First-Year Column: The Pursuit of Happiness at CMC

I’ve been thinking a lot about the international student experience at Claremont McKenna College lately. “Imagine yourself leaving your parents, flying over 15 time zones … people here speak a different language. You’re kind of excited and kind of lost,” I wrote in an article for the Forum

This is a true statement, at least for me. Despite all the excitement of arriving in a new country and starting a different life, I was largely overwhelmed. I remember my frustration when trying to join a conversation about music that I’ve never heard of (who’s that Bob Dylan guy?), when people commented on my country as “the graveyard of human rights” (it’s not that bad), and when everyone around me was so excited about networking or joining ten clubs (do I really have to know everyone at my school?). As someone who is usually on the quieter side, I was lost in CMC’s busy and loud atmosphere.

As a first-year international student, I couldn’t be objective when working on my article; my own experience convinces me that other students must have dealt with some of the same frustrations that I have been dealing with before they integrated into the culture of CMC. Yet, perhaps due to my limited sample size, all of the interviewees assured me that apart from some difficulties in adjusting to the academics here, in general they met little trouble. 

“CMC is the best place ever,” one said to me. 

I was a little doubtful. While I fully admit that CMC is an amazing place, I’m certainly skeptical of the idea that everyone finds it perfect. 

However, when I started to write my article and listen to the interviews I had collected, a strong sense of pride and love for CMC overwhelmed me. Yes, we’re one of the happiest colleges in America, we have a strong focus on leadership, we are extremely selective … the list goes on. In short, I was convinced. As a college student, I should be happy with classes and clubs and networking and partying. If everyone around me is happy, why shouldn’t I be? Suddenly those frustrating moments were gone, replaced by happiness about my life and my school.

An enlightening moment came, however, when I read Jack Houghteling’s article in the Forum, “Commencement Address 2014: The Message We Need to Send.” Houghteling writes that “it feels like you are told to be happy. As much as I love this school … I fear that CMC students are sometimes scared to speak their mind, and maybe even scared to accept a reality where people are not happy 100 percent of time [sic].”

This article has been liked by 273 people on Facebook. It appears I’m not alone after all.

At a place like CMC, where I’m surrounded by driven and brilliant peers and friendly faculty members, it seems easy to keep positive. When you’re following the CMC spirit and loading your schedule with numerous club meetings, classes, and parties, it feels like you’re on the right track, because people around you are doing the same thing. We cheer each other on. But are these feelings real? It is frightening to think deeply about our lives and question the truthfulness of our happiness. Are we just being told to be happy, or are we truly happy?

Looking back, I was so affected by the cheerfulness in the interviews that I had conducted that I wrote an overwhelmingly positive article. But in spite of that, I largely ignored my own struggles and the struggles of those who had refrained from giving me an opinion. It’s hard to face the doubts lying deep in our hearts. It may be the time to admit that we’re not always perfectly happy, but the pursuit of happiness starts with being frank and truthful.

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