For all the first years who are nervous about their Claremont McKenna College journey, I want you to know that when I started at CMC, I really didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know very much about the school before I was accepted. I applied regular decision, waited until I heard back from all the schools I applied to and then tried to make as informed of a decision as I could. I hadn’t toured. I didn’t know anyone who had gone to the 5Cs. So naturally, I was completely terrified on move in day.
To make matters worse, the 12 hour time difference was devastating and I was too sick with a fever and cold to try to make friends. Instead of improving my mood as I had imagined, WOA had the opposite effect. I was very ill for most of each day and my sore throat made it hard to talk to my WOAmies . The only people I knew after orientation were my First Year Guides, who made a huge effort to keep me company. They got to know me well between bringing me food from Collins and consoling me when I would sulk on the floor of my room, crying, because I thought I had missed my window to make friends at CMC.
Everything about my ‘first year fear’ is a little absurd when I look back on it. In retrospect, of course I hadn’t missed my window to make friends. In fact, even though being sick for the first three weeks of school definitely sucked, it wasn't that big of a deal in the long run. It's easy to recognize the absurdity of that fear now that I’m going into my senior year and things have definitely changed since then.
However, first year students don’t enjoy the benefits of 20/20 hindsight. I tell this story because it reflects a lot of the fears first years feel when they arrive. Everything feels like life or death. Socialising seems incredibly high stakes; casual interactions feel like they’ll make or break your delicate budding friendships.
But in another way, I was lucky. I’m telling this story because it ended up saving me from a lot of anxiety, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Being sick for so long—unable to make friends or go to class—put me in survival mode. I was behind on readings, I had missed the first two weeks of classes and I didn’t have any friends. This late start, added to my status as an international student, created a lot of issues. I had no idea how to write a paper and I was doing terribly early on. I felt socially isolated, even though I probably wasn’t. The fact that I was in survival mode meant that when the applications for on-campus clubs and institutes started rolling out, one after another after another, I ignored them. I rarely opened those emails. Everyone around me seemed to be scrambling to finish the never-ending applications before deadlines and run between interviews, but I was too overwhelmed to even imagine adding another thing to my plate.
The first extra-curricular I joined was in late November: Bryan Carlen’s first year class cabinet. That was my only real extracurricular involvement in my first year at CMC. Once I had settled in after winter break, I began to realise the frenzy that I had missed out on. Most of my friends had been hired by a research institute; all of them seemed to be involved at least one seemingly prestigious organisation on campus.
It was not until my experience as a FYG sophomore year, though, that I truly noticed the ways in which the fall semester hiring process affects first years. After three years of being a FYG and witnessing the stress put on first years at this vulnerable time, I find this process to be one of the worst aspects of CMC culture.
First years barely know their major before they’re hit with dozens of applications for highly competitive positions. Considering the stigma against quitting extracurriculars at CMC, first years are basically forced into making four year commitments in their first few weeks on campus. Not only that, but with fewer opportunities to get involved as a sophomore, the urgency first years feel is legitimate. It’s highly possible that first years won’t be hired as easily if they wait to apply until sophomore or junior year. However, most upperclassmen will argue that there’s a huge advantage in waiting and exploring your interests.
Unsurprisingly, the hiring culture makes accomplished and intelligent students feel not only stupid, but ultimately worthless. First year culture is often defined by which campus organisation you get into, and all the ones you didn’t. The people who get in are much louder than the people that don’t, which reinforces the illusion that everyone is successful except for you. Imposter syndrome is already bad enough when you start college, any first years feeling this way don’t need to look far to be validated in the belief that they aren’t good enough to be at CMC.
Not only that, but the hiring process is heavily elitist. By creating applications right at the start of the year that focus on resumes, cover letters, and interview skills, CMC unwittingly favors first years who were able to cultivate those skills during high school. This often means favoring students who went to elite private high schools or those who were able to do internships every summer. As we know, these experiences are not possible without socioeconomic privilege.
