The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being a Pre-frosh (or, Why I Love Having High Schoolers Sleep on My Dorm Room Floor)

How to identify a pre-frosh: anyone whose nose is buried in one of these. How to identify a pre-frosh: anyone whose nose is buried in one of these.

Ever been to a party, social gathering, or other event in April and had the unshakable feeling that something was a little bit off? This happened to me last weekend, when I noticed that the Marsh concert—featuring Kelela and Lakutis—was full of people but oddly quiet. Usually, those Marsh concerts get pretty rowdy, with people gyrating wildly and flailing their limbs about in a berserk, feral fashion. But on this evening, hours into the show, there were still crowds of people just standing about with arms crossed, listening to the music and occasionally murmuring a few words to their neighbors.

Then, I overheard a snippet of conversation from a couple nearby upperclassmen. “Wait, are there pre-frosh here? That must be why it’s so weirdly quiet.” And that was when it hit me. Having pre-frosh on campus changes social dynamics so much—the normally insular college community, a community where I recognize about 90% of the faces I see every day, suddenly becomes unrecognizably foreign. They sit in on our classes. They eat in Val with us. They hang out in our common rooms and in our dorms. They’re with us at the Socials and at Marsh/WAMH concerts. Pre-frosh wander wide-eyed all over campus, trying to figure out if they “could see themselves living here.” The older, wiser Amherst College student, having gone through the college selection process years ago, dismisses that thought as pre-collegiate or juvenile. But maybe—just maybe—we still have something to learn from pre-frosh.

Pre-frosh deserve more than playful dismissal—these high school seniors are going through one of the most stressful times in their young lives (up until now—of course, we all know that they don’t even know what stress is yet), and suddenly, they’re thrown into a college environment where they stick out like sore thumbs. It’s a recipe for an awkward, lonely weekend, and because it’s so rushed, it’s not especially conducive to a pleasant experience of college life.

For years, current students have viewed the presence of pre-frosh on campus with an ounce of derision. But pre-frosh have improved my time at Amherst so much! I don’t often get the opportunity to step outside of my daily life at Amherst to examine the aspects of my daily life that I take for granted, or that I accept without question. I’ve found that it’s refreshing to put myself in the shoes of an ever-questioning high school student who doesn’t know Amherst College at all.

This is why I’ve hosted four students so far this year. The pre-frosh experience, from what I’ve gathered, has its fair share of ups and downs, to be sure. They don’t know their way around campus and are constantly consulting maps or passersby, necessarily self-identifying as an outsider to the College in the process. Some have had to wait out in the dorm hallway for their host to return because they’ve accidentally been locked out of the room. (Whoops!) Visiting colleges can also take an emotional toll—I’ve had pre-frosh tell me in distress about how difficult their college decision is, and how much it’s weighing on their minds. All you can really do in response is be honest in your description of your Amherst experience, but all the same, it makes me think. What drew me to Amherst in the first place? Have those perceptions been aligned with my reality of the past year? I started wondering if pre-frosh were getting an accurate idea of what Amherst is really like. Then I realized that by making them sit through hours of programming designed by the Admissions and Dean of New Students Offices and dozens of faculty and student panels, we were giving them a very rosy picture of Amherst College. This perception can’t possibly match up with reality.

So naturally, I brought both of my pre-frosh to the Women of Amherst show, “On the Spot”. Modeled after the Vagina Monologues and featuring submissions from members of the Amherst College community, the show would be realistic and loyal to the actual experiences of Amherst students, I figured. If there was any way to give them an accurate idea of student life at Amherst College, this was it. Of course, both of my pre-frosh were boys, and they weren’t exactly elated to attend the Women of Amherst show, but I told them they’d enjoy it, so along they came.

The big vagina replica in the hallway of Johnson Chapel piqued their interest in the show and its themes before it even began—they seemed half scared of it and half drawn to it. The show itself, I think, was a good snapshot of the Amherst social scene, but it certainly jolted them, especially when the cast members stripped on stage. I caught the expressions of shock and incredulity on their faces, and was glad that they were getting such a thorough idea of Amherst culture.

But I couldn’t separate myself entirely from their perspective! The entire experience of watching the show was jarring for me, too. I was hyper-aware of everything that was going on in the show: I watched and listened critically, thinking about what awkward encounters with past hookups or struggles with body image really meant in the context of Amherst College as an institution. How would they interpret Amherst students’ divisive relationship with the Socials? What would they think of Amherst’s atmosphere of activism and fighting for social justice?

This was all compounded, of course, by the gender issue. Speaking to my two pre-frosh afterwards, I learned that they had mixed reactions to the show. At times they had been shocked, and at times they simply hadn’t understood Amherst-specific references. But then I spoke to a pair of pre-frosh girls who gushed about the show, telling me that they had loved every minute of it. Admitting (temporary) defeat, I acknowledged that perhaps the Women of Amherst show wasn’t the ideal introduction for my pre-frosh boys to Amherst College.

In that conversation afterwards, I thought back to my weekend as a pre-frosh. I didn’t spend that time trying to gauge the social scene at Amherst, taste everything at Val, or sit in on as many classes as possible. I was trying to meet people, trying to find out if I was the type of person that Amherst welcomed. And I realized that what really matters to pre-frosh is the feeling of belonging.

And that’s true of all of us. Institutionally, we treat Orientation and DIVOH weekends with special tenderness, but really, we all just want to belong here. We’re all just trying to find ways to feel comfortable, to feel like we’re welcome in this community. Let’s foster that feeling. Not just for pre-frosh, but for each other.