Something I definitely didn’t expect from Tufts was the orientation. Not only was it later than most schools, but calling it “an” orientation is misleading. It’s a five-day long event with an infinite (and often mandatory) schedule. There were lectures and fairs and group discussions and bonding and showings of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and more lectures – all of it great, no question. That didn’t stop it from feeling a tad manufactured the longer it went on. It was around the fifth time someone talked about the locations of the emergency phones that I tuned out. I thought that I had seen all I’d see and heard all I’d hear. It was this feeling that made one of my last lectures such a gut punch.
With such a long week, the last lecture was going to be at a disadvantage. I had arrived early and sat myself in the center of a massive, empty auditorium. As I waited, faces floated through the double doors and filled up the space quickly. This early into college, they really were just faces – nothing to them other than their looks. They seemed a lot like extras in movies, where you had them there to complete a picture and add realism to a scene, but not add to it. The crowd grew and the small talk flowed until our speaker, Dr. Becky Martinez, grabbed the microphone.
I struggle to remember much of what she said at first. Her talk was on inclusivity and she was a very gifted speaker. There’d be a lot to absorb if I was there to meet her halfway but I, and a lot of the auditorium, was still caught up in the excitement of meeting new people. This means I can’t tell you about her points on entering a new environment, but I can tell you about Johnny Lastname and his summer boat trips, or Mary Sue’s crazy story about move-in day. These were the stories that everyone wanted to share, just to scratch the friendship surface to see if there was anything underneath. Maybe our attuned lecturer sensed this, because halfway through the lecture she asked us to play a game.
The rules were almost too simple. She’d say a statement, and if it applied to us we’d stand up. Then she would say “Thank you.” Then we would sit down. She began with “I’m from Massachusetts” or “I have extended family in the army” and other unassuming factoids that I’d come to expect from my seventh ice breaker. Tufts kids are good kids, so we all went along and gave attention, but that desire to talk and laugh was still what people cared about. So that’s how it continued the next 5 minutes, with harmless questions intermingled with even more harmless chatter. That was until Dr. Martinez introduced a shift in tone out of nowhere.
“I struggle with my mental health.”
“I have been discriminated against due to the color of my skin.”
“One of my parents or siblings has passed away.”
“I’ve known someone who has tried to commit or has committed suicide.”
“Someone in my family has suffered from alcohol addiction.”
The room went quiet at the first serious question. It wasn’t a bad kind of quiet. There was no snickering or side chatter or anything of that sort – only reverence. Everyone was paying close attention and giving due respect to those who stood when few others did. So many people, myself included, opened themselves up in ways that shouldn’t have felt comfortable. Despite that, it did. The last statement Dr. Martinez made was “There was a time during this talk when I could’ve stood, but didn’t.” Nearly the entire room rose to their feet.
The talk ended and I sat in my seat for a bit as people filed out. It was people that filed out this time – not faces. This image of everyone else in the room being a prop shimmered in my view after that point. I couldn’t believe something so silly anymore. Now I knew firsthand that everyone here had a story. They had struggles and trials and triumphs that went above and beyond the small talk and the nothing pleasantries we’ve shared the three days prior. They were human just like me.
It’s a fact that seems simple, but helped a lot in settling in during my first college semester. It’s so easy to look at the people around you and to think that they’re more composed than you, or that they’ve got everything figured out. It’s so easy to make people out to be extras in a movie. Whenever I think like that now, I just remember how much I learned on that one Friday night. And suddenly, I don’t feel so out of place.
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