone.

Forgive, be gentle — Transition and change are difficult, intense places to exist in. Live in grace for your peers. This is healing for you and them. When we don’t start from the harder, unforgiving place, our hearts are more open.

Don’t make assumptions — Outside of just Williams, I have learned to never trust first impressions. So many people whom I could have initially taken to be rude, mean, insular and exclusive have turned out to be wonderful people. Perhaps people have had the same thoughts of me? Perhaps you are thinking about someone else on this campus that you have written off. It’s never too late to try again.

This is your space — Too often, I have skirted out of the way for people when I had the right of way, averted my eyes and apologized for walking down the street. As a student of color in a pre-dominantly white institution, this happens too often – and with more than just walking down the street. There is a subtext that we should be grateful that we are here. There is an assumption that we are guests in someone else’s space. This is not true. To students of all marginalized backgrounds: this is your space. This is your home. And no one gets to tell you that you must swerve into the street for them.

Embrace the uncertain — Yeah, I get it, this one sounds a bit trite. Yet I’ve included it because I think it has held up in my own life. As someone who plans and plans, the thought of uncertainty is genuinely scary. If you had asked me two years ago whether or not I would be a WOOLF leader or gone to the school in the Berkshires, I would have laughed you off. We never know what is coming next. This is a good thing! Tomorrow you could be working at WCFM, or perhaps the day before the application is due, you decide to become a Junior Advisor (JA) (side note: I don’t know the JA application process, so I don’t know how realistic this might be). In either case, the unknown is scary but wonderful. It’s a blank check.

What I wish I could tell myself, more than anything, is that life is longer than a moment. That this moment will feel unending. That the weather is rough and the nights keep getting longer, but one day the sun will rise over the hills warmer and more welcoming than you remember it. That you will find people who love you. I wish I could reach back, grab my shoulder and say, “You will survive this. It may feel like you are perpetually falling, but you will not be in this slump forever.” You will keep going. We will.

Dominic Madera ’21 is from Houston, Texas. He intends to major in English and political science.