Welcome Week heat and the skin you live in
Move-in day at college is always hot—a wet hot that inhabits all the intimate places of your body you forget about when the weather is mild: the cracks in your skin, the back of your neck, the space in between each toe. You become keenly aware of your flesh and its aesthetic shortcomings in such conditions: sweat makes your clothes stick to skin at areas that do not compliment your shape. You feel conscious of your body—the way it looks, moves, bends and gyrates. You uncomfortably lift a heavy box of school supplies or toiletries. Your cotton shirt darkens under the arms and at the back. You look down at yourself—at the areas where sweat has accumulated. You feel other eyes on you. You get the keen sense that you are an organism, a piece of flesh, exposed to the hot sun and the judgment of others.
And this feeling is likely to stay with you as you encounter your first roommates, their parents, everyone in your hall, your classmates and professors. Completely uprooted from the comfort and solace of home, you move from place to place—from your dorm room to someone else’s; from your residence hall to Kirkhof, to the new library, to the fieldhouse and the Rec Center. You’ll be thrust into the presence of unfamiliar others—a great deal of them—and do all the smiling and the greeting and the get-to-knowing that you feel you should do during the first week of college. And, through it all, you will inevitably feel exposed, on display.
Reflecting on this difficulty presents a challenging question: what will it take to feel comfortable in your own skin?
The most common answers come in platitudinous form. You are informed, by well-wishing uncles and family friends, reflecting on their long-gone college days, that you should go out and meet new people during welcome week! College, they say, isn’t college without the freshman dorm experience—the community showers, the open-door policy. In fact, the beauty of these things is crystalized in the first few weeks of school! The implication of these assertions is that, if you just “put yourself out there,” you will end up making a slew of new friends and gain valuable life experiences, etc.
Your uncle’s energetic, joyously nostalgic propositions would, of course, be more comforting if they came with some credible guarantee—a guarantee that simply cannot be made in a wholly satisfying way. Still, if you ask almost any senior, he or she will likely corroborate your uncle’s story. You will forge friendships, you will experience things that your former self—the self tethered to the familiarities of home—would not have guessed, and would not have been able to digest without the wisdom that the new you has gained.
But even these insights, however true you will discover they are, smack of cliché and probably do no good to the many anxious and homesick freshmen who, for the first few weeks, wander campus feeling exposed and utterly vulnerable.
One real comfort, and possibly a non-cliché, is the assurance that as I write this, I am positively certain, thanks to the many times I’ve heard my friends reflect on the early weeks of their first year, that this vulnerability is felt by almost all freshmen. It is a universal truth: no one can escape the feeling of being exposed. In fact, it is this feeling that provides solidarity to the freshman class—that defines, at its root, the “college experience.”
I suspect, in the August of ’76, when your uncle arrived at college, it was as hot and humid and uncomfortable as it is today. Something tells me it’s a good thing we don’t move in during the pleasant warmth of spring or the cool serenity of fall. Better it’s humid, muggy, exposing.