Hardly Normal: Why First-Years Could Be Tufts’ Best Worst Enemy

I’d opened too many webpages congratulating me on being the 1000th visitor, telling me I was entitled to a free laptop or a $500 Amazon gift card, alerting me of hot singles in my area, to not be at first skeptical. But when I received this message in March 2017, notions of web-safety fell to the wayside:


“Congratulations! I am honored to offer you undergraduate admission to Tufts University and invite you to begin study with our faculty in the School of Arts & Sciences next September as a member of the Class of 2021.”


My heart fluttered. Years of intellectual and extracurricular pursuit had finally been recognized. I was the special “1000th visitor,”—all I had to do was claim my prize. Sure, “Kayla, 26, Hot Single in Belmont,” wanted me. But now I had “Tufts University, 164, Premier Research University in Medford.” Tufts and I would explore the world together, learn from each other, and maybe have a bit of fun too. But as wishful thinkers who accept either Kayla’s or Tufts’ request know, things don’t usually pan out as expected.


While characterizing Tufts as a really fucking expensive internet scam might be unfair, and maybe not all that productive, such an extreme comparison perhaps sheds a light on the university system’s intrinsic transactionality. Most understand that student and university are parties in a contract. Unfortunately, most times, only one of those parties knows the absolute terms of that contract: the university.


For this year’s class of 2021, while learning this contract’s terms remains an important source of growth, navigating them can be taxing, dangerous, and sometimes fatal. But it is because of this very precariousness that first-years hold virtually unlimited potential to positively change this campus. Hardened veteran students and first-years alike must hold Tufts University accountable to the supposed values propagated by their fundraisers, administration, admissions officers, and global outreach networks.


Research on these supposed values brought me to the Tufts Admissions website. Clicking through some of the stylish prose on admissions.tufts.edu, I found myself feeling the same idealism I carried during the college process a whole one year ago. “Wow, I’d love to go there!” I thought.


Then I realized that I do go there. Take a look for yourself at the “Life at Tufts” section of the Tufts Admissions Website. Is this the school you go to?


“When students come to Tufts, they trade bathtubs, living rooms, and backyards for communal showers, common rooms, and residential quads.” And then trade back communal showers, common rooms, and residential quads for bathtubs, living rooms, and backyards in the Medford-Somerville area, raising housing prices to unsustainable levels for local residents.


“Their campus is a new, evolving home: populated with ideas, Frisbee games, and late-night conversations in the dorm hallway.” Here’s an idea to populate my new, evolving home: take a shot for every reference of “frisbee” on this website.


“A university is more than just a collection of buildings where you attend your classes.”

Indeed, it’s much more. It’s a collection of multimillion dollar renovated glass-covered STEM buildings where you attend your classes.


“The average student at Tufts spends 15 hours a week in class, which leaves 153 hours for joking with friends in the dining hall, going back for seconds (and thirds), seeing concerts in Boston, performing research with professors, reading on the Prez Lawn, sleeping, and—yes—getting their homework done.” And—no—not having to Uber to class because of a transportation system across campuses that regularly fails Museum of Fine Arts and New England Conservatory students. And—no—not having to call Tufts Emergency Medical Services at 2:00am because your roommate just puked in his sleep.


“Life at Tufts is shaped not only by the campus you live on, but by the people who live here with you.” I didn’t know that the people I would inhabit this campus with would be a combination of sleepless, hungover students who complain about 10:30 morning classes, a conceal-carried university legal team, and administrators who encourage part-time faculty to meet with students less often to remedy mediocre pay. I guess that is one kind of diversity.


“The pages to the left will give you an idea of some of the opportunities students have, both on and off campus. Our student blogs do a great job of that, too! And if you want to throw a Frisbee yourself? You can always visit us.”

Tufts Admissions does not necessarily prey on high-achieving, intellectually stimulated high school students who want to create themselves in an academic utopia, and turn them into zombies of the state. To the contrary, some of these students are lacrosse players as well. When something as simple as an admissions website can make me feel good about myself, how can I resist the pervasive signals that reinforce and normalize this institution’s problems? We are taught to critically engage with problem sets and texts, but how can one critically engage with our campus? In other words, how can we begin to understand our campus ills, and how can we come up with methods to fix them?


