I have now been in State College for a few weeks. The first week was a whirl of getting the apartment stocked and shopping for furniture. I also ventured onto campus for the first time; my previous tour had been a virtual one online while I was in Israel. Penn State’s campus forms a large rectangle; at its south end is the downtown. Campus has two major attractions: Old Main and the Nittany Lion Shrine. The Shrine is apparently the second most photographed place in Pennsylvania, after the Liberty Bell. I have yet to pay homage to the Nittany Lion, but I have nearly circumambulated Old Main, which is a handsome replica of the university’s first building. A lawn stretches from Old Main to downtown, and I found that a flock of ducks likes to dawdle on the very edge of campus, near people waiting at the bus stop. (One day I was sitting at the bus stop and a lame duck—yes, a literal lame duck, not a congressperson—was quacking behind me. I wish I had a crutch to give it, but I’m no doctor, just a quack.) I would add a third attraction, which is the popular Berkey Creamery, serving locally produced ice cream and dairy products.
Week two was orientation, which involved the fearful task of meeting new people and trying to make friends. I did try to push myself in that regard. I have attended a grand total of four grad events requiring mingling, at which I’ve been able to show off both my lack of mingling prowess and my teetotalism. The first event was bowling night. It had probably been over a decade since I last stepped foot in a bowling alley. While I remembered the important aspects of the game—pick up ball, release ball, knock down pins—putting it into practice proved difficult. I was invited to join a team (alas, unfortunate team to recruit me). On my first few turns I managed to knock down nothing besides my self-esteem, but eventually, by developing my own method of tossing the ball, I managed to knock down a decent number. I think I might have even gotten a spare! While initially, I was thinking that it was unfortunate for the older grad students’ first impression of me to be my terrible hand-eye coordination, I realized the next evening that bowling had given me the opportunity to engage in short conversations with fellow bowlers with the option of watching the action when we reached a lull.
At dinner the next evening, there were no distractions. People broke into groups, impenetrable to a shy person, so I found myself frequently pouring myself cups of Coke to look like I was occupied. And I missed out on an apparently popular conversation topic sparked by the presence of lots of bottles of wine and beer, namely, alcohol. One acquaintance asked me what drink I would recommend…well, soda, of course. I have made one friend in the program thus far, and afterward, she told me I look very elegant even when standing alone awkwardly. (She didn’t say “awkwardly,” but it’s the truth.)
As an act of divine mercy, I was struck with a cold that weekend, which excused me from yet another mingling event, a party involving pizza and…a keg. The invitation said to bring your own drink if you didn’t want beer, and so I had anxious visions of myself clinging to my water bottle and hiding in a corner, the only sober partygoer. Instead, I had a quiet evening alone with my box of tissues.
This weekend, I again confronted my distaste for alcohol-centered events. My friend invited me to join the cohort (the group of first-year English MA students, of which there are seventeen) at a bar—we could get soda. And soda we did get, ginger ale in fact, in a very noisy bar where I could only hear the person next to me speak. My friend, who is from Taiwan, asked why people in America enjoy going to bars. “You are asking the wrong person!” I replied.
Finally, I attended a gathering of English MA students. This involved a brief bout of horseshoe throwing (before I gave up) and several hours of attempted mingling. Also, I made the mistake of assuming dinner would be ready when I arrived and showing up hungry. It was ready about two hours later, so in the meantime, I dominated a bowl of kale chips that happened to be in front of me.
Besides stabs at socializing with grad students, I have actually started grad school! While Mount Holyoke prepared me well for the academics, I’m still getting used to having all my classes in the three-hour, once per week seminar format, and spacing out the heaps of reading properly. Plus trying to learn Russian on the side in preparation for Cold War 2 (jk, just trying to get in touch with my husband’s roots).
The following is somewhat representative of the transition to life as a commuter grad student. One of my classes runs from 6:30-9:30, so around 5:45, I went to wait for the bus. As I was heading out, I heard some thunder, so I grabbed my umbrella. Then I was waiting by the bus stop…and waiting…the air was growing thick and hazy with the expectation of rain. And then it started to sprinkle. And then the heavens emptied themselves! I ran under a tree with my umbrella, but my legs and feet were immediately soaked, as was my poor backpack. I thought I saw my bus in the distance, but then I looked back, and it was gone. At this point I figured it would be difficult to attend class in my drowned rat condition, so I ran back to my apartment, changed, zipped up my raincoat, ran to my car, tried to figure out the windshield wipers, which I have never used in this car, and then drove downtown through the deluge to a parking garage, from whence I walked to campus as fast as I could. Somehow I made it only about a minute late! I think I disappointed my professor by my timeliness, because I had emailed an apology for being late after my bus fiasco. He actually arrived a few minutes after I did, and when he saw me, he said, “You’re here! I saw your email and I thought ‘good, I won’t be the latest one to class because of the rain.’”
Next time, I shall stick to my word and be late!