When I was accepted into the Deerfield class of 2019, I was elated. In addition to the countless merits of attending Deerfield, as an only child, one of the main reasons I decided to come to boarding school was to build closer connections with my peers. I had been to multiple sleep-away camps, and had forged some of my closest friendships through attending activities, hanging out, and laughing together. This camaraderie was what I thought distinguished boarding school from day school.
However, on my first day here, with the grass still lush and the air balmy, I excitedly went to my dorm’s common room to introduce myself to my hallmates. The two girls briefly introduced themselves before immediately disheartening me by thoroughly defining each separate friend group in our grade. All the way down my hall, clearly-distinguishable friend groups and pairs of best friends were clustered together, their rooms all adjacent to one another.
Shortly thereafter, I began to notice a similar pattern in all of the sophomore girls’ and boys’ dorms. Existing friend groups or pairs were living on the same hall. I now know that this pattern may be a result of the 9th grade Village. Because freshmen requested hall placement with friends last year, it left new sophomores this year like myself in the middle of a rather distant and unwelcoming atmosphere. Even at dorm feeds, where the hall resident, proctors, or associates created a place for connection and regardless of the chatter or exchange of stories, the minute we stepped outside of the dorm, the habitual level of connection between us consisted of terse smiles and hurried hellos.
I’m sure most students would agree that one’s dorm experience is essential to the quality of life on campus and serves as a critical starting point for new students to integrate. But with friend groups who weren’t particularly keen on including a new member, or even getting to know me, it made my first couple of terms at Deerfield much lonelier and more disconnected than I ever expected.
Although I understand that it is a privilege for students to choose whom they live with, I have heard from faculty and students alike that prior to the existence of the 9th grade Village, underclassmen dorms had a prevalent sense of camaraderie that made it possible to make friends from both your own grade and a neighboring grade. It was common practice to make friends with people you never would have met otherwise. I’ve heard the entire dorm dynamic was much more relaxed and connected.
However, the most urgent part of why I am sharing my experience is to suggest specific ways as to how we, as an entire community, can improve the experiences of new students. Adults in the Deerfield community have been supportive, caring, and insightful, but I think the majority of students themselves may not be paying enough attention to the difficulties that come with being in a new environment. It is painfully lonely and deeply hurtful to ignore another peer just because they are not familiar. I do not believe that my peers were deliberately intending to be unfriendly, but I do think that it takes deliberate intention to be inclusive. The Academy encourages statements such as “be welcoming” and “be kind,” but what can we do to make these generalized instructions a reality? We are not given specific examples of how to be welcoming to new students or how to be kind to members of our community.
“Being welcoming” can look like this: Often knocking on someone’s door to ask if they want to go to dinner, an event, or the Greer. Letting someone into a circle of conversation instead of nudging them to the fringes. Taking down someone’s phone number or social media accounts to reach out and keep in touch. Sincerely asking about someone’s day and how they are doing. Asking someone if they want to go watch a sports game. Inviting someone over to watch a movie or to study for an upcoming test. Talking about a common class. Chatting about music, movies, or television shows.
These steps may seem like second nature with your own existing friends, but for a new student, simple gestures can have a significant impact. More importantly, these steps don’t just apply to new students; they would also bring everyone on campus just that much closer. I am not asking you to be best friends with everyone on campus, but by reaching out in these small ways and genuinely making an effort to get to know someone, we can initiate a culture of kindness, acceptance, and inclusion.
I have repeatedly heard of the life-long friendships that people make at boarding school. I’ve spoken to alumni from various boarding schools who tell tales about adventures they’ve had with people they still refer to as their closest friends to this day. I hope that I will one day leave Deerfield with similarly fond memories.
I would like to point out that creating positive memories is a collective initiative. With our heads constantly buried in our phone screens or schoolwork, sometimes all it takes to bring us back to what is truly special and unique about boarding school is the age-old act of knocking on someone’s door. I hope you will join me in doing that.