A Musing on Freedom in College

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The author and friends celebrating Founders Day at Yale.

Sometimes, when the weather is pleasant, when I have a lighter workload than usual, or when I just need a moment to meditate, I take a stroll around campus. I walk through Cross Campus, my favorite area at Yale, savoring the tranquility of the open green spaces, the homey grandeur of the two architecturally contrasting structures that are Beinecke and Sterling, and the energy from the perpetual stream of students through the area. I take long deep breaths of the crispy New England air, trying to capture the essence of my new home.

And I feel free.

It is a freedom from the many constraints that have dominated my life. For once I can walk with my shoulders unburdened by household responsibilities. For once I can spend my weekends reading, doing homework (as lame as it sounds), or hanging out with friends instead of working two jobs. For once I can easily get to where I need to go without asking around for rides or coming up with creative ways to my destination.

It is also a freedom to do and explore. The freedom allows me to join different organizations and groups, pursue personal interests, attend campus events and shows, and go on spontaneous outings. Last semester, I was able to try my hands at an activity that had fascinated me for years – dance. I had wanted to dance since middle school, but I had neither the time nor the funds to take dance lessons. Dance was definitely on my list of things to try in college. Yet I was nervous since I had zero previous experience. Luckily for me, at Yale, there is a non-auditions dance group called Danceworks that welcomed everyone of all levels. I joined Danceworks and I have had an absolute blast. It is both a satisfying and grateful feeling to be able to do what you’ve dreamed of doing but never had the means to in the past.

The main reason why I thoroughly appreciate this newfound freedom is that I have been independent for most of my life, but family circumstances and financial constraints didn’t allow me the freedom to do what I enjoy. The paradox of being forced to be independent and mature, yet not given any freedom, has been difficult to grapple with, up until this year. Here at college, I am able to fully exercise my independence and fulfill my desire to take charge of my daily life.

But my situation is not unique. I think my sentiment can resonate with most QuestBridge students. College is a time for exploration, and the newfound freedom is valued by all freshmen. However, this is even more true for Questies. We never had as many opportunities growing up because we had to take care of household chores, we had no reliable transportation, or we simply couldn’t afford to pursue the activities we liked. Financial obstacles made it necessary for us to focus on things more relevant to the immediate well-being of our families such as bringing food to the table. Given our personal circumstances, college seems to us like a wonderland, an aside from a harsher reality, a chance to let go. It opens up a whole world of opportunities and adventures that we never imagined we could have access to.

Although this freedom is exhilarating, it can also be overwhelming. We may feel so liberated that we become disconcerted. Most of us have never been exposed to so many options, so we may not know what to do with them. What classes should we take from this enormous catalog? Can we squeeze this event/talk/info session/ into our schedule somehow? Why can’t we do everything that is posted on the bulletin board? They all sound so new and exciting! People talk about internships and research programs and study abroad options, but how do we start?

These questions constantly swarm our heads and may cause us to panic because we feel like we are at a disadvantage. Our backgrounds didn’t give us a chance to receive proper guidance on how to use these resources. We may feel intimidated by our peers, who seem more prepared, more economically and socially adept at handling these resources than we are. We may feel let down when we know that we can’t turn to our family for advice on this problem because for some of us, our parents never went to college or do not speak English.  On the other hand, a feeling of guilt may seize us because we feel as if we are running away from our past, leaving our family behind, and selfishly basking in the glory and freedom of college while our loved ones seem to be stuck in a different world.

For times like that, I remind myself to stop and think of my priorities and goals. I am here to learn and grow, not to be carried away by social pressures or meaningless pursuits. I stop to recognize that yes, the guilt I feel is real, but while I am moving forward, I’m also carrying my family with me. They are my unseen support system and will be with me every step of the way. I stop to think of how much things have changed for me. In a way my life has become more exciting, adventurous, and even comfortable. But I still can’t lose sight of the obstacles that await me on my college path. I stop to reflect on what I’ve been able to accomplished and plan out what I need to do to prepare against future challenges. My first semester of Yale is over, yet I feel like all I have managed to get done is schoolwork (being helplessly overwhelmed in the process) and some minor extracurricular stuff on the side. Time management has not been a strong point of mine, but I am determined to work on it next semester. I am still figuring out how to maintain a balanced schedule all the while exploring what the campus has to offer. There are so many other things I want to do – research, study abroad, volunteer. So I stop to breathe and assure myself that I still have time for all those endeavors.

But, most of the time, I stop in the midst of my customary stroll to remind myself of how fortunate I am to be at a university like Yale that grants me the freedom to let go and explore who I am.

— by Guest Blogger Emma Dinh, Quest Scholar, Yale ’18