Best and Worst Freshman Year Decisions at Vassar
By Ellen Butler
Unigo Campus Rep at Vassar College
Freshman year is one of the greatest and most terrible years of your life. Don’t be freaked out by that statement. Just throw it onto the ever-growing pile of college advice you’ve received so far. But honestly, it is a lot: new friends, new opportunities, new classes, new atmospheres, new social networks, new mores—it can be taxing. And, of course, along the way, there will be new decisions. Decisions that can be incredible, eye opening, and life changing. And then there are others—decisions that can certainly be described as aforementioned, but maybe not in such a positive light.
My worst decision freshman year isn’t your typical “that one night I got impossibly drunk and (fill in the blank)” decision that afflicts so many college kids. It’s a little more consequential than that. After being with my boyfriend from home for a tumultuous three years (he went to college on the east coast two years before me), we decided by Thanksgiving of my freshman year to once again give the ol’ relationship a shot.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have no regrets about this decision. I’ve learned a ton about myself that I doubt I would have otherwise learned had I not decided to commit myself to this relationship. However, there was one major consequence that I had never even fathomed until we broke up: because I was in a defined relationship with him, I never truly had to define my relationship with Vassar. Whenever things got rough at school and I needed to escape, I simply turned to him. As a result, I was buffered against a true adjustment to life as a Vassar student. In essence, I relied on him to make things better when I should have been relying on myself. When we broke up a year and a half later, I realized I had no definition of who I was at Vassar, and that was a sad thing to find. But thanks to great friends, good times, and simply no longer being able to hop in my car to see him, I fell in love with my school.
My best decision, on the other hand, is pretty simple: I joined an a cappella group on campus, The Night Owls. We are the longest, continuously running all female collegiate a cappella group in the nation—say THAT five times fast. But in all seriousness, this group has been the greatest part of my college experience: we travel, we arrange songs, we perform, we bond, we make beautiful music, and we’re entirely student-run. I’m pitch this year (you know, the one who blows the pitch and conducts), and I couldn’t be more excited to see where we go. It’s like having 13 sisters who are all as passionate about music as you are. Love it.
Below, I’ve had a few of my friends recount their best and worst freshman year decisions, and it’ll become pretty clear that everyone has their good days and their bad. But I think it’s important, when you’ve come down from a certain peak and have hit one of the valleys that inevitably come with being a freshman, to remind yourself that you will never be a freshman in college again. So soak it up. Be spontaneous. Try new things. Work hard. Play hard. And no, you don’t necessarily need to interpret “soak it up” as “soak up excessive amounts of alcohol into your liver,” although that is not at all unexpected. As you’ll see, even “sage” upperclassmen are certainly guilty of making that interpretation….
Teddy, Jewish Studies Major, Class of 2009. Teddy is one of my housemates, and she’s great. Level headed, hardworking, quick witted—all in all, a pretty well rounded lady. While she says that deciding to drink alcohol was her best decision freshman year, it ironically led to what she counts as her worst decision. Like many small colleges, Vassar has a day in the spring—we call it Founder’s Day, in honor of our founder’s birthday—which is essentially a massive carnival that takes place all day. There’s food, fun, and, inevitably, drinking. Lots of it. Founder’s Day is notorious as that one day of the school year where waking up and drinking at 9 am is not only permissible, but expected.
Like many people new to the world of alcohol, Teddy didn’t have a firm hold over how much she should drink within a certain time frame. After waking up early to play squash, instead of finding some food to eat, Teddy found herself taking shot after shot after shot with numerous friends she’d run into around campus. By the end of her first round of drinks, she’d already surpassed the defined limit of binge drinking for females—before noon. When she finally headed to the field where Founder’s Day takes place, she looked down and realized that the ground was spinning. She panicked, fell down, managed to call her roommate (who alleges that Teddy wasn’t so much speaking as just rambling nonsensically), and passed out on the ground. Her roommate and some friends miraculously found her, carried her all the way across campus to their dorm room on the 5th floor (please keep in mind Vassar’s dorms don’t have readily accessible elevators), and took care of her for the rest of the day. Teddy told me that when she woke up and realized what had happened, she cried and cried, realizing that a) if her body hadn’t been able to handle the alcohol and b) if her roommate hadn’t found her, this story could have had a much less happy ending.
Isaac, International Studies Major, Class of 2010. For Isaac, freshman year’s decisions weren’t quite so traumatic. His best decision, he says, was deciding to help found the Nordic Ski team at Vassar, which is one of a handful of sports teams supported by Vassar’s student association, the VSA, and is also a club sport on campus (more on that below). The team competes in the region, takes trips to the nearby Mohonk Mountain Preserve, and welcomes students of all cross-country skiing abilities.
Isaac’s worst decision, on the other hand, is one that many Vassar students often struggle with: getting off campus. Like many car-less freshmen, Isaac wasn’t much motivated to leave campus to explore the Poughkeepsie community—and this is one of the biggest issues many students and Poughkeepsie residents have with Vassar. The physical layout of the college doesn’t lend itself to easy exploration: it’s nestled in a relatively residential area, with a large gate running around most of the perimeter. It’s not an imposing gate—it doesn’t readily scream, “No Trespassing”—but it definitely creates a tangible line between “us” and “them.” Isaac’s been able to remedy this decision, however, and has made an effort to get outside the campus gate and explore the many restaurants, shops, and recreational aspects of the area. It’s not a difficult thing to do, as the Hudson Valley is chock full of historical, beautiful places, but it does take conscious effort from students to find where those places are.
Becca, Biochemistry Major, Class of 2011. Becca is one of the lovely ladies in my a cappella group, and she is probably the most ambitious person I know. She is already on the long path to becoming a neurosurgeon. (She and I once did the math together, and she’ll basically be in school until her early thirties. But she is unfazed.) One of her best decisions as a freshman, she told me, has helped further her love of biochemistry: asking a professor to be a part of her research. It’s very intimidating for a freshman to take that leap, as research is often something reserved for upperclassmen, but Becca says it was well worth the initial discomfort. As a result, she’s still working with the same professor, and even participated in URSI this past summer, which is the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute. Professors select outstanding students to aid them in their summer research, and any publications that result from this research include the student as an author.
Her worst decision, which often happens with many over-committed college students, was putting her health at the bottom of her priorities. As Becca put it, it’s not even a matter of working so hard that you neglect to take care of yourself if you think you’re getting sick; rather, it’s the fact that taking time out for yourself—whether it be to exercise or meditate or whatever—can actually refocus you. Studying is important, but it’s also important to understand that taking time off from hitting the books can sometimes be just as crucial to your wellbeing as studying is.