Shortly after my first tour on campus knew I wanted to go to Amherst. I found the promise of a tight-knit community appealing not only because it meant small classes, but also because I would know most people on campus. Having been at Amherst for a while now, I can attest to the fact that these aspects of the school are exactly as advertised. I’ve come to realize, though, that while the small population is a blessing, it can also be a curse: Amherst’s environment can be exhausting.
From the intensity of classes to the fact that I see the same people every day, being an Amherst-student is a 24/7 job: there are no breaks, and there is little space for privacy. While this environment is exactly what I wanted, sometimes the pressure is grueling. There are usually a few times during a semester when I can literally feel myself falling apart; I become anxious, irritable, and generally unpleasant. While I don’t want to speak for the entire Amherst population, I can confidently say that this also happens to most of my friends. I’m not sure if this stress comes from the pressure of my classes, my friends getting on my nerves, or me getting on my own nerves, but sometimes I just need a break.
Early on during Freshman year I felt stuck and identified this feeling as the root of my stress; time and time again I would go to meals with the same people, have the same classes, and do the same things on the weekend. Rather than try to do something new, I complained about the lack of opportunity, believing that there was not enough to do in Amherst. But after some time, I realized that my issues were precisely that: they were my own. I came to understand that if I wanted to meet other people and do new things, I would have to step out of my comfort zone; rather than waiting for things to come to me, I would have to go find them. Joining clubs, going on trips, or going to lectures all become possibilities as I tried to unglue from the routine I’d developed.
And so, naturally, this recognition led me to on a trip to Montreal, Canada over Fall Break with four of my friends: I’d never been to Montreal, and the promise of a fun experience was tantalizing. Our only concrete plan was the three nights we had reserved at a hostel, and we had the tentative notion that we might meet up with a friend of a friend whom I had met once. What better way to break out of the pressure-cooker Amherst bubble and meet new people than to drive a few hundred miles to our friendly Northern neighbors with no expectations? We filled our bags with anticipation, or car with excitement, and boomed our favorite Disney soundtracks over the stereo, smiling as we envisioned the adventure ahead. I took a deep breath, feeling the tension ease from my shoulders as I watched the Pioneer Valley melt in the rearview mirror.
We spent our days trying to appreciate the city’s history and language; the nights enjoying the over 18 drinking age. One night, though, my friends and I ended up hanging out in the friend of a friend’s apartment, meeting her pals from school, and enjoying the presence of new people. The group was extraordinarily diverse, which, at the time, added a flavor of excitement to the air; among the attendees were Parisian princesses getting out of the homeland to spend some time in North America, Canadians who were interested in meeting some of their English-speaking neighbors, and Americans who were tired of the fast-paced, non-stop culture back home.
We all sat around and talked, comparing cultures and bringing up whatever we thought might spark conversation: what did Canadians think of Americans? Suddenly I wanted to know if Canadian French was any different from the French spoken in France. Did people in Quebec really want to be formally distinct from the rest of Canada? In the background we listened to Bruce Springsteen on an aged record player, trying to collectively agree whose behind was most similar to the one Springsteen displayed on the cover of his album.
Finally, I thought, I was meeting new people and doing something different; I was breaking out of my routine. And so I wondered: was there something inherently different about the social situation in which I found myself, or was the mere fact that I was out of the bubble the reason I was so thoroughly enjoying myself? I kept thinking, “Wow, taking a break from Amherst is great!” I felt work-free and relaxed, but, best of all, I was doing something entirely different than I could have ever envisioned myself doing while in Amherst. But, I began to think that, maybe, I’d conflated the issues of Amherst-induced stress with my distress with the Amherst social scene: my stress was caused by the intensity of seeing the same people in my dorm as I see in class and with whom I eat, not from any innate flaws in Amherst’s social culture. In other words, it was the feeling of the bubble pushing in on me that made me nervous, not the fact that I knew the bubble was there.
Regardless of the reason, our trip was phenomenal. Maybe it was because of particularly charming Canadians, friendly Frenchwomen, or affable Americans, but maybe it came from simply leaving campus for a bit. I think that the feeling of stepping outside of the bubble, of having some control over the bubble, was what did it. Amherst is great, but it’s great in doses, and I’ve realized that I feel better within the Amherst world when I feel control over my world. And so I’m advocating for spontaneity, and not because I like taking risks, but because otherwise the heat of the Amherst oven can get just a bit too hot.