2009 is over. With that, the first decade of this new millennium is over– as well as my first semester at Whitman College.

It’s certainly been an unusual ride, and one filled with many great stories and experiences to boot. Although I can’t possibly hope to retell every one, I figure the least I could do is make up for my sparse and uninteresting blog posts during the semester and give you a notion of the many things I learned during my first semester at Whitman.

The world is big and beautiful.

In my first week as a Whitman student, before orientation had even started and before the majority of my possessions had traveled up the Columbia River Gorge to Walla Walla, I arrived on campus with little more than the clothes– and the shoddily-packed hiking backpack– on my back. I signed up for one of the dozen outdoor trips, known lovingly as “Scrambles,” that Whitman offers to all entering freshmen. My Scramble was going to take me, seven other first-year students, and three older students out to the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon to backpack for a week.

In the first few days, we were all plagued with awkwardness and uncertainty heavier than the fifty-pound packs on our backs, which, make no mistake, were unwieldly in a way none of us were prepared for. I worried a bunch. Would these people like me? This was my first shot at making friends at Whitman– was I too socially inept to do so? Were my interests too unorthodox?

These fears blew away like smoke around our first campfire, as we all enjoyed delicious trail-cooked food and discussed a multitude of things, including webcomics, YouTube, favorite movies, and zombies. We laughed, and as the sky darkened above our first clearing, we all realized that we had found good company. Maybe this “making friends” business wouldn’t be too hard after all.

The rest of our Scramble, though physically trying sometimes, was worth every step. We crested hills and looked out across the entire mountain landscape, seeing nothing but nature at every turn. We saw untouched forests and snow-capped mountains. We saw crystal-clear mountain lakes, and even camped near one. At night, we counted stars, talked about A.P. scores, and breathed deep the crisp mountain air– then packed our sleeping bags full of spare clothes so that we didn’t freeze as we slept. I took some pictures, but they could never capture the feeling of being in the heart of something so much larger than myself, of being able to touch nature wherever I wanted. It was an excellent way to start the semester, and I left it not only with a philosophical contentment, but also a dozen new friends.

I also desperately needed a shower upon return, but that’s another story.

At Whitman, being yourself is awesome.

Now, if that doesn’t sound like cheesy inspirational crap, I don’t know what does. But, as I learned in my first few weeks, it’s entirely true.

Like I mentioned, at the beginning of the Scramble, I was somewhat worried about fitting in at Whitman. I found that I had no problem being myself around my Scramble-mates, but (as the worried part of me persisted) would that hold true for other people at school?

The answer, as I quickly found out, was a resounding yes. I bonded very quickly with the many other students in my section of the residence hall. Again, I found I could talk about almost anything and find at least three other people to join in. People knew what xkcd was. People recognized Joss Whedon’s name. People even remembered Homestar Runner, even though that probably hit its peak four or five years ago. I could talk about comics, literature, TV, or video games, and people would not only accept the conversation, but actively involve themselves in it.

There was also a great sense of family in my section. 4-West, despite being perhaps the largest section in our residence hall (at around 40 people) was very close-knit. When people needed a hug, we gave them one. We listened to each other when needed, we joked freely with each other, and largely understood each other. I found it telling that, at the end of the semester, when given the option of new living arrangements, not a single member of 4-West wanted to move.

At Whitman, I realized last semester, it’s okay to be you. And that’s awesome.

Not all robots are made of metal or plastic.

A robot made of cardboard boxes

This guy isn’t.

Two robots made of cardboard

Neither is this guy.

18 credits is a lot.

When I first ate brunch in the dining halls, I was excited. There were pancakes and French toast and waffles and oatmeal and pastries and bacon and eggs… it all looked so delicious! Unfortunately, I forgot temporarily that I’d be living on-campus for quite some time, and would have plenty of options to enjoy what the dining halls had to offer. I loaded it all onto several plates, and summarily realized, halfway through the food, that I’d taken on way too much.

So it was with classes.

I was ecstatic when I got my course catalog in the summer, and saw that it contained tons of interesting and exciting classes. I signed up for five classes, worth a total of eighteen credits, thinking it would be manageable. Like my gargantuan breakfast in the dining hall, however, I realized soon that I was mistaken.

On the first day of my acting class, we were assigned a research project: Research a certain figure in theatre history, prescribed by the professor, write an 8-page paper about that person’s contributions to theatre, and then sum it up in a creative presentation. It was due in six weeks.

When I spent my entire four-day break in the middle of October furiously thumbing through biographies in order to make up for the research I hadn’t yet done, I realized something wasn’t working.

