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Friendship, Chinese and Frogs: My Redefinition of Selfhood in College

It happens that I now find myself about to graduate from Carleton.

This piece—my last Viewpoint—is a little different from the others in that it is a retrospective of my time here, my thoughts condensed on how I’ve changed and what I’ve enjoyed and not enjoyed about college.  

When I graduated high school, I had a singular, simplistic conception of myself: I would go to a major research university, join an a cappella group, do extremely well academically, graduate in four years and go straight to medical school after. I liked the idea of a streamlined curriculum and a lot of general requirements in a college. Friends were nice and I liked having them, but what really mattered to me at 18 was what grade I made in a class and what my class standing was rather than the beautiful connections I could make between myself and others. A memory: a high school Marianne, shattered when an elderly neighbor said to me, “It’s never the valedictorians and salutatorians who truly become successful in life.”

But, in contrast to my teenage conception of myself, in college, I went to school, stopped going to school, transferred twice, fell down, got up, did some odd jobs, exchanged the self for another. There was, is, a pandemic. To a high school me, five years would have seemed eternal, like a Venusian day compared to an earthly one, but that is how long it took for me to complete my rotation on the axis of college (I now know taking five years to graduate is, in fact, not weird at all). I was on Marianne Standard Time throughout, hyped up on what was really an incredible amount of coffee and running through the library and writing papers in the four hours before they were due. I discovered my voice was meant to remain within the bounds of the shower walls when no one else could hear me struggling through notes; a cappella didn’t end up happening. Instead, I found myself learning erhu and guzheng in the Chinese ensemble, delighted to hear multiple languages spoken in the Weitz. 

I liked friends, books, eccentrics, shoeless students (by choice, not by necessity), dreams and first loves and rainy wet leaves in fall. Cider donuts. That time we went to McKnight Prairie in American Nature Writing, outdoor movie showings, marshmallows catching black sticky fire and smushed between a Hershey’s bar and graham crackers in the moonlight. Sunsets in the Arb, cheesy eggs in the dining halls, cross-country skiing and Bald Spot skating. Hearing choruses of frogs at night in spring on campus and finding them in the Boliou fountain. Becoming friends with the Language Associates. Everything about the laoshis, how they gave me green bean cakes and fruit jellies, greeted me: “Yulan!!” sounding like it had two exclamation points attached instead of one. Tomonari-sensei’s laugh and the way Habuka-sensei walks like a flock of birds. Smart, beautiful Saly. How we were roommates and best friends and climbed illicitly onto the roof of Sevy to look at skies made of cotton candy and rainbow sherbet.

I disliked arrogance, regrets, love triangles, silence falling like unwanted snow in a room when you said something wrong. Waning friendships that you thought could last until the end of time, looks of disappointment from professors when you didn’t do well, the dissonance between the best students and everyone else. Stigma and awkwardness and turning to face the wall above your twin-XL bed so your roommate wouldn’t see your tears. The pandemic, online classes and Zoom, the lack of return to normality. Making mistakes, a lot of them. The sentence, I’m bad at staying in touch, spoken with a smile sketched across the face as an apology. Feeling powerless in the face of the climate crisis, a pain, hollow and true, when seeing images of megafires or reading of lost species. How administrators looked at you as a number and liability or appeared to listen and then turned around and said, we can’t help you. Sorry. Have you tried turning yourself off and on again?

I somehow did everything and nothing at the same time, taking courses in neuroscience and French and linguistics and art history but never religion, creative writing, sociology or economics. Majoring in Chinese but walking into the Asian languages department lounge each day and marveling at the shelves upon shelves of Japanese books that I couldn’t understand. Beautiful and strange and sad the thought that I might never learn Japanese; this life has limits. Wondering, as I passed random students and professors in the halls, on the sidewalks: what worlds am I missing out on? And what choices might have led me to know these strangers rather than the people I do know?

It was in the midst of all this, this nomadic movement from place to place, this desire to take in everything under the sun, these discoveries of what I liked and didn’t like, that I finally found myself. It was a different self than had appeared in those first moments and breaths of college, but a better self, a kinder self. I learned to give more weight to my friendships and stopped caring so much about grades. I became more extroverted, finding a fascination in—even joy derived from—others’ life stories, their interests and their individual mannerisms. I stopped defining myself by others’ praise and learned to celebrate the simple day-to-day aspects of life—a name remembered, a smile, a free hour to walk in the Arb or through town. And it is ultimately this redefinition of self that made Carleton, and college itself, mean so much to me.

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