1st Year at Middlebury College

Well, Ma, here is the blog post you wanted me to write, hahah…

I am sitting here outside of Atwater dining hall, having eaten breakfast. The sun is bright and yellow, a lemon in the sky. The breeze is soft, but crisp upon my skin. Everything is a garden salad, a burst of summer colors. It’s truly been a remarkable year to start college.

1st Semester

The first semester I had to take classes online because the US embassy in Indonesia was closed. Hard is an understatement to describe what it felt to begin your first year of college sitting in front of a laptop screen, zooming for 3 hours straight every night, wishing with every email describing upcoming activities that you were there too, in person, to meet people and stroll through campus grounds. At first I didn’t want to start college online. I desperately wanted to take a gap semester–learn coding, exercise, cook, play with my sisters, do the Global Citizen Academy program. But my parents pushed, nagged, and coaxed me to start online. They said, who knows what will happen in the future? What if next semester you wouldn’t be able to go again and you would take a gap year, graduate late, etc…

So the semester began. As an international student, I had two orientations to attend, the regular orientation and the international students’ orientation. This meant having a group of people who I zoom called with every night for a week. Because we were online, we also had first choice with classes. I picked Intro to World Philosophy, Ecology and Evolution, Chinese, and a mandatory First Year Seminar (a class with only first-years to introduce us to college work and college writing). For my FYS, I chose Intro to Postcolonial Literature, which I took with Yumna Siddiqi.

I would say that in terms of academics, Middlebury is superb. The classes are so engaging and interesting, the professors are friendly, caring, and helpful. In my Intro to World Philosophy class, I read many texts from philosophers and societies past, including European philosophers (Descartes, Aristotle, Plato), Asian philosophers (Confucius, Buddha, even Hindu philosophies), and African/Africana philosophies (Akan philosophy, a text on whether saying African societies have philosophies is not enforcing a Western idea on another culture). I really loved how we also discussed what we read, such as when we talked about what we should do if we were asked to kill one person in order to save 10 people, or let someone else kill all 11 people (in essence this is an argument of Kantianism vs utilitarianism). We also talked about some more relevant philosophical ideas, such as liberalism and why it might have “failed,” and also on things like the “metaphysics of race.” That last part was quite new to me, as I had never considered how just by being part of the “privileged” class in society, you take part in oppression. For example, in the essay “Dear White America,” the author argues that all White people are racist even if they are not explicitly so, because they live life without needing to struggle through the disadvantages of being non-white. As for me, I am not white, but I am privileged because I am cis-gender and heterosexual, for example, although I am unprivileged in other ways.

In Intro to Postcolonial Literature, I learned about colonialism, looking at it from not only the lens of people involved while colonialism took place (e.g. in the books Cambridge and Kanthapura), but also through the lens of people who experienced the effects of colonialism, such as in the book This Mournable Body and in the anthology Migritude. We also discussed some critical topics, like whether violence is a necessary part of decolonization and freedom, as Fanon thought.

Surprisingly, I also learned so much from my Chinese class, and I feel like my Chinese has improved so much this past year. Now when I talk to Chinese people they compliment me on my pronunciation. I feel happy, but I am not satisfied enough! Learning a language is so addicting. When you are in the middle, you want to keep going until you get so advanced that people will think you are even a native speaker!

Ecology and Evolution was also fun, even though it was online. I especially liked the lab section, because I am weird and I like doing statistics. Something about it is just satisfying, you know? Plugging in numbers, making graphs, analyzing them, synthesizing other people’s research. I think I did a good enough job on this class, because the lab professor asked me to be a TA next semester!

Anyways, as you can see, I am really passionate about learning. I think there are endless things to learn and think upon. When I reflect upon it all, as I’m doing now, I realize how lucky I am. I am so blessed to be able to spend my days studying. Of course it gets stressful sometimes, but learning is so fun and rewarding. How lucky lucky lucky I am! That I get to listen to brilliant minds and read thought-provoking texts. Being a college student is really fun.

So, that was pretty much my first semester. Attending classes at night, exercising in the morning, and spending the rest of the day doing work for my classes, playing with my sister Zara, or doing chores. It was not a good semester in terms of socializing (it’s hard to make friends online), but it was a good semester for my GPA, hahah! And I was really lucky to be able to even attend online classes, because I know that in other areas in Indonesia, it is hard to connect to wi-fi! I am also blessed that my family was not as badly affected by COVID-19 as other families. I am endlessly grateful.

Semester 2

This semester I came to the US for the first time after 8 years… when I left Austin, Texas. There was so much escalating excitement, when I went to the US embassy and had my interview for a visa, when I said bye to my family at the airport and boarded the plane, when I arrived to the biting chill of Vermont winter, entered my room at 1 AM and plopped down on my bed in a dark room, unsure of how to feel.

The next day, as I remember, brought so much pent-up anxiety. As did the rest of the week. As I hurried through the campus, I was hyperaware of everyone around me, the buzz of a new and unfamiliar place, the white-brick buildings, and the ankle-deep snow. I remember my heartbeat, wondering what people thought as I passed by them. I remember wondering how come this place had so many people who looked and talked so similarly, an accent of English that I hadn’t heard in a long time… Where were the friendly faces saying, “Hi, are you new?” like in UWC. I felt so vividly alone. There was no hand reaching out to me, to welcome me. The cold of winter sunk deeper than my bones at times.

