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The ignominy of being ‘fresh’: Why we really hate freshmen

As a person who experiences approximately 5 percent of cerebral activity on the left side of her brain, I’ve spent the majority of my college years adamantly avoiding tip calculations and Busch campus. While I’d mastered the art of casually brushing checks aside, mastering Course Schedule Planner proved to be too ambitious an endeavor.

On the first day of senior year, after boarding an H bus in a confused daze, I regrettably remembered that two buses take students from College Avenue to Busch. Quickly, I tapped on the girl’s shoulder next to me and asked, “Will this bus take me to the Pharmacy Building?” Which was followed abruptly by, “I swear — I’m not a freshman.”

Admittedly, I felt ashamed of my instinctual need to validate my seniority to some stranger on a bus. But in hindsight, I think all 35,000 or so upperclassman on this campus would be on the defensive. Anyone who’s spent more than 3 seconds on a college campus will learn that “freshman” is a dirty word, and anything associated with “Them” is unquestionably stigmatized. Here at Rutgers, we sneer when we hear Them request a stop at Scott Hall. We cringe when we see Them drape the classic lanyard-key combo around their necks. We laugh when we smell the booze emanating from groups of Them parading down Hamilton Street on a Friday night.

And we understand that, ultimately, hating Them is unwarranted and hypocritical. I doubt any of us magically materialized onto College Avenue on a sunny September day, clad with confidence and the ability to find Hickman Hall. We see an undeniable reflection of our old selves in their doe-eyed expressions — and for this reason, we feel the need to ostracize Them. Any newcomer who walks onto the Banks of the Old Raritan without initially suffering through stares and glares would never be fully accepted. We all go through it, and it somehow makes us feel closer as a community. The rite of passage is universal, and hating freshmen is Rutgers’ way of embracing this age-old cultural phenomenon.

The rite of passage, by definition, is the way in which a society processes a person’s transition from one social identity to another. Rites of passage mark a variety of transitions: boys transform into men, girls become women and thumb-twiddling freshmen turn into full-blown Scarlet Knights. Cross-culturally, rites of passage share three common stages: separation, transition and incorporation. The first stage, separation, signifies the loss of identity and is often abrupt in nature. We upperclassman can hear the beginning of the separation stage from a mile away: The rumble of move-in carts can’t muffle the sounds of moms’ blubbering and dads’ spewing hackneyed words of wisdom. Freshman should feel lucky that they’re only being separated from home-cooked meals and a free Laundromat. Instead of sending their teenagers to dormitories, the Tukuna people of the Northwest Amazon build a special chamber next to their family home, where their newly menstruating daughters must stay in seclusion for four to 12 weeks. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, considering some cultures practice genital mutilation and scarification.

The transitioning stage marks the “in-between” state — initiates can no longer identify with their old selves, but they are not ready to take on a new identity. They exist in a state of ambiguity and paradox. For example, boys from Vanuatu are supposed to partake in the Naghol, a traditional bungee jump of sorts, before they can be considered men. As a boy plunges from a 75-foot tower, his mother swings his favorite childhood toy in the air for the boy to see.

As upperclassmen, we are responsible for swinging metaphorical toys in front of freshmen’s faces. We do so by initially, but temporarily, otherizing Them. While one may argue that forcing freshmen to feel isolated causes cognitive dissonance, renowned scholar Joseph Campbell asserts that the separation-initiation-return schema supplies “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back.” The transitioning stage is inherently a learning experience, and we upperclassmen are responsible for showing Them that they must let go of their old ways before they assume the title of Us. They are no longer self-conscious high schoolers or dependent sons and daughters — they must become self-assured adults and independent thinkers.

As September comes to a close, I assume many freshmen are well on their way to entering the final stage of their rite: incorporation. Ritualistically, many have — they’ve taken their first bite of a fat sandwich, chanted their first “RU RAH RAH” and failed their first Expos essay. The rite of passage paradoxically welcomes Them with open arms to change, to belong in a new community and to hypocritically be able to look back and say, “I swear — I’m not a freshman.”

Alexandra R. Meier is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies and minoring in anthropology. She is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Targum.

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