Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the members of the Class of 2008, in part nostalgically and in part remorsefully, go through many of the same motions I did four years ago. It seems that many freshmen, in addition to coping with academic challenges and the challenges of living independently (with a stranger), are caught up in the search for a place to belong, a community. And between general interest meetings, auditions, and student government elections, there are dozens of communities on-campus seeking new members.
I’ve begun to question whether there is a degree of social irresponsibility involved in our recruitment of freshmen for our clubs, teams, and groups. We know that first-year students miss their cliques from high school, their pre-fabricated groups of friends that have been built for them over the course of eighteen years. We know that college, academically and otherwise, has represented the ultimate goal for most high school students, with little else mattering. And we prey on this, because we need new members and future leaders, and human bodies to confirm our own community affiliations.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this scenario. But most freshmen do not fully comprehend the consequences of the decisions they make to join one community or another. At Tufts in particular, we too often let the communities we are a part of define us as individuals. It should be the other way around; communities should be defined by their members, constantly shifting as their individual components grow. But the system we operate under is limiting and potentially harmful.
Some may argue that I’m not giving first-year students enough credit. But the entire theme of this column was inspired by a particularly wise freshman who, upon not being accepted to a musical group, commented to me that his disappointment was largely due to his desire to be part of a community. He then looked to another communal student organization to provide that. And in looking back on my own first-year experience, I know that my own community affiliations in September 2001 were not driven by harmonious values or shared emotional connections. Rather, they were driven by experiences carried over from high school and my own search for a place to belong.
Tufts is a fairly tolerant campus in that we encourage people to “be themselves,” but this comes with a major caveat. Being yourself often means only being one thing. It is difficult to leave one community or to be a part of several communities. The decisions we make when we first get here are not easily reversible. Group identities stick hard here at Tufts. (I personally am often identified with a group affiliation that ended nearly a year and a half ago.)
Part of this is logistic; being a part of some teams and groups requires too great a time commitment to be a member of something else and maintain a decent GPA. Part of it is ideological, as you cannot be a competent tour guide, for example, and also an active contributor to dialogue on campus through a column in The Tufts Daily. But part of it is merely artifice. There should be no reason, for instance, why one can’t be identified as an active member of the Black community, the 3Ps drama community, and the biology nerd community concurrently. But it doesn’t happen.
I realize that we throw around the term community fairly liberally here at Tufts. We refer to the collective population of students, staff, and faculty as the “Tufts Community.” The Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience stressed in its recommendations the need for an academic community. We have “community representatives” to the Senate. The overall student government is referred to as the Tufts Community Union. However, it is vital to acknowledge that membership in a population (a club, a team, a cultural group, whatever) does not automatically make one a member of a community. One has to consciously identify with the group and its members on some deeper level. The individual has to prioritize the group relationships, just as the group has to prioritize the individual.
Our efforts to create community and specific communities here at Tufts are often counterproductive. To make first-year students feel comfortable if they come from a minority background, we separate them into groups before orientation even begins. Perhaps not surprisingly, this contributes to a fairly segregated social scene on campus, which translates into segregated academic life as well. We have yet to figure out how we can create a “mosaic” Tufts community when we remind people of the primacy of difference from day one.
Students in first-year residences tend to spend a large portion of their time with the students in their dorm and mingle less than students in mixed dorms. In the Class of 2005 and prior years, we referred to these as “Tilton packs” that would venture to the dining halls and out to parties as a unit. Many of these packs are intact now in our senior year. I can only imagine with the addition of Houston as a dedicated first-year residence, combined with the crusade against fraternity parties (and freshmen attendance at them) and the ensuing proliferation of freshmen dorm binge drinking, the dominance of these packs will grow.
I have always wondered why fraternities and sororities are the only organizations on college campuses that are not allowed to recruit first-semester freshmen. I know there are some delusional prominent college administrators across the country who believe alcohol and partying only occur in recruitment and initiation in Greek organizations. But, beyond that, all the other arguments for first semester ineligibility can certainly apply to sports teams and a cappella groups. Yet no one argues that first years do not know what they’re getting into or that they can’t handle the other adjustments concurrently in those situations.
If we truly seek to cultivate community at Tufts, we cannot force it. The important emotional bonds and social capital that communities generate must be generated organically. And often they do. The communities we join our freshman year can be instrumental in our social, emotional and intellectual development. But as we grow, we need the freedom to meander through the plethora of communities at Tufts. Only then can we truly become part of a greater “Tufts community.” Some Tufts students will leave with one primary group identification to represent their four years here. And that’s a shame.