I’m usually the dissenter when people around me claim that NYU “has no community.” I’m not sure if I’m coming from an actual place of conviction, or just want to justify my decision in matriculating here, but I suggest meekly that things like NYU Secrets, Strawberry Festival, and the new Goddard-Broome Residential College system bring us together.
There’s no easier way to shatter this already-fragile belief than to go to a real college (said with the same emphasis we used in childhood for “real lives,” as in, “When are our real lives going to start?”). When I visited a Connecticut College friend first in February and then – intrigued by the atmosphere and thirsting for more – last week, I saw that what I had termed “community” at NYU was even more emphasized on a campus that was a campus.
While we rejoice over running into an acquaintance in Washington Square Park, Conn students know most nearly everyone that passes them. (There’s a thing called the “Conn look-around”: Scan the area for anyone you’re gossiping about. I broke this rule and realized that the subject of our conversation was at the next table).
We didn’t have to watch for cars when we went from one building to another, or ignore men wheedling us for change in the streets. School sweatshirts were a fashion trend rather than the reason for feelings of pride that bloomed when I spotted the rare NYU student, like a beloved cat in the African Sahara, wearing one on Astor Place.
By Saturday I began hoping that I hadn’t missed the transfer application due date. I was angry that I’d duped myself into thinking NYU was a college, or that I was having some sort of typical experience there. Because, in the end, don’t we all just want to be “normal”? NYU is isolated from the college experience just as it is tied to the real world. We want our “real lives” to start; they have, and now it seems we don’t want them. This isn’t college! We have a few more years left! Right?
But then night fell, and I realized that Conn – or any other rural school – was maybe not my scene. It turned into a cooler high school, with unmonitored grinding at dances, no Breathalyzers at the entrance, and little adult supervision. With only the college police and no NYPD to deal with, we could drink on campus, provided no one got hurt. Everyone lives in dorms, even seniors, so that’s where parties happen, and students hop from one crowded room to the other. Though I drink, I like to believe that some colleges are as wholesome and uncomplicated as the paraphernalia makes them out to be. But I realize that few other places can give me what NYU has, which is the decision to abstain if I want and join in if I wish. There is no “norm” here; this is “real life,” and we are shoved into its many options whether we like it or not.
NYU began to seem less entirely good, but also less entirely bad. College students tend to see-saw between these two platforms, today’s verdict coming as quickly as the disappointment of not being invited to a party or excitement at meeting your long-time favorite celebrity in the city. Last week, at Conn, I fell asleep Friday excited at the prospect of few Saturday responsibilities, or pressure to take on any. (NYU’s stress comes not only from our commitments, but what we’re capable of doing: The city is so large, and every day we’re paralyzed by its millions of options). We forget that college students usually carry internships only in the summer. The birds whose song wakened me were not pigeons cooing over a piece of bread on my walk to class. The sun came up slowly, and people responded to it in kind; everything did not begin at once. Living among adults, we confuse the beginning of the workday as the start of our own, forgetting that college students usually wake up late on Saturdays and don’t immediately panic about what they could have missed, somewhere.
But I liked having things to miss. On my last day, as I walked stickily in flip-flops to the shower and changed in the communal bathroom stall, I began to think of the city. The “country” (as I called it) had been a nice break – and I could imagine a situation in which the city would give me the same sense of relief – but I wanted to return to where I belonged. I also understood more acutely that “belonging” said something not about the place, but about the person, and that our comfort zone is dependent on who we are as individuals – and where we choose to end up. Those choices tend to be valid, whether we realize them or not.
[image via the author]