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The Challenges of a Country Club

July 13, 2010

(Ed. Note: If your college has its own pond and a boat house, you may be at a country club.)
by Yena Lee

When people ask me what going to Smith College, an all-women’s school in Northampton, Massachusetts, was like, I’m never quite sure how to respond. Those four years were so unique, with every year drastically different from the others.[1] A campus of strong-minded, independent, outspoken women from across the States and across the globe, at an institution that was founded at a time when there were very few options for women who wanted an education equal to that of men. How could it not be?

I thought of Smith the other day as my mom was putting together a workshop entitled “Are You Ready for College?” for Korean American college-bound teens. I gave my advice on things I wish I had known going in and things I learned from my college experience. I, and especially my parents, are still amazed at how far I’ve come from my days of childhood where adults thought I was mute because I wouldn’t answer their simple questions of “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” and instead respond with fear-filled eyes.

Northampton looks like your typical picturesque, small New England town—tall brick buildings, church spires set against mountaintops, pedestrian and bike-friendly streets, with a long-reaching history back to the Underground Railroad and Jonathan Edwards. More recent history tells of an abandoned insane asylum just past the equestrian stables on the college campus, where patients would undergo electroshock therapy and other controversial treatments. All the patients were released into the town when the asylum lost its funding, which is why you see a lot of interesting characters, mostly harmless, on the streets of Northampton. Students go on midnight excursions to the asylum and the braver ones venture in, flashlights in tow. Today, the town is somewhat of a hippie town, entrenched in the Pride Movement and the arts. The streets are lined with cozy coffee shops, specialty stores, international restaurants (with vegan options, of course), and four intimate concert venues at the center of town.

As students, we’d take hikes through trees of orange, yellow, and red during the fall, romp in blankets of snow during the winter, walk through the gardens of blooming flowers during the spring, and paddle our canoes and kayaks on Paradise Pond during the humid summers. My dad called it a country club. It really was, in a lot of ways. We were coddled by professors and staff, lived in singles in one of forty spacious houses with hardwood floors, all with distinct identities, ate three meals a day from one of thirteen themed dining halls, and had some form of entertainment every weekend, whether music, comedy, house parties, athletics, debates, or campus-wide forums. Academics were amazing, with classes ranging from “Feminism, Race & Resistance” and “Politics of Minority Rights” to “History of Rock and Roll” and “Neo-Paganism, Goddess Spirituality, and the New Age.” We were encouraged to assert our opinions on all and any issues, from sexual abuse to transgender rights to the 2008 election to PETA. The end product: a cultivation of very well educated rabble-rousers.

I was often a mixture of astonished, inspired, confused, entertained, and just completely lost. But I was always, always challenged and stretched, both intellectually and interpersonally. The bits of advice I gave to my mom to present to college-bound teens were things such as taking advantage of campus resources, learning to speak your opinions and thoughts, getting involved on campus, and balancing academics and a social life.[2] But the main lesson I learned was: Don’t get too comfortable.

There’s something to be said about putting yourself in an environment that is so far off from your comfort zone. Fortunately for me, I was often in a state of discomfort those four years, always finding myself in unfamiliar situations, interacting with people different from myself, and having the opportunity to try new things, whether it was sought out or not. After three years wondering whether I was cut out for Smith, I finally decided that, heck, I only have a year left so I better go out with a bang. I accepted a position in student government (after losing my two previous campaigns in elementary school and high school), became a co-host on the college radio station (which required words to occasionally come out of my mouth), and a letterpress apprenticeship at a small shop a thirty-minute bus ride away in nearby Hadley. These experiences didn’t give me unparalleled job skills or a leg up in the world (as my current state of unemployment will tell you), but I learned important things. I learned how to communicate with and relate to people, how to be assertive and go after what I want, how to think critically about the world around me, and how to trust in myself.

Now that I’m back home in sunny southern California, it’s easier than ever to sink back into my comfort zone. I have to constantly give myself a swift kick in the rear when I fall back into what’s comfortable and remind myself that it’s okay to fail, that it’s all part of the process. When I’m hesitant to go out and try new things, which is often, I think of my time at Smith and how much I grew there, being a country club and all, because though I was thrown into it headfirst, I also made the conscious decision to accept the challenge.

How are you being challenged to grow outside of your comfort zone today?
What environments challenge you?

[1] A brief synopsis of my four years:
First year: Thrown into a very, very strange place, far from the sheltered life I had growing up. Thought about transferring. In short, mostly a confused year. Second year: All about academics. Took way too many classes, lost a lot of sleep, learned a lot about the world. Third year: A very interesting, albeit depressing, semester abroad. A second semester back in the States that developed into a quarter-life crisis. Learned a lot about myself. Fourth year: Manned up and enjoyed myself instead of being such a worrywart. Finally decided I loved where I was.

[2] Personally, the brunt of the weight fell on academics over socializing. Smithies study hard, and they party hard. I was always more annoyed at the raucous noise and behavior than I would join in. (Read: Never, after a few pathetic attempts at the party scene my first year.)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2010 7:14 PM

    It’s interesting how a large component with each season of life is the backdrop (environment) in which it takes place and the unique challenges that comes with each one.
    Being in the workforce has its own learning curve and I’m slowly seeing that it can sometimes be quite steep, especially with interpersonal relationships. In college, even in the most diverse environment, students are neatly organized by level (and thus, aptitude/ability to some degree). And for me, working in environments with little/no educational pre-requisite, the types of interactions I’ve shared and relationships I’ve built are quite different that the ones I made in college and it’s been difficult at times to adjust.

  2. Alisa Kempf permalink
    July 27, 2010 5:06 PM

    Thank you for reminding me to “remind myself that it’s okay to fail, that it’s all part of the process”. This was great, Yena.

  3. September 12, 2010 5:35 PM

    thanks for sharing yena… I’ve found myself being constantly in this comfort zone where it in turn leads to laziness. Pushing myself to do better and achieve greater thing comes as a challenge in and of itself… especially when i feel like i don’t have the capacity to do a lot of the things i want to. But this entry reminded me that i can do better… and i will. Thanks. :)

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