Near the end of July, as I was starting to get ready to return to Grinnell, I got an unexpected email from Residence Life:
“Greetings from Grinnell College!
We are writing today to let you know residence hall and roommate assignments are now available online… students were matched by hand and to the best of our ability according to preferences submitted on your Roommate Form… We encourage you to contact your roommate(s) prior to arriving on campus to become acquainted.”
At first, I was confused. Returning for my second year at Grinnell, I’d already picked my roommate in the spring. This email, which was clearly meant for the incoming first-years, was just the first; I got emails with advice on how to prepare for college and telling me what to expect during New Student Orientation. For a moment, I actually considered showing up during NSO — if no one was expecting me, I would just show the emails I’d received.
It was only after returning to Grinnell that I learned my class year had been switched from 2019 to 2020, and suddenly it all made sense.
Now you might be a little confused. Well, having been on leave last winter and spring, I was one semester behind 2019 and had therefore been reclassified as a first year. Well, technically I now had Freshman 2nd Semester status, but for all intents and purposes, I was now 2020, including when it came to being on the 2020 email list, explaining the emails in August. The emails just feel like another sign that Grinnell did not care for me as much as I did for it.
Back in fall 2015, midway through my first semester at Grinnell, the stress of college and the anxiety it caused led me to become deeply depressed, an illness I have struggled with for years. All of a sudden, I pretty much stopped functioning. I had little interest in school or friends. I was oversleeping, and putting on five alarms seemed to have no impact. The only thing that seemed to keep the anxiety and sadness at bay was lying in bed, curled up under the covers. The only time of day that I had any motivation was in the evening, not particularly ideal considering that classes are during the day.
From the moment I’d arrived at Grinnell, I’d heard stories about how terrible SHACS was when it came to mental illness. I quickly became familiar with the unhelpful counselors who were prone to shaming students and were always fully booked when you needed to see them, even though I’d never met one. It’s hard to say if going to SHACS would have been helpful, but stories of its incompetence kept me away, and my depression only deepened as the semester came to a close. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t do so great in my classes.
In early January, 3 weeks before the start of spring semester, I got an email from the Committee on Academic Standing (CAS) that I had to take the semester off. After reading it, I cried the hardest I had since my grandma died when I was 11.
Even though I’d been pretty depressed for about half the semester, I’d still grown really attached to this college. I felt at home here, in a way that I never felt in the big, diverse city I grew up in. There was a unique sense of community here, and when I managed to get out of bed for them, I loved the small discussion-based classes.
Now, all my hopes and dreams tied to Grinnell seemed to be falling apart. I became even more depressed. I felt like a failure, and I kept put off telling anyone the news. Finally, on the Sunday before classes started my secret became unsustainable and I posted a bland message on Facebook about how I would be “taking this semester off to sort some things out.” I couldn’t bear to be any more honest.
Filled with shame and anxiety, I cut myself off from social media- the primary way to stay connected. When others talk about how communicating online reduces their social anxiety I’m always perplexed—writing out a message is a chance to anxiously over analyze it, editing and re-editing, in a way not possible when speaking face-to-face. I did have three friends I kept in touch with, but speaking with them was a painful reminder that I was not at Grinnell and that everyone else was.
Even I couldn’t resist the warmth of spring, and things started to look up as winter came to an end. In February I got a job—a reason to get out of the house. I started seeing a psychiatrist. I got my shit together enough that in April Grinnell to approved me to return in the fall. A friend agreed to be my roommate in the fall, and we got a room during room draw.
As school grew closer I reached out to people I hadn’t spoken with in months. I knew returning would be difficult, both academically and socially, but I was pumped.
Then, I got the emails—the ones meant for first-years. They felt like a slap in the face. Taking the semester off had crushed me, and I’d been desperate to return. And now, the college didn’t even seem to know who I was, to know that I’d already been to NSO or that I’d chosen my roommate myself. For all intents and purposes, the emails seemed to say, I hadn’t really been a student at Grinnell before, and all the memories I had were of things that had never really happened.
In April, I was required to complete a 4 Year Plan. I planned it out so that, by taking classes in the summer, I could still graduate in May 2019. I took Grinnell’s approval of my return as an endorsement of my plan, so I was surprised to learn of the class year change. After returning, I’ve struggled with how to answer what year I am. If I answer 2nd Year, is that a lie? Every time I do, my mind flashes to my profile on DB, emblazoned with the numbers 2020.
If the reclassification was supposed to bring me closer to the class of 2020, it has not. It has only alienated me from the students I entered Grinnell with. One might think that, given my previous struggles, the college would want to make my return easier instead of more difficult. Instead of an email preparing me for NSO, they could have sent one explaining the change. Explaining that during room draw I would go after all of 2019 but before 2020, that I’d be moved from one email list to another, that I would have new class ambassadors, and that to graduate with the class of 2019 I’d have to apply for expedited graduation.
During my first semester, the social landscape had been fluid, atoms coming together and then coming apart, reassembling into new forms. When I returned this August, things had hardened into place. Last fall, I was still figuring out where my place was, who I wanted to spend time with, and who I didn’t. Returning, the possibility that had existed, the chance to spend a night bonding over cheap beer and life’s misadventures with someone previously just an acquaintance, was gone. After a while, an acquaintance is no longer a possible friend, but just an acquaintance and nothing more. Friend groups had solidified, establishing rhythms and inside-jokes. The window for making friends is short, and in my absence it felt like I’d missed much of it.
Coming back has been filled with the constant reminder that I am out of the loop. Stories are told that I rudely interrupt, asking for background everyone else already knows. Other times, I stay quiet, trying to guess from the clues. Yet, as time passes the stories told are ones that I understand, that I can join in telling.
Dissatisfaction with the social landscape is not limited to those who have taken time away, and talking to people about their experiences has been a source of connection. I’ve learned to look beyond 2019 for friendships, and I’m realizing that when some warmth is applied what seemed frozen becomes fluid again.
There is a paradox about humanity—our lives are filled with experiences unlike anyone else’s and yet we all fundamentally share so much. I’ve wondered why I wanted to tell this story—it’s certainly not intended to affect a massive change. Rather, I just want my story to be seen and understood. I know that might be a bit self-involved, but only sharing our stories allows us to bridge the paradox because in each other’s unique experiences we might find something universal.