I't was like the first day of junior high all over again, except this time I was a thirty-one-year-old ex-ballerina instead of a befuddled seventh-grader. It was late August and the second day of orientation week. I sat in a secluded corner of the Ratty attempting to eat my first dining-hall meal—dubious chopped sirloin and canned peas—when an excited group of about ten students swooped down on my corner table.
“Is this the table where the transfer students are meeting for lunch?” a young man asked as he sat down. Confused and suddenly mute, I nodded, even though I had no idea what he was talking about. I soon learned that these young men and women had, like me, transferred to Brown from other colleges and universities. But unlike me they all appeared to be nineteen or twenty and perfectly at ease with one another.
A confident blond introduced herself as Lindsey and asked me questions: “Where did you transfer from?” “What dorm are you living in?” “Do you like your suitemates?”
I didn’t fit her assumptions about who I was; none of her questions applied to my situation. I had transferred from a two-year community college. I lived in an off-campus, rented bedroom. Embarrassed about my age, and already uncomfortable at my new school, I mumbled evasive answers, gulped down my lunch, and left.
Weeks later I was in a sociology class where that day’s topic of debate was the meritocracy of higher education. More faulty assumptions: one student was arguing that junior colleges give students who are older and less intellectual than he a chance to bootstrap their way to a slightly better job or college. “Those people won’t ever make it into a school like Brown,” he added, but at least they could make some progress. I wanted to tell him he was sitting near one of “those people,” but I remained silent.
Leaving class, my friend Karen asked why I looked so upset. After I explained, she asked, “Why didn’t you say something?” I answered that my age made me feel out of place and reluctant to speak up. Mulling this over, Karen said something that prompted me to wonder whether my awkwardness might at least be partly self-imposed: all of us, she said, feel out of place when we first arrive at Brown.
I began to view my differentness in a new way. My awkwardness didn’t entirely disappear, but soon I was able to laugh at it. At one point I developed a somewhat pathetic crush on a fellow student who had no idea how old I was. When we went out to dinner one night, the conversation turned to our ages. “What?!” he exclaimed when I revealed my dark secret. After regaining his composure, he told me I looked “pretty good”—for my age. Then he said, “You seem really self-conscious about it.”
Months later I ran into Lindsey again at the Ratty. We sat down to compare notes on how the semester had gone. I asked her if she had seen any of the students from orientation week. She laughed and said she didn’t think she would recognize any of them. She, too, it turns out, had felt nervous and out of place at that table on the second day.
By the time that first semester came to an end, I was noticing fewer differences and more similarities. Finals are the great equalizer of campus life. Students of all ages and backgrounds scramble to wrap up lectures before reading period begins, scurrying across the Green amped up on too much caffeine and not enough sleep. The libraries become the hub of nightlife. People stop bathing, and the stacks in the Rock start to smell funny. I saw one exceptionally bold student smuggle a pizza into the Rock and sit at his carrel eating his bit of contraband as if he were in his own kitchen. I had grown to love those late nights of frenetic paper writing and studying for final exams. I was no longer out of place here. Age and expectation had not slipped away, and the hard part was certainly not over. But like that student with the pizza, I was home.
Maria Di Mento is an English literature concentrator and a BAM intern.