See, the problem wasn’t merely that I had been lazy in the first six weeks. It was quite the opposite: I had been working my butt off. One class, which met every day, gave me nightly homework. My calculus class started with the most difficult part of the curriculum, and so I was struggling with that. I also had to simultaneously read the classic works of literature for my Core class and heady philosophical texts for my philosophy class, as well as write interesting, defensible papers in a manner I was not at all accustomed to. Every night I went to bed exhausted, even on the weekends. It wasn’t that I was slacking off– I was working so hard that I couldn’t fit any more work in.

After my four-day break, I realized the smart thing to do, so I contacted my advisor, dropped my philosophy course, and slowly moved on. Like brunch in the dining halls, once I had come to my senses and realized I didn’t need it all right now, things got a whole lot better.

Caffeine is an insidious fiend.

Perhaps the worst indicator of my frazzled state of being happened about a month into class. I had developed the habit of working at the library, where I felt I could concentrate better and be more productive. (Later, I realized that I was much more flexible in my workspaces than I originally thought.) I would sit at a table in the basement with friends, close to the library’s café, and we’d commiserate as we all worked on our separate projects. Often, I’d go into the café and grab a cup of chai for a little bit of oomph.

This particular night, I was revising an essay on The Odyssey that was due the following day. I was struggling with evidence from the text that seemed directly contrary to my thesis, and was also battling a cold, which meant I continually had to get up and go grab paper towels from the bathroom to blow my nose. I had already downed a cup of chai, and a friend next to me was munching on some chocolate-covered espresso beans, when she realized she didn’t much care for them. I offered to take them off her hands, and so I snacked on them as I revised my essay.

It was after perhaps the third or fourth time that I skipped back to the table that I realized three things: a) it was already midnight, b) the delicious espresso beans were mostly gone, and c) I was reaching the crest of an unfathomable caffeine high, the likes of which I had never experienced.

I proceeded to completely revamp my thesis, convinced that one small change would allow it to work with the evidence. It did, but it meant I had to spend hours looking up new quotes and rewriting the entire paper to focus on honor rather than divine will– a hefty change, to be sure. Meanwhile, I was fighting the urge to skip around the library or do another mad dash across Ankeny Field and back. Finally, I finished the paper and went to copy some supplemental materials that my professor wanted, when I accidentally got my ID card– and thus my key into my residence hall– stuck in the copy machine’s payment device. I watched another half hour slip away as the librarian on staff and I tried to extract it.

That morning, I went to sleep at 5:30. I got up two hours later, downed an unusual amount of coffee (which I never drink), and slogged through the day.

I don’t think I’ve had any coffee since then.

Being a zombie is fun.

As Halloween approached, my campus e-mail inbox was full of notices about an upcoming event: the annual Haunted Hospital. North Hall, which is now a residence hall a few blocks off-campus, used to be the Walla Walla General Hospital (or something to that effect), and apparently, there’s an annual Halloween tradition of dressing the entire thing up and running a haunted house-type tour through it all. They needed extra actors to play zombies, so I went to Goodwill, spent twenty bucks buying tight jeans, funny-looking shoes, a scarf, and other hipster-esque regalia, and then proceeded to tear it all up. The result, after the application of some stage makeup and fake blood? Something like this:

Spencer in his zombie hipster costume

Braaaains.

Spencer in his zombie costume.

BRAAAAAAINS!

I spent the entire evening moaning and shambling around the basement, chasing tour groups out the door and otherwise scaring people. It was so much fun that I still have the costume, and look forward to another opportunity to dress up and amble around campus in search of brains.

?????????

or, “I really like the Japanese language.”

Having taken three years of Japanese through high school, I already had an idea of how much I liked the language, but this last semester confirmed it. I took the first-level course, Elementary Japanese, and as I re-accustomed myself to speaking Japanese, I realized that not only did it seem fairly easy to speak, but I also enjoyed speaking it. While I’m still a novice when it comes to grammar and my vocabulary, speaking the Japanese I do know seems almost natural.

My experience with the language no doubt benefited from the time I spent hanging out at the Tekisuijuku, the Japanese language interest house. The dozen or so students who live there are all incredibly friendly, and they made it quite fun to visit and work on my Japanese. I enjoyed their company so much that next year, a friend and I are planning to live in the Tek, as it’s known. It’ll give me more of an opportunity to practice the language, and it will also be a nice alternative to the dorms.

There are, of course, countless other stories and incidences to retell. These are just a handful of the more prominent ones. As I start my next semester, I’m looking forward to coming up with a ton of more stories and experiences– and hopefully sharing some here, too.