Five Years Later, Wesleyan Is Still The Best Decision I’ve Ever Made

Last week, my new boss asked me about my “five-year plan.” She said the phrase with the self-aware eye-roll that it deserves as we talked about my future. Where do I want to be in five years? I felt a familiar snarl of helpless laughter in my throat. Alive, fed and preferably living in a house with better natural light than my current dank apartment. That’s pretty much all I’ve got planned.

I am past-oriented. Most of the time I am sorting through memory to find meaning and weave patterns, to understand what’s already come to pass. My brain focuses on understanding the past rather than plotting the future. Ask me what I think of where I was five years ago and I can paint you a world thick with themes and forget-me-not motifs. I was trying to break out of the virgin/whore dichotomy and let go of the first boy to ever love me right. I had a plan then, a haphazard move to California to work for an erotica publisher. That plan went tits up when I found out the brand was deep in the red. Plans typically don’t serve me well.

The irony of being asked about my five-year plan on the eve of my five-year college reunion was a nice literary touch, as far as experiences-turned-essays go. The only successful plan I’ve ever had was when I knew I had to get into Wesleyan as a teenager. I would do whatever was necessary: get up my GPA, smash SAT records—you name it, I’d do it. When forced by circumstance to make a decision about my future, I pick a direction, take a deep breath, and throw myself forward. Large life choices are the product of gut. Wesleyan was all gut.

My purpose in life, if I can use such a lofty phrase, is to tell stories about what has happened: all I know of my future is that it in five years, I’ll doubtless be writing about this moment right now, ruminating over my college reunion while on the train back to New York City.

I’m self-conscious about how much I miss Wesleyan. Am I some feminist Van Wilder reboot, a leftist with big dreams and a hefty case of arrested development? I miss the lack of responsibility, the meal plan, the afternoons I slept until 4pm because I’d been out until 6am with the next great love of my life, or at least of the night. But it’s more than that. I miss the unapologetic, fierce idealism of Wesleyan’s student body. I miss the sheer determination to fix everything, to burn down systems, to take to the streets, to make protest zines and write term papers about sex work and challenge each other to do better, be better, live better, love better. Wesleyan breeds truth-tellers and whistleblowers, rabble-rousers and cultural menaces. It’s where I learned my values and tested my voice over the airwaves of WESU and on the pages of student publications. I learned that education is a privilege, and you have to pay it forward by fighting to make the world more just. The good fight is our responsibility, and Wesleyan graduates all claim a corner of oppression and go about chipping at it for the rest of our lives. That’s the story, at least. I still believe it.

There are friends of mine who were desperate to leave Wesleyan because they saw the cracks in the school: an administration that turned a blind eye to systemic sexual abuse, a cluster of fraternities who stole women’s humanity on pool tables and had the nerve to complain that they were the victims when they faced consequences, a competitive culture of activism that can feel more performative than genuine. Wesleyan students tear at each other out of fear, desperate to be the most woke because that means validation and fame. There isn’t much room for learning who you are if you don’t already know on Day One, leading myself and many of my bisexual friends to keep our queerness quiet because it wasn’t as “radical” as we thought it needed to be. As students, we didn’t give each other much space to fuck up and explore, to hurt and make amends, to ask uncomfortable questions. I will gladly die on the hill of defending liberal arts colleges from the accusation that they are anti-free speech, that they are too politically correct—they are not. These students are testing out what a better world would look like, and we should follow in their footsteps. But people are messy, neither good nor bad. We make mistakes. We are hypocrites. We are always learning.

A lot of people approached me this weekend to chat about my writing, about hookup culture and herpes and abuse. One woman asked me if my ex was her friend’s abuser (he wasn’t, there are many more perpetrators hurting students on our college campuses today than we’d like to accept). One man apologized to me for not having done more to stand up to misogyny in his frat, and I thanked him and admitted I had no idea he was even present at the time. A dear friend and I played beer pong and talked about restorative justice and how healing looks so different from what I imagined at age twenty-two. I used to scoff at the idea of forgiveness because it felt forced on me by a world that wanted to cover up what is done to girls and young women. Five years later, I realize I’ve already forgiven. I’m ready to be whole again.

I love Wesleyan. I love it more tonight than I ever have because I see it for its faults and scars. I see the progressive striving and the iconoclast professors and the bland logo redesign and the electric and dehumanizing hookup culture. The administration wants us to be more like Williams and Amherst but they will never tame the radical energy that flows through campus like a drug. Wesleyan made me who I am, angry and determined and judgmental and generous. I am not fearless, not superhuman, not perfect, not even always very nice, but I am a fighter. Never give in. Fight to the end when might and right shall win.

I have no money to donate to the school. I won’t say the school is perfect, or perfectly run. It’s my responsibility as an alum to not turn away from the ugliness, the Greek life, the inaccessibility, the exploitative treatment of campus workers, the crumbling condition of student housing, the lack of real racial and class diversity, and, closest to my heart, the silence about STIs, rape, and intimate partner violence. I am a proud Wesleyan alum who knows this school can do better, be better, and stop failing its most vulnerable students.

What’s my five-year plan? I have no idea, obviously. But I’ll be writing about my home and the school that made me who I am. I’ll write about the hunting ground of Fountain backyards, about how everyone becomes friends in the dark of Foss Hill, about finally telling the truth at 5am in narrow twin XL beds. I’ll write about love and sex and identity and shame. Hopefully in all that writing, I’ll be part of the fight to make Wesleyan better for the bright young rebels matriculating this fall.

Wesleyan, hit me up. I’m at your disposal.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

2 thoughts on “Five Years Later, Wesleyan Is Still The Best Decision I’ve Ever Made

  1. A classmate of mine (1989) who I had just seen at our 30th Wesleyan reunion pointed me here. It was my first reunion, and this crystallized much of what has been crowding my brain the past few days. Thanks for this.

  2. Well sister, I feel the same way about old Wes, and I’ve just come back from my 40th reunion. If you think misogyny and careless abuse were rampant when you were there, take a time capsule to 1976. Nonetheless, my classmates have shaped lives that give back without asking for permission or praise. They’ve been thoughtful parents and have tried to overcome the biases and ignorance of white male dominated industries. They are so freaking interesting in their early 60’s it reminds me mostly of what I miss about college.. Smart, open-minded, creative people talking about everything important, all the time. Best decision I ever made too. Glad to see you’re leaning in..just like most Wesleyan grads do.

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