When people ask, “What do you do on campus?” it is most often asked with good intentions. I absolutely hate this question.
Over my time at Middlebury, I have crafted a decent elevator pitch for when I come across this awkward moment in conversation. I say something to the tune of “Oh, I co-host a radio show and help out with the Mountain Club when I can. I just started writing occasionally for The Campus which I’ve really been enjoying this semester.” I feel pressured to avert attention from the fact that I’m not only a NARP (the colloquialism standing for Non-Athlete Regular Person) but a club sport-less, and even club-less, shell of a Midd student. It is hard for me not to worry that my extracurricular blurb may be interpreted by someone as me having a lack of aspirations or motivation. At a school like Middlebury, where a culture of diligence and ambition is nothing if not glorified, this feels like an unthinkable reputation to shoulder.
Extracurriculars at Middlebury are performed with epic sincerity. A Middlebury student’s club sport team can and often will become their primary college friend group; a club leadership position can and often will become the center of a Middlebury student’s routine; and generally, extracurricular membership is an eminent premise of identity at Middlebury College. It is a privilege to be in an environment where young adults are commended for taking their efforts and talents so seriously. With that in mind, I would also venture to say that these commitments are often over-indulged.
In a popular 1997 article by the Harvard Crimson, “True Confessions of a Harvard Slacker,” former director of admissions for Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges, Marlyn McGrath Lewis says, "I do think that most people go through periods of `burnout' or of simply wishing to escape from other people's expectations for a while."
This sentiment rang true for me. In high school, I was a soccer captain, member of student government, Outdoors Club president, and sang in the school choir. At Middlebury, I go to dinner for at least two hours every day and am a regular attendee of Bar Night. Both are fulfilling in their own right.
Over my time at college, I have questioned if Middlebury’s culture compels students to join clubs, teams or organizations not just “for fun,” but for an external image. The line between personal interest and personal branding is, to me, blurry at best. It feels only natural that on a rural, isolated campus students turn to their hobbies to keep them company. Consequently, these activities become a major component of a student’s sense of belonging (and sense of self), for better or for worse.
I gave so many extracurricular identities at Middlebury the solid “college try:” I was a loyal frisbee player for a semester, joined The Noodle for a spell, edited for Midd Geographic, pledged Tav my sophomore fall and attended a number of Women’s Rugby practices. I never found my extracurricular glass slipper, and honestly, thank God. I am so glad I tried on so many extracurricular identities at Middlebury, and I am just as glad I could take them off and place them back on the rack.
During this search, I was under the false impression that to forgo an extracurricular passion was to pass up on the resources available to me. A host of opportunities presented themselves once I revised that perspective. This semester, especially, I am shelling out $5 left, right and center to the Middlebury Box Office to see student and faculty shows. I can attend talks by Middlebury Alumni like Shawn Ryan ’88, I can go to YouPower spin classes weekly and can take intense, time-consuming courses suited to my academic interests. Most importantly, I am able to give meaningful time and attention to my friendships.
Finding a high level of social satisfaction without leaning on an established group with a common interest was a hard process, but one I found to be worthwhile. The same article by the Harvard Crimson ascertains that “there are a lot of fellow undergraduates who can learn from the guy next door with the empty planner.”
A Harvard student featured in the article said, "I'd much rather make the occasional B than be the person who can't ever do anything spontaneously fun, you know, like just go to a movie on a Tuesday night or something, because they can't neglect their workload.”
When I look back on my Middlebury experience, I have a strong suspicion I will not regret having had the time to attend my friends’ and peers’ performances, games, and showcases; having the space to go get coffee with a friend after class; to go on a long walk with someone on the TAM; to sit for a few hours to write about a topic I’m invested in.
Earnestly enough, the question, “What do you do on campus?” often also makes me emotional. I carry a deep concern for how Middlebury, and many other colleges, emphasize high functionality and individual prosperity— a culture that can easily exacerbate feelings of unworthiness and intense self-scrutiny. When this question is posed, whether consciously or not, a larger question lurks just behind the surface. The subtext of “What do you do?” is “Who are your people?,” “What career are you looking to have?” and ultimately, “Who are you?” In some ways, we’ve deemed the question “What do you do on campus?” to be a litmus test for how valuable we are as Middlebury students (It should come as a relief that there are over 2,800 valuable ways to be at Middlebury College). It is a heavy millstone we wear and one that I would implore Middlebury to invite a little levity to.