I’m here! I’ve done it! I’ve moved into the dorms for what may be the last time. The Saturn V rocket poster and MNUFC flag adorn what may be the last cinderblock wall. I lock my door. I live in peace. My parents are used to watching me leave them now. If my mother shed any tears, she saved them for after I was out of sight, plodding across campus towards my advisor’s lab.

I feel so much older than the new first-year students. My dormitory is mostly freshmen with a wing of sophomore single rooms, but the new kids are loud and travel in packs, leaning on each other from day one of their orientation. I know my cohort was the same way, but I can’t help but laugh a little at their hesitation and slamming doors and hallway conversations, only a few days into working out how to operate on their own. I don’t resent them. They will do just fine. You come to college to learn but it’s not all about the classrooms and laboratories.

Well. Unless you choose it to be so. And part of me does, this year: a full schedule of requirements for my majors, all of the physics and math departments’ events already on my calendar, notes already scrawled in the margins of my textbook two days before classes start. I am trying to carve out an entirely new place for myself here. I’m not satisfied anymore by playing a neutral party in the odd departmental politics that undergraduate scientists develop. This year, I choose to be a net positive.

This is manifesting in several ways. Late last semester I snagged a job offering physics tutoring to students in the introductory classes, along with the treasurer position for our physics and astronomy club. I’m already working out how I can push for tutoring sessions to be held in a more open and welcoming space than our department’s tiny, windowless student lounge. I have the department chair on my side about making our club more all-inclusive, bringing in speakers and taking trips to national labs, rather than just getting a bunch of astronomy majors in a room to talk circles about how great their field of study is. (And it is great, but other physicists need to get in on that, too!)

It’s an odd place to be. The competitive atmosphere makes me want to lord over my own classmates, talk up my summer research opportunities and preen over my high-intensity course load. But instead, I run into a member of my cohort who asks me about my summer, and all I can do is smile and say, “It was great! Solar physics, you know, really interesting. And we had great weather for hiking.” And I can tell he’s about to burst with his own experiences, so I return the question and set him free, his rapid-fire jargon familiar to me after this summer. And we’ve all been learning so much, and that’s good. There are ways to talk about experiences like these as diplomats, as friends, without trying to raise yourself up as superior. We’re learning that too. Maybe it really isn’t all about the classrooms and laboratories. ♦