I’m back after an end-of-semester hiatus. Some thoughts upon my college graduation one week ago:
On Monday, I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about how I felt during the first weeks of college four years ago. Specifically about NSO, New Student Orientation, the week of activities that precedes the start of the fall semester. People meet their freshman year friends during NSO, go to parties, check out extracurriculars, and start to get their footing where they’ll spend the next four years.
There’s a lot of drinking during NSO, a lot of meaningless socializing, a lot of worrying that time spent alone is unproductive time. I didn’t exactly enjoy NSO–or, I didn’t ever have the impression that I’d experienced freshman NSO in the same way that other people had. The “right” way. My freshman NSO was quiet. I didn’t hang out with a lot of the people I met during NSO for much longer than the first month of freshman year. People who I met anytime during freshman year, even, are rare among the people from Penn whom I consider significant in my life.
So many things have changed since then. Four years ago, I thought that I wanted to date girls in college. For years ago, I never expected I would ever keep kosher or keep Shabbat. But I think that taking on these two labels, gay and observant, distracted me from more fundamental changes that took place over the past four years.
Four years ago, the thought of entering social situations where I knew no one was absolutely terrifying. I didn’t know how to say “I don’t know” to people who knew more than me, and to seek out the kind of teachers who made me comfortable as I explored observant Judaism. I didn’t know how to say “I’m new to this,” which became important this year when learning to socialize in the gay community. My best experiences in college came from saying “I don’t know” and “I’m new to this,” and I didn’t learn to say those things until college.
I’ve found tremendous power in admitting the things I don’t know. Even more exciting is finding “unknown unknowns,” the things I don’t even know I don’t know. I remember the first night I found out about one of these: that as I had been exploring observant Judaism, and also starting to wonder about my sexuality, there was already someone living in the observant Jewish community as an out gay man. We never even interacted, but finding out that someone was trying to answer the question that I hadn’t yet thought to ask — “how could I reconcile these two identities?”— allowed me to start trying to answer it for myself.
As I walked around campus with my parents after commencement, visiting Hillel and the LGBT center and talking to staff members and students there, I realized: if I was to enter college again at this point, these are the two places that I would seek out immediately to meet like-minded people and find community. During freshman year NSO, going to either one of them didn’t even occur to me. Now, that fear of entering new social situations has just about evaporated.
I still know almost nothing about the things that are important to me: the scientific research I’ll do, the divrei Torah and shiurim I’ll deliver, the relationships and family of which I’ll be a part. If anything, I just recognize more now than four years ago how much there is left to figure out. But I also feel infinitely more ready to figure those things out. I’m trying to come up with a word to describe this feeling, and I think colloquially, it might be “cooked.” As in, I spent time cooking in college, and now I am cooked, ready to serve a purpose in the world.
It occurs to me that perhaps those people who shaped Penn during their undergraduate years arrived to college more “cooked” than I did. Having the energy to devote to changing institutions probably requires that some energy has already been spent on self-actualization. Knowing now that I have spent some of that energy leaves me very excited for post-commencement life. Even though I only started to feel ready for NSO for about halfway through my senior year, I now also feel ready to not require the infrastructure of NSO to meet new people or to find organizations to serve and change.
And as I reflect on all those years I spent learning to say “I don’t know”, I need to keep reminding myself: It wasn’t time wasted in the closet. It wasn’t time wasted at all.