The reason on-campus organisations exist should be to provide growing and learning opportunities to students. The current hiring process takes away from this mission. Getting into clubs and institutes takes precedence over the learning experience. Not only does this incentivise people who aren’t fully certain where there interests lie, but it also creates a culture of burnout. By the time you’re a senior, and at the peak time to pick up campus leadership positions, you’re tired. Everyone is exhausted. Right around the moment at which you have enough knowledge and wisdom to be a good leader, and make a real difference to campus culture, you simply do not have the drive. Most people begin to opt out of leadership positions in their Junior spring, arguing that they just “need a chill year.” And that’s a perfectly fair decision, considering they’ve likely been involved with multiple organisations on campus since their first month at CMC.
The first year at CMC isn’t easy. I didn’t find it easy. My friends didn’t find it easy. The first years I’ve worked with as a FYG haven’t found it easy. I’ve seen countless first years crying over rejections: The Rose Institute, Model United Nations, Student Investment Fund, Source Nonprofit Consulting, Claremont Consulting Group. I’ve witnessed a first year drink heavily on a night out, later saying that it was an unhealthy way of dealing with getting rejected from an institute. I see sophomores and juniors stay involved in organisations that they don’t want to nor feel they ever should have gotten involved in, because they know people will judge them for quitting–perhaps they will even lose a social circle. I’ve seen first years given “exclusive offers” for an organisation, forced to quit a prior commitment to a similar on-campus organisation, because the two groups are in direct competition. I’ve listened to first years explain their reasonings for taking semesters off and for transferring, saying that they hate the competitive culture and the push to be involved in everything. I’ve read in The Forum, stories of two first years who both found themselves in coercive sexual relationships with on-campus organisation heads abusing their power imbalance. Obviously, this is not every first year’s experience. Many come out of their fall semester loving their involvements, but I think that there are enough horrible stories which show a culture issue at the core.
There are several campus groups that do an incredible job with applications. The College Programming Board works on a January to December year, and so their applications are in early November, rather than early September. The Center for Writing and Public Discourse hires in the Spring and does not discriminate on the basis of class year. Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College have applications and elections in February and March. Claremont Consulting Group also does hiring again in the Spring semester, even though their fall applications go out very early.
Luckily these late fall/spring applications exist, filling a void of opportunities for applicants who would otherwise have to wait until the next fall to get involved. However, these opportunities are not well advertised to first years and applications still exist disproportionately early in the Fall. If people are rejected from these positions in the Spring, after not being involved in the Fall, it creates the impression that they’re failures, and not a “good CMCer” for deciding to join later. Some organisations will argue that they try their best to stagger their hiring by several days so it doesn’t overlap with other application due dates. Not only does this completely ignore the rigorous (and several weeks long) interview process many applicants must go through, but it also simply isn’t the point. Hiring should not happen in one’s first semester at CMC. Hiring should happen months later and hiring second and third year students should be far more normal. This change, in part, involves normalising quitting organisations. These organisations should exist as learning and growth opportunities. If you’re not learning and growing, leave. College is the last time that you have the chance to do whatever you want and explore your passions. The real world pressures of stability and consistency need not apply. I’m not trying to say that clubs and institutes don’t have very real and very legitimate reasons for their application schedules, I’m trying to say that organisations need to fundamentally rethink how they function, and prioritise healthy campus culture.
This article is aimed at the Dean of the Faculty's office, who should take bigger and more substantial steps to regulate hiring in the fall, so that it is staggered and delayed. This article is aimed at the faculty that run institutes, who should know that they could be hiring more committed students later, and could be taking steps to improve the mental health of their students. This article is aimed at upperclassmen, to remind them how being a first year felt, and to use their positions of leadership to affect change in the way that the hiring process is managed. This article is aimed at first years, to let all of you know that it’s not as serious as it feels right now. These organisations are not going to have a lasting impact on your career. They exist for you to learn, and you’ll find a ton of opportunities to learn everywhere. I know I sound like a burnt out senior, but college is short. Find things that bring you joy, don’t invest in things that make you unhappy or even that you feel indifferent about. All the upperclassmen you speak to will tell you how the rejections helped them find better opportunities for themselves. Find friends you care about and trust, go to class, stay up late to have incredible discussions and have fun. Explore what you’re passionate about and don’t be worried if that changes every couple of months. That’s what college is there for. And, as our student body president, Dina Rosin, said, we wish you an unexpected journey here.
Editor’s Note: This is an opinion article and the views of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of The Forum or the Editorial Board.