However, there were also moments of bliss. For example, when I entered my first in-person class, my Intermediate Chinese class. Mu Laoshi said, “书雅,你好!” and I grinned widely at him. I sat at the front in all my classes, brimming to the skin with happiness to be in a physical classroom again, with real-life students around me. I soaked up every minute of each class… Environmental Anthropology, Animal Behavior, and Intro to Psychology.

Thanks to Prof. Michael Sheridan, this semester I learned that Political Ecology is the term to describe what I am extremely passionate about in terms of environmental conservation. Through Environmental Anthropology, and Political Ecology specifically, I learned about the power dynamics operating in the global system which creates environmental injustices. I realized that this is the type of work I want to do in the future… such as by empowering farmers, indigenous communities, and marginalized groups to be able to take environmental action against more powerful entities like corporations and the nation state. That’s why I decided to major in Biology and Anthropology!

For Animal Behavior, I also learned a lot of fascinating things about animals. For example… did you know that female hyenas have penises? There are many theories as to why this is so, such as that it is a way to show dominance or submission, or it is a way to encourage cooperation, as the females with penises were more likely to be helped by other hyenas. We also learned about black-capped chickadees and the songs they do for mating, Siamese fighting fish and their aggressiveness, and what happens when you inject mice with fluoxetine and serotonin (they get very hyper). We learned ultimate and proximate causes of why some animals are polygynous, polyandrous, or monogamous. Oh, and we read Jane Goodall’s book on chimpanzees, which was also interesting, seeing how they are so similar to humans!

In terms of organizations, I was involved in a lot of things… too many things actually. I was part of Pengajar Jelajah Nusa (PJN), where we taught kids about planets and talked about the dreams they had for the future. We also talked with teachers about creative teaching methods. Then I was part of the ISO. I was also part of MiddCAM (Middlebury College Access Mentors). And I was part of the Financial Aid Committee for Cornerstone Education, an organization that helps Indonesian kids access college abroad! I also tried out SNEG (Sunday Night Environmental Group) and GlobeMed, an organization related to global health equity. Next year I won’t do PJN anymore, so hopefully this will free up space to dedicate more time for the other things.

This semester I am so grateful, to finally be able to fulfill my dream of strolling through campus, meeting new people, studying in the various beautiful spots on campus, and participating in in-person activities. I made new friends, had great conversations, learned to ski, went hiking, conducted biological experiments for Animal Behavior, and witnessed the crystal winter melt to a blossoming spring! I explored Middlebury town, with its quaint shops and beautiful river running straight through the middle of town. I organized a Spring tournament for the International Students’ Organization.

I think I felt at home especially during Ramadhan, because at that time I got to meet new friends who I fasted and broke fast with every day. We watched a Bollywood show, had hot cocoa talks, and a dance party in my room. It felt nice to be part of a smaller community. Of course, we also realized that we needed to be more inclusive of other sects in Islam, as we realized that some people felt excluded due to the different ways that they practiced Islam. I hope that by being an unofficial member of MSA next year, me and the other members of the board can help to solve this issue. I also grieved with friends when news of violence in Palestine erupted once again. There was a heaviness too in my heart when I learned of how this campus responded to the mistreatment of a student who advocated for Palestinian rights…

Anyways, I know that this is a very broad description of what happened this semester. There were many highs and lows, for sure, and though every day is different there is a commonality. I think next semester I can make a vlog to record a “day in the life” sort of thing so you can get a clearer picture of my life here!

Future Thoughts

When I was younger, when I thought of being a college student, it had always meant for me a time of being active and engaged, not only intellectually, but also politically and humanely. Perhaps this is because in history and in the news, I have heard so much of how university students started a protest, a rally, a revolution, and so on. I always looked up to those “youths,” and now… I am one of them!

I realize that one voice may not count in the sea of voices, where multinational corporations or politicians are storms with lightning that shake the seas, and I am a tiny droplet. But with multiple voices, all chanting to the beat of justice, I think we really can make a difference. I only hope that in the next three years, I can be one of those voices. I hope I can stand up for humanity, justice, and the things I believe are right.

I talked about this with a graduate the other day, and she said there are many ways to be an activist. It can take the form of social media activism, or raising awareness even within your own small circle. Yes, I have heard that. But I want to do more. To be part of something bigger. I want to push and nag and pressure the powerful forces of the world.

It is a matter of where to dedicate my time and energy. Which causes to fight for. Because although there are many important issues in the world, I am only one person, and I cannot tackle everything. It is more beneficial to focus on one issue and pursue it wholeheartedly rather than spreading myself thin.

I think if you ask, I am passionate about environmental conservation, environmental justice, gender equality, human rights, global health, education, decolonialization… Perhaps where I can start is through student organizations, and taking a more active role in them. I will figure it out.

Besides these abstract ideas, I also hope to have more adventures! Middlebury is a beautiful place, with so much nature to explore. Next semester I want to go canoeing/rowing/kayaking, downhill skiing, sailing, camping, and gardening.

In terms of organizations and activities, next year I will be an FYC (First-Year Counselor), a TA, the Co-Director for Events in the ISO, a Climate Action Capacity Fellow, and I would still be part of MiddCAM and Cornerstone Education. I hope to also get involved in a more fun club, like an outdoors club, MiddMasti, or acapella. I might also devote more time for GlobeMed or SNEG. And I will try to be active in Student’s Justice for Palestine and the MSA. There is also the business from this summer that I would have to continue. Whew, that sounds like a lot of things… well. We can drop one or two if it gets too much.

Thank you for reading. I know that was a lot of random stuff all tossed into one, but I hope there is some thread of sense in it all. I hope you have a wonderful week! 🙂

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