At Amherst, Always Outsider

Senior year has a way of making people inconveniently reflective. When you’re not rehearsing recommendation requests, noting the sudden proliferation of leather attachés among your finance-eyed classmates, or brainstorming the third item for an irreverent list, it’s easy to let your mind slip into a kind of preemptive nostalgia, that syrupy feeling that makes a Friday night-in or a snooze-buttoned sunrise hike feel like some grave oversight in the grand project of preparing future flashbacks to your #bestfouryears.

I think that the impulse to actively invest in your final memories also manifests in the urge to settle your Amherst identity—there’s so little time left, so it makes sense to decide the greater narrative of your college years before it’s too late. For some people, I figure that, while this process might be bittersweet, it’s ultimately a pretty smooth transition. At a glance, plenty of my classmates seem to have found some comfortable identity here, whether that’s through social popularity, academic discipline, athletic performance, club membership, or some combination of all those things and more.

The problem is, while I’ve definitely felt pangs of belonging, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m ultimately going to leave this place feeling the same way I came in: like an outsider.

And the thing is, I know I’m not the only one. I don’t have many close friends, but I’ve found recently that even my seemingly well-adjusted companions have been voicing the same feeling—the sense that, in the end, this place has always belonged to someone else. For so many of us, being here has always been a kind of temporary affliction, like a two-beer buzz, or an asthma attack.

I know that some people are really put off by this kind of thinking. When someone openly identifies with their outsidership, it can sometimes feel like a thinly veiled attempt at aloof superiority. Not caring is cool, so saying that you know you don’t belong is the ultimate trump card. I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never felt kind of cool for not fitting in. I did, and to be honest, sometimes I still do.

I’ve come to realize, though, that over-identifying as an outsider runs the risk of becoming an excuse to invent antagonism with people who appear well-adjusted. Trust me, I know better than anyone that everybody needs a good internal eye roll every once in a while, but you can’t let that negativity become your spring-loaded response to openly happy people. In my earlier years here, when I was particularly unhappy, this was definitely the go-to self-defense mechanism. Honestly, it’s been hard to rid myself of that visceral reaction, and I still struggle with it at times.

I guess what I’ve learned, though, is that you can identify outside the norm without needing to underpin it with resentment or overwhelming cynicism. Feeling like at outsider necessarily means feeling separated from some “mainstream,” but you don’t have to assume that separation is born from malice and thus requires hostility in response.

Being gay often makes me feel like an outsider, and I figure it always will. It rarely makes me feel despised or unwanted here, but it does make me feel out of step in a lot of social spaces and activities. I’ll never feel at home in the Socials, and I’ll always look over my shoulder while holding hands on Route 9. Rather than letting that feeling turn into bitterness or cruelty, however, I’ve learned (and am still learning) that there’s power in simply being comfortable with that outsider-ness. You can take that moment of discomfort and tell yourself: this place isn’t meant for me, but that’s ok. I can still do good and be happy as myself. Sure, I might someday find someplace where that outsider identity is normalized, but if not, I can still do this.

The way I see it, everyone could benefit from learning to be a little lonely. It forces you to be at home with yourself. Something as simple as eating alone in Val—so often the source of quiet anxiety—doesn’t have to be so bad after all. It might be slightly uncomfortable, but learning to be present with that discomfort is ultimately really empowering.

When people write publicly about feeling lonely/awkward/isolated here, it’s often in the narrative context of how they eventually found somewhere to fit in. It seems like so many people were lonely, but thanks to [insert group] they finally found a place where they belong. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned to be happy for those people, but I also know that they are the lucky few. I wish that someone had told me earlier that it’s also one hundred percent alright if you never find that [insert group].

I guess what I’m saying is, you can go four years here without finding your “this must be the place” place and still turn out ok. You can spend Saturday nights in the library, always go to Val at 4:30, make only a few close friends, and still leave with your head held high, instead of low enough that people can’t see you snickering at them.