On the last night of this year’s FOCUS on New Haven pre-orientation program, my FOCUS group gathered in the Hopper Digital Media Room. My eyes traveled along the string of lights that adorned the walls. It was a little past 9 p.m., and I was exhausted from the long day of sanitizing kids’ toys at the childcare center where we were volunteering. I could tell that everyone else was really tired, too. But as we sunk into the cushions of couches and chairs for the last night of the program, a sense of comfort replaced my exhaustion as we anticipated one of the final activities: Hometowns.
Until this point, Hometowns had been only an abstract idea. I had heard various things about them from the friends I had made in the past week. Some students created thirty-slide Powerpoint presentations to tell their life stories; others made Spotify playlists. In my own group, the word “Hometowns” had only come up once the night before. I wished that I had more information, that I could prepare in some way. When my FOCUS leaders formally introduced what we were doing, I was suddenly nervous.
In their formulation of the Hometown, we each had seven minutes to answer the following three questions:
1. Where are you from?
2. What do you like?
3. What’s important to you?
My mind started racing. How could I possibly condense eighteen years of my life into a seven-minute spiel? I began creating a mental bullet point list of milestones that defined my time on this Earth.
And then we began going around, talking about our lives before Yale. And yes, in a way, Hometowns did feel a little forced. They were a test of vulnerability, an attempt at purposefully letting our guard down.
So much conversation at Yale feels forced. But typically, strained exchanges of “How was your summer?” stayed stuck at the surface level. In that first week between move-in and the start of classes (and even when I meet someone new now), I asked and answered another set of three questions:
1. Where are you from? (to mean location, e.g., I’m from Minnesota, and nothing deeper)
2. What residential college are you in?
3. What’s your prospective major?
That was it. When you were done, there was nothing left to say. Part of the reason why many of us are at Yale is to make connections and to interact with other interesting people—but if you meet someone once and only know where they used to live, what college they’re in, and what they’re academically interested in, have you really connected with them at all?
Although our shared Hometowns rarely felt organic, having the opportunity to tell them was refreshing. The differences were palpable, because the stories shared during Hometowns were so much more genuine. I had spent so much time with my orientation group that even though we had only known each other for three days, it felt like an eternity.
Time is not the sole factor in the formation of relationships, especially at the beginning of college. You can create a memory with someone in just a few minutes or hours. By this point, my mind was crammed full of memories with the people in my FOCUS group. Every time someone revealed something about themselves that I hadn’t known before, it added to everything I already knew about them. They were morphing into three-dimensional versions of themselves: more fleshed out, more substantial, more real.
In the month since orientation, my fellow FOCUS group members have dispersed; I do not see them as often as I did before. But when we meet up for reunion lunches, or I run into one of them on the street, I feel at ease, because we know each other. If one of us says, “I have missed you,” I hear the double meaning, and the inside joke still rings true.
Many years from now, I know that I won’t remember the details of everyone’s hometown stories. But I will always remember the warm, glowing feeling I got in my chest as each person shared a piece of who they are.