Sunday, August 24, 2008

SLAC leprosy

Warning: this post is not directly related to geology or remediation. It's just something that's been rattling around in my head for a while.

I was pretty shy and unsure of my abilities when I was younger. As a high school student, a SLAC seemed like the ideal nurturing environment for me, whereas a big research university was just intimidating. I had seen some indications that the students in the school I chose had a tendency to form cliques, but I wasn’t that worried. I’d always found friends despite my shyness because there was always another wallflower who I could bond with.

I was assigned to live with 3 other girls. I’d hoped that this would give me chance to meet a larger group of people. What actually happened was that I discovered that I was from another planet.

My roommates were from all different backgrounds – rich, poor, city, country. They had completely different interests and ambitions. But somehow they had all absorbed this White Bread Middle Class culture that I had utterly missed. Everything I did was different or odd, and all their friends (which they made immediately; I’m not sure how I missed out on that) were Just Like Them. As a queen-bee survivor, I’d been exquisitely aware of what was cool and what wasn’t, but this went a lot deeper. Everything from the way I related to males to the way I expressed happiness to the way I shaved my legs was somehow wrong. My attempts to break into various cliques were rebuffed. I did find a boyfriend who loved and believed in me, but it was hard to ignore what felt like everybody else at school.

The problem with being lonely in a SLAC is that it seems like you are the only one who doesn’t have friends. I didn’t want to be Joined at the Hip with my boyfriend, so we didn’t have lunch together. Every day at lunch, I’d pass row after row of tables full of people, and nobody even looked at me. I’d bring homework to lunch, find an empty table way in the back, and pretended that I was simply busy instead of friendless.

It’s hard to admit to your parents that you don’t have any friends. I minimized communication with my family, and when I did talk to them, I made sure to mention every minor social interaction, leaving them with the impression that I was actually hanging out with people other than just my boyfriend. This indirectly resulted in my lowest point in college.

For my 20th birthday sophomore year, because my parents loved me so and wanted me to be happy, they had arranged for the delivery of an extra-large birthday cake, streamers, hats, and noisemakers for all the friends I didn’t have. I sat there in my dingy little single and cried.

Things did improve from there; in fact, they improved later that night, when I found someone to share the cake with us. That person is still a close friend today. But I have powerfully ambivalent feelings about SLACs to this day. I do believe in a liberal-arts education, and I survived a disastrous social life by reminding myself that I was there fundamentally for the education and not to make friends. Unsurprisingly (in hindsight) I was hardly the only one who felt lost. I didn’t get invited to parties, but my school had a contingent of “party favors” who used alcohol and sex to dull the loneliness. And my best friend from high school went to a supposedly wacky and super-friendly SLAC and ended up estranged from the social life as well.

If a somewhat shy or withdrawn high school student were to ask me about the best option for college, I don’t know what I would tell them. You can easily get lost in a big school, but you also have a better chance of finding other folks who share your passions or even are lost themselves.

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