Campus life by Zuni Chopra: The first day of four years
This campus is insane. That was my first thought. It was echoed in the flabbergasted faces of other freshman families trailing through the cobblestoned pathways. Bursting up around us were gently swaying palm trees, swooping archways of stone and tiled roofs glinting in that signature red.
And in the middle of it all, me and my crazy parents, gushing over a manhole cover embossed with the words: Stanford University. Proof that we were really there. Whatever you think it’s like to move into your first college dorm as an international student, you’re wrong. For a start, we were literally the first people to reach the otherwise abandoned dorm; international student orientation begins three days earlier than the more general new student orientation, and we’re Indian, so you can imagine how early we’d arrived. Turns out though, we needed every extra minute we’d managed to get.
Things quickly devolved into chaos as the three of us pirouetted over my suitcase, under my drawers, into my closet, trying to shove 18 years of life into half a room. I’ll spare you the messy details and pepper in a few of the highlights: the ink from one of my pens bleeding into a pair of socks, my parents insisting that I switch sides because I’d chosen the one with the worse view, and my father spending 20 minutes trying to put together a spotted laundry hamper (complete with some choice swear words about how idiotic it was that after you pay for the thing, you have to put it together yourself).
In the middle of our (rather productive) meltdown, my RA’s arrived. They saw my open door and introduced themselves. It was quite a cheery introduction. We then learned that one of them, a senior and a math and philosophy major, would be occupying the room directly next to mine. My mother gave me a quick sideways glare, and I knew exactly what that meant: You had better be on your best behaviour because he seems rather strict and I don’t want any calls home about you keeping him up at night.
Note:(He is not strict. At all. In fact, he has a rather sweet disposition and we are now good friends. Me and my roommate have kept him up several nights, as have all the other freshman on our floor.
Wherever India falls on the cultural spectrum, America is undoubtedly at the other end of it. I knew, of course, that I would have to adjust a little. I did not anticipate how jarring the smallest elements of life would become: the portion sizes at restaurants (absurdly large), the way everyone calls everyone by their first name (even professors!) and the way they pronounce ‘water’ as though they’re choking on the letter r.
None of this, however, was as shocking as the dorm funds for ‘sexual health’ and the small bucket of condoms placed outside every RA’s door, free for us to take whenever we needed them. “But only if it’s an emergency,” they reminded us a few days in. “We wouldn’t want one person using up all the supplies, would we?” Amidst all the American kids nodding like this was the most normal, appropriate thing in the world, I made subtle horrified eye contact with a girl my age from China; I can honestly say I have never known such an instantaneous connection with a complete stranger before.
Learning the ropes
My first class felt like a fever dream. I rode my bike there, losing myself in the mesh of students heading to morning classes, trying my best to look as though this was something I did all the time, and not, in fact, the coolest thing that had ever happened to me. It was an Art History class, detailing how and why to look at the greatest paintings of our time. The moment the professor began to speak, backlit by projections of paint, I did the only thing I knew I could do: took frantic notes and nodded studiously every time he made eye contact. I look back at those notes now with a smile and a shake of the head; there was so much I hadn’t yet understood.
I wasn’t alive several millions of years ago, so I can’t imagine what it must have felt like when the first sea creature began, slowly, to adapt to life on land; but I imagine it was something similar to my first week at university. I believed so many adorable things: that I’d always be waking up this early (around 8am at the latest), I’d do the reading for every class, I’d attend lectures for classes I wasn’t even enrolled in, and, above all, that I’d go to breakfast every morning. I learnt, day by day, that college life is not at all like high school. For the first time, you’re in charge of your own life; your own schedule, your own choices, your own consequences. And classes at 9am mean something very different when you’re up till 2am every night. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been the partying type; I was up this late with friends in the dorm, playing MarioKart, Cards Against Humanity, or just discussing life’s biggest questions; like how has the development of capitalism influenced organised religion and, simultaneously, how many marshmallows can you fit into your mouth at once?
And that, after all, is the beauty of college. The chance to interact with incredible new friends, who are brilliant, of course; but, at the end of it all, still only 18.
Author bio: Zuni Chopra is currently a freshman at Stanford university where she’s studying the creative arts. She has authored three books of poetry and one novel. Through this column, she chronicles her journey as an international student leaving home for the first time to study abroad.
From HT Brunch, April 26, 2020
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