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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Thawing Cold Fear in the New Year

— I’ve offered the advice below at the beginning of previous years, with different examples, and I like to think it’s evergreen.

Update · 15 September 2007: It is evergreen. In scanning the access logs of the Collegiate Way website a few minutes ago I came across someone who arrived at the site by searching on the phrase “What to do when no one at college likes you.”

On the eve of battle, Shakespeare tells us, King Henry put on a cloak and went in disguise among his soldiers to judge their morale and to learn what they were really thinking—things they would never say in the presence of their officers nor certainly in the presence of the king. But he also, later, went openly among the men after dark, offering greetings and reassurance. The first act refined his judgment, and the second strengthened their resolve. You can and should do both in your residential college at the beginning of every year.

You may not exactly be able to go in disguise among your students, but one thing you can do to judge the state of mind of some of your new members is to browse the abundance of weblogs that are everywhere on the net. I’m not suggesting that you track down your own students’ diaries, but there are so many out there written by students of high school and college age that almost any collection will reveal something to you.

Earlier this week I found the following weblog entry from a young woman who has just begun her first semester of college. I don’t know her name, I don’t know where she lives, and I don’t know where she is going to school. She may be someone you passed on your campus earlier today. If you see her, she will be smiling and friendly. But if you put on the king’s cloak you can discover what is beneath the surface.

I am also a freshman in college. This is my first week, and I’ve already cried. The stress is overwhelming, both academically and socially. My school has appx. 38,000 students. Can you imagine that? My biology class has over 200 students. When I walk to and from classes around the campus, I feel as if people are thinking bad about me. I was wearing a shirt today that had a few words on it, and these boys that passed by read them aloud, as if to mock me. I didn’t even do anything to them. So many little things like that have been happening. I took too long ripping a paper out of my binder and everyone stared at me, i walked into class late and the teacher said “take a seat in the front” but i didn’t see it and walked all the way to the back, so people must have thought i was deaf or dumb. I could keep going on with these occurences. It’s only been 2 freaking days, and I’m about to have a meltdown. Do you know what it’s like, to be in college with thousands of students around you, all talking to each other and socializing, and there you are alone, trying to blend in, trying to hide? But you can’t hide, you stick out because your social awkwardness sticks out. I just want to hide in a corner forever.

How can we relieve this terrible anxiety? In part, by following King Henry’s example again. Every evening during the first week of the year, after dark, the master and the dean of a residential college should walk each corridor and staircase and pause for a minute or two at every open door. A minute or two of greeting—a story about moving in or starting classes, a comment about a special picture or favorite object in the room, a word of welcome—if offered on the night of arrival or during the first week of classes, after dinner and after dark, but not so late that they won’t have time to talk about you afterwards, will strengthen your society wonderfully, as Shakespeare knew:

For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night:
But freshly looks and overbears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal, like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear. Then mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016