Reflecting our image

Illustration by Shannon Wright.

August Wade
Guest Contributor

Coming to college can be a frightening adventure for first-year students. Everyone you see is a stranger, tall, mature and exuding an aura of experience. If you’re lucky, you’ll have friends as close as kin, maybe a fellow newcomer turned companion that’s equally as lost and flailing. You’re under new rules, both legally and socially and you have a new identity, one those tall, mature strangers mutter from the sides of their mouths, causing you to stop whatever you’re doing and awkwardly squirm as pangs of anxiety rise up like goosebumps: “Freshman.”

We’re liars. Mostly for social purposes, to keep up appearances and fit in. Some deviate and become leaders, but for most people, it’s easier to keep to the status quo. We are liars and one of the first lies a student will hear during their first few weeks on campus will be: “Ugh, freshmen.”

Of course, upperclassmen don’t hate freshmen. We’ve all been there, whether we transferred in with an associate’s degree or arrived scant a credit. At most, upperclassmen begrudge their underclassmen classmates for legitimate reasons: What we have gained in experience, we have paid for with age. In the fresh, cheery faces of the new class, we see reflections of ourselves. Some years ago, we were them. We’ve gotten lost looking for a building, complained about construction, didn’t understand the dining plan or otherwise committed a pseudo-faux pas that earned a snicker from a stranger or the eyeroll of an instructor.

To say we hate first-years, people that are complete strangers to the area, however petty and seemingly benign the comment may be, bestows an air of superiority upon us and acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To be fair, VCU has never had a strong reputation for being hostile or having abrasive students, but we do have to contend with the reputation of being an “urban environment,” encompassed in a city with a historically derisive reputation. Ambulance sirens blare routinely, stories of homicides are not uncommon and the sight and stigma of homelessness abounds. We are not an idyllic small town or a pastoral backland like some of our peer universities. We, as a community, have the responsibility of managing our image. 

Sitcoms and movies usually illustrate the beginning of college as a time of raucous glee, but it’s also a time for the wider population to reflect upon their own identity. Indeed, we need not wait a single moment to improve the world or ourselves, but it’s a great deal easier to put in practice what the mind does preach when throngs of new faces adorn the campus.

Actions are movements and words portend those movements. What we say in our minds shapes what we do in our actions. What we do in our actions, or inactions, defines our identity, more

than prescribed labels or stereotypes. We’re more than what society and pop culture shows us to be, but only if we allow ourselves to break from whatever invisible constraints. 

However short our time on this campus and in this city may be, we have a responsibility to reflect the best of us and our city, particularly when newcomers come to frequent grounds we’d held as somewhat sacred to us. In the coming weeks, new faces will become a part of our community, awkward, bumbling youths though they may appear. Keeping in mind that you were once one of those faces leads to creating an amicable environment, one that encourages both local and individual exploration. Cultivate, nurture and guide them, not just as potential new recruits or free meal passes, but as friends and the future of this university.

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