By Gaby Germanos, HCWC Intern
No, this is not a rant about safe spaces or the coddling of millenials on college campuses. Rather, this a collection of thoughts from a college student (me) on the search for emotional and mental “safety” on, you guessed it, college campuses. I would like to preface these thoughts by noting that they are derived primarily from my own experiences, so take from them what you think will be useful for your own life. Bear in mind, though, that because the purpose of this article is to prompt you (college student or not) to seek discomfort in your daily life, I urge you to also entertain—at least momentarily—some suggestions I make that don’t necessarily seem like good ideas for you.
With all that out of the way, let’s start at the beginning, waaaaaaay back in the summer of 2014.
It was nearing the start of my freshman year. I hadn’t given a ton of thought as to what I wanted to study, or which activities I wanted to pursue, but I knew I wanted to do something new. As someone who has never been a big fan of change, transitioning from high school to college—one of the biggest changes of my life—seemed like as good a time as any to hurl myself into some new situations. (And, if you know my love of routine, “hurl” is a pretty accurate word for that.) My first step outside of my comfort zone was to sign up for the First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP), a week of camping and backpacking in the Appalachians. While I certainly enjoyed taking long walks, as a moderately lazy person with a knee condition, I preferred my hikes to be almost entirely horizontal. Also, the idea of living without running water or a bed for any period of time appalled me. Basically, FOP scared me more than any of the other freshman pre-orientation programs, so, naturally, I signed up right away.
Spoiler alert: it ended up being pretty damn scary, and difficult, and exhausting. But I also learned that I’m one tough cookie, and that if I can get along with a bunch of new people and poop in the woods and scale a mountain, all the while dealing with aching knees and my period (because of course it would come that week), I can pretty much do anything. I haven’t done any camping or backpacking since FOP, but that wasn’t the point for me: I conquered my fear and, more importantly, learned that I am capable of conquering my fears, one of which was stepping outside of my comfort zone in such a major way. I did it once, and I could do it again, so do it again I did.
Once FOP was over and I had officially started my freshman year, I continued looking for new ways to embrace change. Academically, I was looking forward to exploring English, philosophy, and sociology, but on a whim, I accompanied someone in my entryway to a class they were shopping in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS). I had dabbled in “Tumblr feminism” over the summer, but I had never seriously concerned WGS as a concentration. To my surprise, I loved everything about the course, so I stayed.
I also went out of my way to seek discomfort in my extracurricular life—in one instance, quite literally, when I ventured all the way to the Quad to attend the first rehearsal of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. When I first told my family and friends about Kuumba, they gave me strange looks, since (a) nobody I knew was joining, so my interest was rooted in something other than peer pressure; (b) I had never sung in a choir, much less a choir that solely sings music from Africa and the African diaspora; and (c) I had no idea how to navigate inhabiting a safe space for Black students and consistently being one of the only white people in the room. But I felt so drawn to the music, the people, and the mission of the space, so I stayed. I also joined a tutoring/mentorship program in which I made weekly group visits to a local all-male youth detention facility, even though nobody I knew growing up had even stepped inside a prison, much less been incarcerated. But the other tutors, and the guys we worked with, were so smart, hardworking, and fun to be around, so I stayed.
[Quick note: I must point out here that obviously these organizations do/did not exist in order to help white, economically-privileged young people like me experience change and discomfort and then metamorphose into a confident new butterfly. But the fact of the matter is, I did grow from these experiences, not only because of the experiences themselves, but also because, like FOP, they showed me that stepping outside my comfort zone can be absolutely incredible and expose me to things that I really enjoy doing. It’s ok to learn something from an experience in an unfamiliar space, so long as you contribute to the growth of the space as much as it has contributed to yours.]
