Jason Rowland: It gets better

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 5:54pm

My first visit to Ann Arbor was on April 4, 2015. Having recently been accepted to the University of Michigan, my family decided to drive around for a bit before checking into our hotel room to familiarize ourselves with the campus. As we drove down State Street, we noted how crowded the campus looked. As we turned down South U, we marveled at how beautiful, yet dirty, the Law Quad was. It wasn’t until we turned down Tappan Avenue that it hit us. “What’s that smell?” my grandma asked.

Unbeknownst to us, our blue minivan was weaving its way through the chaos of the 44th annual Hash Bash. 

I knew right away that Ann Arbor, and consequently the University of Michigan, was different. Choosing to attend Michigan would mean I’d finally be immersed in a progressive and inviting environment full of intellectually stimulating people and ideas. What I didn’t realize was that these experiences wouldn’t all be as accessible and open as Hash Bash — most times, these eye-opening experiences would have to be sought.

Following the conclusion of freshman convocation, I walked over to the University’s welcome picnic in front of Angell Hall. As my cursory scan of the lawn revealed what I’d already known — I recognized no familiar faces — a terrible thought crossed my mind: I should've gone to Penn State. If I did, I could’ve roomed with high school friends and, at the very least, I wouldn’t be feeling so alone. But seeing as I’d chose Michigan, I was stuck in Ann Arbor for at least the next year. 

At this point, it would've been easy for me to retire to my room, call some hometown friends and count down the days until Thanksgiving Break. But doing so would ensure that I’d miss out on the amazing opportunities available at this school. As unpleasant as it was not knowing anyone, robbing myself of the chance to grow by not spending time outside of my comfort zone would’ve been equally egregious. So, apprehensively, I went out to meet people.

The rest of Welcome Week was spent exploring campus with new acquaintances, bonding over the mix of risible University-sponsored events (such as a “Party for Your Mind” in the Shapiro Library) and not-quite-sanctioned festivities around campus. Welcome Week turned into classes, and gradually, this feeling of isolation began to fade away. After a few weeks, I’d learned the campus layout and I was getting into the swing of my courses. This was finally the college of my high school imagination, I naively thought to myself. Yet again, I was wrong.

Soon after classes started, various student organizations began accepting applications for new membership. While the University brags about the number of clubs it has on campus, it never says anything about how selective many of them are. Wanting to branch out and try new things, I applied to many clubs. However, it seemed every day I was opening my email to find ones that started with “Thank you for your interest in … ” and not “Congratulations.”

This constant stream of rejections caused me to doubt whether or not I had what it took to thrive at this University. Additionally, I began feeling like I’d never find a close group of friends, only a loose group of acquaintances who happened to live near me. With everyone hyping up college to be the best time of your life — coupled with looking at Snapchats and Instagram posts of high school friends who all seemed to be having an easier transition than I was — I thought I was the only one feeling these emotions.

What I didn’t realize was that these were all normal feelings to have. However, I only came to this realization after continuing to push myself to socialize and explore my interests, even in the face of failure. One instance in particular stands out. I was in West Quadrangle’s game room chatting with some new acquaintances when one by one, people left to retire for the night. By the end of the evening, it was just me and one of my now-closest friends (but at the time, just a girl from my dorm). Though we’d just met, she went on about how she missed her friends and family back home in North Carolina. For the first time since arriving on campus, I heard someone else acknowledge how hard the transition was. Every other freshman, it seemed, was so eager to forget the past 18 years of their life. It was refreshing to hear at least one other person who felt the same as I did.

Looking back, I wish I could tell my freshman year self to just keep on trying, and that, eventually, time would sort things out. I’d also tell myself that if I keep on joining clubs that seem interesting, I’d eventually finally find some that I love; and if I keep on trying to meet new people and strengthen the relationships I currently have, I’d finally get a solid group of friends. Most importantly, I’d tell myself to focus on enjoying my time at the University and in Ann Arbor. But since I can’t go back to tell myself these lessons, the best I can do is tell them to you.

Jason Rowland can be reached at jerow@umich.edu.