Not an easy question. Critical engagement is hard, nearly impossible, work. Most don’t do the work; some “choose” to engage while others are forced to. The truth is that there are many on this campus who must work to fix campus-wide issues because they face these monsters every day. But whether or not one does the work, when high school seniors arrive at Tufts University, they literally buy into a package of normalized institutional problems so gracefully omitted in admissions materials and administrative rhetoric, yet wholly pervasive and unavoidable. For idealistic high schoolers who jump head-first into college, these omissions reveal themselves rapidly and unapologetically.
Whether it be Tufts’ fucking sheer amount of acapella groups, its un-stimulating large lectures, its lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity, its pervasive drinking culture, its chronic mistreatment of workers, or its active role as a gentrifying giant, these omissions (and the many other issues neglected in this crude attempt at an opinion piece) have undoubtedly sedimented themselves as sacred ritual. These rituals are not just unsettling; in fact, many are terrifying.


But one ritual remains a powerful source of courage for students: the work done by older classmates to guide younger students towards engaging critically with campus norms.


For senior Joseph Tsuboi, these norms showed themselves during his first year in his academic life: “It was so interesting freshman year to see how many people just went into the stereotype of Tufts. Everyone wanted to do econ and IR.” But when an orientation leader advised him to take the Asian America special topics class taught by Professor Wu, Tsuboi took this advice in stride: “It ended up being the case that I took a class that was super transformative. I wouldn’t have taken it [otherwise].”


For first-year Nina Chukwura, Tufts’ lack of diversity proved especially jarring: “I didn’t know just how there’s such a severe lack of people of color here, especially African-Americans. As an African-American…Tufts was maybe the least diverse school that I applied to, but seeing it on campus, it was a lot.”


However, Chukwura was not only struck by Tufts’ lack of diversity. For Chukwura, the student-activist presence on campus was also a surprise: “There’s a lot of pushback against administration. I didn’t know people were concerned with the tuition raises… that’s all stuff that I was not aware of while applying.”


For Chukwura, the people with which she surrounds herself remain a powerful source of encouragement and knowledge: “The upperclassmen I’ve talked to have been concerned with issues.” Chukwura has found support in speaking to peers of color, “who have to be concerned because it matters to them…[they’re] political people…and they care.”


This kind of empowerment on the mass level has powerful consequences for Tufts. Whether challenging the university’s often politically-regressive curriculum, or the university’s lack of racial diversity, normalcy can be uprooted. But as long as we are students at this university, taking its classes, eating its food, drinking its water, breathing its air, resistance on the individual level is nearly impossible. Critical engagement is definitely not as simple as completing a problem set, or looking for tensions within (or poking fun at) a text. And while you don’t have to be a special kind of student to realize that, it takes a mass of unrelenting energy and unjaded optimism to take action on that realization.


First-years: as naive, unadjusted, fragile, and uncomfortable as we are, we hold a surprising amount of potential in this respect. We don’t yet know what is “normal.” We don’t know how to hold our liquor, navigate the party scene, or throw a frisbee. We don’t know how it feels to tweak out on un-prescribed Adderall in Tisch. But should we? Have those things ever felt comfortable, natural, or are they just rituals that we consent to when we go to college? When we see a group of students with megaphones and cardboard signs shouting outside our classrooms, do we ask ourselves, “Now what in God’s name are those people doing out there?” or do we write it off as “one of those Tufts things?” Tufts isn’t normal yet for Tufts first-years because Tufts isn’t normal. It never has been.


Let’s celebrate that naivety. Let’s guide it, nurture it, and cultivate it for a better normal, that maybe is a little less like freeipadauction64xcn.net, and more like admissions.tufts.edu—with less frisbee. Let’s create more rituals that encourage all students, especially first-years, to critically engage with this campus’s conceptions of normalcy.


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