Of course, during my freshman year, I also pursued extracurriculars that I had enjoyed in high school. Funny enough, with all of these familiar activities, they either fell by the wayside, or I never made it passed the audition stage. (This latter phenomenon was a bit depressing, but I saw it as a sign that I should continue trying new things.] Thus, by the beginning of my sophomore year, my extracurricular life looked nothing like it had in high school, and, frankly, I was having so much fun.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, AKA the middle of the first half of my junior year. I was giving a freshman some advice on joining clubs and finding their niche at Harvard, and I kept harping on the incredible effects of embracing discomfort. After the conversation was over, I walked away feeling proud of myself for giving such useful advice, when, all of a sudden, an unsettling thought passed through my mind: I was no longer living by my doctrine of change. This semester, I’m still in Kuumba, which has now become a place where I feel emotionally and mentally safe. I’m (clearly) an intern at the Harvard College Women’s Center, and while this is my first semester on the job, the mission and overall vibe of the Women’s Center is one that makes me feel entirely comfortable, and it’s an office at which I’ve been interested in working since the end of my freshman year. As a WGS concentrator, I seek intellectually rigorous and challenging courses, but not courses that challenge my deeply-held beliefs or require me to work with unfamiliar methodologies. (In fact, last semester, all four of my classes were taught by WGS professors.) Granted, all these aspects of my life at one point caused discomfort for me, but I have now become too comfortable in these spaces for them to help me grow as a person in that special way that only discomfort can.
I’m not saying that I want to change my concentration, ditch Kuumba, and quit my job at the Women’s Center; these things bring me a lot of joy and constitute My Harvard Experience™. Nor am I advocating that you overhaul everything in your life and start afresh in order to experience personal growth. I am a firm believer that college is a time to “find yourself,” and once you figure out what makes you happy, I see no compelling reason to quash your happiness.
BUT—and here is the crux of this long ramble—”finding yourself” is also an ongoing, lifelong process, and there is no one version of “yourself” onto which you should desperately cling forever. Coming into college, I could have easily continued doing the same things I knew and liked, since high school was also a time of “finding myself.” However, had I done that, I never would have learned the valuable things I’ve learned , or become a part of the close communities I’ve joined, or had the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to the spaces I’ve occupied. If I keep doing the things I’m doing now without deviation, who knows how many new people, ideas, and experiences I’ll miss out on?
Since this revelation, I’ve made a pact with myself to revitalize my freshman year goal of living outside of my comfort zone as much as possible. To start, I have applied for an internship at PBS, even though I have no experience in broadcast journalism. Sure, I might get there and have no idea what to do and completely flounder, but I’m sure that by the end, I will have gleaned some useful information and changed in some way. Maybe I’ll learn that broadcast journalism isn’t for me, and that’s useful information, too. I’m also planning on finally fulfilling my science general education requirements in the next couple of semesters (which I have been strategically avoiding due to a general distaste for the hard sciences and a irrational fear of labs). Perhaps I’ll even take some challenging seminars in topics that—gasp!—don’t directly relate to my interests.
In pushing myself to explore new, uncomfortable things, I hope all of you can try to do this, too, even on a smaller scale. This is especially important if you consider yourself an activist or, at the very least, an ally, since you will often be called upon to stick your neck out on behalf of a person, group, or belief that you care about, and those kinds of confrontations can often be difficult. I want to emphasize that I understand how hard change and discomfort can be—after all this, I still hate change. Sometimes in making these decisions, I don’t feel emotionally and mentally prepared, and it scares the crap out of me. But even when things don’t go well, I’m glad I went outside my comfort zone, at least 99% of the time. During that other 1% of time, I have a strong support system to help me out. It’s also important to push yourself to a point; while I think it’s ok if you aren’t always emotionally and mentally prepared to tackle something new (that is the point of leaving your comfort zone, after all), I don’t advocate that anyone seriously endanger their emotional or mental wellbeing. As the only person who gets to live in your skin, you’re the sole arbiter of which uncomfortable choices are ok for you to make. The purpose of seeking discomfort is to change your life for the better, so making decisions that do the opposite is not necessarily a good idea. But when and if you do decide that you’re ready to take the plunge, I hope you’re able to find comfort in discomfort and, when it becomes too comfortable, you find new ways to embrace change.