Minivans, mini-refrigerators and decidedly not-mini crates of adolescent flotsam clutter the driveways and sidewalks across campus today as a new class claims its place in our undergraduate community. An army of orientation leaders in blue t-shirts, RAs, frat members, younger siblings and assorted other helpers are everywhere. Overnight, the campus has sprung back to life.
Matriculation Day has always been the highlight of my admission year. Each “Move-In Day,” as we call it, bubbles with energy. I like to stroll across campus, a lone man walking, as families negotiate this right of passage.
Some have more success than others. I watch from afar, like a nature lover who spots a fawn in a meadow, as each student, mother and father—or some modern-day version of that idea—negotiates the bittersweet choreography of delivering a child to college and letting go. There are roommates to meet, beds to choose, boxes to unpack and books to buy.
On this first day of school there is electricity in the air (and it’s not a late summer thunderstorm firing in the humid New England atmosphere). Today, in Boston, it is crisp and cool with a brilliant blue sky. The very first tinges of red grace the branches of maples. Parents are proud and, perhaps, a touch relieved. Students are excited about the freedom at hand. While Facebook accommodated lively electronic “introductions” over the last few months, Matriculation Day is the Real World. The chatting bloggers are now present and accountable.
The emotional charge is acute. Flairs of nerves are common, like the outbursts on Christmas morning when a tired father, nee Santa, realizes he forgot to buy batteries for the assorted toys.
A father and son negotiate a steep set of dormitory steps, balancing a Pisa-like stack of milk crates and boxes while an eager residential assistant, probably a sophomore, holds open the door. “What’s in this box?” the father asks. “I can’t remember,” the son snaps.
Tension brims as a daughter realizes her prized, hand-me-down loveseat does not fit up the old dormitory’s narrow stairs to her double occupancy room. “We can buy another one,” her father suggests. “No, I want this one!” Today, everyone’s guard is down.
In an academic community, September offers a fresh start. The first day of school is an almost mythic moment. New beginnings are powerful. It’s what drives thousands to congregate in Times Square each December 31 in the bitter cold, and millions more to watch on TV, to witness a crystal ball slide down the equivalent of a flagpole. On a college campus, Matriculation Day is New Year’s Eve and the Quad is Times Square. (We have a flagpole but we’re missing the crystal ball…)
Of course, no one cries on New Year’s Eve. Today, everyone worries about The Goodbye that awaits them a few hours hence. I won’t lie: it’s hard. When I negotiated this moment almost 30 years ago, the oldest child of non-college parents, I sobbed like a toddler as my parents pulled away in the family station wagon. (It feels like yesterday…) My teary mother waved from the passenger seat as my father stoically bit his lip. I stood in the parking lot, a swarm of butterflies roaring in my stomach, and waved until their taillights were out of sight. For the first time in my life, I was on my own. I was alone.
But here’s the good news: the nerves passed, the mood lightened and my new community pulled me into it with an elaborate orientation program that distracted and, yes, reoriented me.
Orientation is underway. Each year, Tufts welcomes its new class with a formal matriculation ceremony—something like reverse commencement—on the main Quad. The pomp and pageantry of the moment impresses new parents as much as it awes the freshmen, who often gape in wonder as the faculty parades onto the Quad in Alice in Wonderland-style academic regalia. We are not your high school teachers, the medieval garb proclaims. President Bacow presides over a platform party of campus dignitaries, a Who’s Who of campus life.
As I sit on the stage in the brilliant sunshine this afternoon, an administrative bridge between the college search and the freshman year, I have a birds’ eye view of the crowd. I can survey the 1,313 faces that stare back at me. These are my peeps. I’ve spent the last 18 months or so with them.
I like to watch as they check each other out. Their furtive glances ask, “Who are these other kids who got accepted to Tufts?” Of course, there is also the unasked, if essential, question: “How do I stack up?” It is a reasonable query. It is part of the fun and magic of this first day of school.
The college admission journey for the Class of 2013 has reached the end zone. Touchdown! A college ID is firmly in hand. My work is done. I’m like the Wicked Witch without her ruby slippers; my power is gone.
And yet, as the ceremony ends this afternoon and the newcomers are absorbed into the community, I will wrestle, as I always do, with a sobering truth. The cycle continues. Another crop of applicants is waiting in the wings, ready to be wooed and evaluated and introduced to Tufts.
In less than 60 days, the first deadline for the Class of 2014 will be at hand…