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Rock ’18: Don’t get clobbered by clubs

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, April 18, 2016

Two years ago, I announced to friends and family that I was going to come to Brown. I received the reaction probably given to every Californian planning on attending college on the East Coast: ominous muttering about “real winters” and advice that I prepare myself for a level of academic competition far beyond what I had experienced in high school. I took this second point particularly to heart. I was aware that I would have to work harder in college and that I would be continually surrounded by people with academic strengths beyond my own.

Truth be told, this was part of the allure of attending a competitive school. Coming into Brown with the same emotional reliance on academic performance that I had in high school would have been unhealthy, and I’m glad that people continually reminded me that it would be perfectly normal to feel out of my depth sometimes. There were certainly moments during freshman year when I felt daunted by brilliant classmates or overwhelmed by work, but I was adequately prepared to deal with the feeling of being a small fish in a huge academic pond.

There was another adjustment to college life that blindsided me: the change in extracurricular activities. I, like most students at Brown, was involved with lots of clubs and teams and departments in high school and never felt shut out of an area of genuine interest. If I was willing to work at something, I could get involved. When I joined my high school’s cross country team, I had never run more than three miles at a time. I wound up being on the track and cross country teams for all four years. I was involved with my school’s student-produced play festival all four years, experimenting with writing, acting and directing all more or less at will. Showing up and being willing to work was almost all that was necessary to become an integral part of the communities that defined my high school experience and my sense of self.

I expected to pick up in college more or less where I had left off in high school, joining sports teams and performing-arts groups and all sorts of other clubs, settling back into my old life of diverse, intense extracurriculars. This was a fine goal, just as it would have been a fine goal to take five classes and get A’s in all of them. Both are theoretically great things to strive for, and both are unreasonable.

So, to incoming students at Brown and elsewhere, I want to prompt you to be ready not just for the intensity of academics but also for the shift in activities with which you will have to contend as you go from being a high school senior to a college freshman.

Participating in clubs in college is much more difficult than it is in high school due to a combination of institutional size, time pressure and a frankly terrifying talent pool. If you come into college determined to pursue the same types and number of clubs on the same scale you did in high school, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

My first semester, I fell into this trap. I only tried to get into clubs that were similar to things I had done before and fixated on selective groups. The series of rejections I received left me feeling isolated and insecure. At my high school, about 90 students would generally audition for the 30 or so spots in the student play festival. Here, a larger number of students may try out for just a handful of spots in an a cappella group. I personally was one of more than 100 people who tried out for two spots in Improvidence. And it wasn’t just the numbers that had changed. The people who tried out were an extremely talented mixture of actors and actresses with a variety of backgrounds and specialties. I had come out of high school thinking fairly highly of my abilities as an actor, and to suddenly find myself a tiny freshman surrounded by and competing with a horde of people who were indisputably better than me was jarring.

My problem was that I was intent on being a part of competitive groups in activities I thought of as personal strengths. Consequently, I missed several more attainable opportunities my first semester.

My second semester, I loosened up. I got involved with organizations in areas I hadn’t tried before (including journalism). I tried out for larger, more inclusive groups. I got an on-campus job. I met more people, made more friends and had things to do other than problem sets and essays. By allowing myself to try things I hadn’t done before and letting go of my idea that there was something inherently better about being in a competitive group, I was able to find new activities and communities and finally become a part of the Brown community in the way that I had been a part of my high school’s community.

So, by all means, try out for selective groups and pursue your high school talents, but be prepared to face much harsher competition for spots than you will for grades in any class. Be prepared to find your comfort zones placed beyond your reach. And, ultimately, be prepared to take risks and explore activities that are completely new to you.

And Providence winters, while certainly dreary, are far from the arctic hellscape people told me I was signing up for. A good pair of waterproof boots and a few warm layers will do you far more good than a parka, regardless of what your aunt may tell you.

Avery Rock ’18 can be reached at avery_rock@brown.edu.

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