I remember pulling up in the car to Lazier Hall on the first day of New Student Orientation. Lazier, the white-stone residence hall where I was going to live for my first year of college, was not an unfamiliar sight, nor was any other part of campus. Because I had been born and raised in Grinnell, the town and campus were like second nature to me. On top of that, both my parents had been professors at Grinnell College for as long as I had been living, and as a result, the College was a fixture in my life. Yet, when we pulled up in the car, the campus felt totally different. I didn’t really feel like I was going to a familiar place at all. I was going to be living with a roommate from Nepal and I was leaving behind the classmates with whom I had spent the last 12 years. I was just like any other first-year college student — anxious and worried about making new friends.
My anxieties weren’t limited to my social life. I was also apprehensive about the academic scene at Grinnell. I was fortunate enough to take a couple of courses at Grinnell College when I was a high school senior. Yet, to me, that experience was not reassuring. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my academic abilities, and my worries were compounded by the fact that I was well aware of Grinnell’s reputation for academic rigor. I still remember clearly how nervous I felt on the first day of each one of my classes as I scanned the syllabus.
One course, however, was especially intimidating. On the first day of beginning Spanish, my professor informed us that only Spanish would be spoken for the rest of the semester. Although I had taken Latin when I was in high school, I’d never spoken a foreign language conversationally, and the all-Spanish rule made me feel a little panicky. Eventually, though, as my first semester progressed, I became more used to what was expected, and I developed a routine, allowing me to relax a little and enjoy my classes.
Socially, too, things started to even out during the semester, due in large part to a group of guys I had met my first week. Since my roommate was from Nepal, he had arrived on campus long before I had, and he had met a great group of international students and upperclass students who were also on campus early. A couple of his friends invited both of us to join “Friday Night Lights,” a pick-up basketball game on Friday nights. Even though I had not played organized basketball since seventh grade, FNL immediately became the high point in my week — a chance to play and blow off steam. As a result, I became friends with a large, diverse group of people. It was hard to believe that I was having an international experience playing basketball in my hometown.
Music offered yet another way for me to pursue something familiar, yet have many new experiences. Although I had played the euphonium in my high school band, I decided to play trombone in the orchestra in college. I had never played with strings, nor had I played any basic orchestral repertoire. Yet, in my first semester, the orchestra played a piece, “Dona Nobis Pacem,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the Grinnell Community Chorus — a large ensemble of college students and townspeople — sang with the orchestra. With both ensembles crammed on the stage of Herrick Chapel, there were easily 100 people working together to perform the piece, a novel and exciting experience. During my second semester, I even played in a contemporary piece in which the notes and dynamics were not actually written for the players; instead, the players decided what notes to play and at what volume to play them. This innovative style was a big change from the usual John Philip Sousa march.
At the beginning of the year when I was meeting new people and talking about my background, many people believed I must have had an easy transition to college life. Not true. I struggled a lot at first. Although I was in a familiar setting, I was surrounded by new people and challenged to take new approaches to what I thought were familiar activities. I was receiving a worldwide experience only four blocks from my family home. I was at home in a new world.
Will Cummins '10 is undeclared and from Grinnell, Iowa.