Like many of you, I am new to the Purple Valley. Since arriving here in August, I have been reveling in moments like my first sunrise hike up Pine Cobble with the Williams Outing Club and my first s’mores night around a bonfire with a team of Ephs.
Even for those of you who have returned to campus, this fall marks a new beginning in your own story. After 18 months, the pandemic continues, but Williams College students are together on campus again. Sure, professors now wear masks or teach their courses outdoors, and annual traditions have been amended to accommodate public health guidance. But hopefully, no longer constrained by the confines of Zoom or residential pods, you have been able to linger with classmates after seminars and grab meals with acquaintances who may become friends.
And yet this newfound “togetherness” may bring challenges, too. When you are new to a place (or new again to a place), you may encounter within yourself a desire to “fit in,” and a fear of “standing out.”
Reflecting on my own time as an adolescent, I remember as a new student in high school when a classmate asked me to name my favorite type of music. After responding, I received a table full of laughs. In retrospect, I could have sought out peers who shared (or at least tolerated) my affection for country music. Instead, I adjusted the dial of my radio, and went to work learning the lyrics of top-20 hits. A few years later, as an under-graduate, I saved up for the fuzzy fleece jacket that seemed ubiquitous on my college campus. More than a decade has passed, and I can now recognize how zipping up that jacket gave me a sense of social confidence that at the time I had trouble accessing within myself.
Regardless of how long you have called Williamstown home — whether you have been here throughout the pandemic or just arrived — I am sure that you, too, have experienced moments in these first weeks of the semester when you have wanted to fit in. Maybe this has been embodied in your decision to wear a certain type of sneaker, or to forgo joining a certain club or attending a religious service because you have been concerned about what your teammates or entry mates will think of you.
Ironically, it is our desire to “fit in” that will impede our ability to make and sustain real friendships. The people you walk alongside maybe your companions in this corner of the Commonwealth for the next semester or the next four years. By being authentic to yourself, while also acknowledging your desire for belonging, it is my hope that you will be able to build relationships with peers and mentors who will allow you to flourish during your remaining time here.
Echoing Rabbi Seth Wax in his piece last week, I, too, encourage you to seize this moment as an opportunity to (re)imagine your Williams College experience. Collectively, we are all beginning again. We have arrived and returned to this place with stories from these past 18 months. We are still making sense of how the pandemic has personally affected us, and the losses that we have witnessed or endured. Many of us maybe grieving for people we love or people we wish we could have shared more time with.
As we settle into the semester, I hope we will have the courage to be honest about who we are and what we have experienced. We need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other as we adjust to being “together” again. I hope we will take the time to reflect upon our own values in order to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates us and how we aspire to live. My hope for you is that you can be authentic to yourself as you tell and uncover your own story, and that you will be able to develop relationships with people who will care for you and help you recognize that you belong here.
Bridget Power is the College’s Catholic chaplain.