High Anxiety

Rod Searcey

It's still dark when Sydnee Bernstein and her mom, Jaye, arrive on campus for Freshman Orientation. Sydnee's been warned to be early so she can "get the good bed." Plus, she says, she was "freaking out" with first-day jitters. So she roused her mom before dawn for the trip to campus from Palo Alto's Country Inn Motel, where they stayed after driving from Los Angeles. At 6:30 a.m., she's waiting to get into her new home: Branner Hall. "I brought a book, but I really can't see it," Sydnee admits.

At 6:45, resident assistant Jen Splansky emerges bleary-eyed to tie balloons to the 10-foot-high BRANNER letters splayed across the front lawn like the HOLLYWOOD sign. An hour later, half the dorm's 180 freshmen -- most with their parents -- are lined up. Prince's "1999" blares from nearby speakers. When 8 o'clock comes, the RAs switch on a microphone and turn to the first person in line. "Welcome to Branner, Sydnee!" they bellow. She's handed a set of keys, a name tag and an Orientation schedule. Sydnee races to her second-floor room, a two-room suite for three people, and claims the "good bed" -- the single, not the bunk.

I'm standing on the lawn recalling my own first day at Branner, in 1981. ("The year I was born," Sydnee says helpfully.) I flew out from Chicago the day before and stayed overnight in Berkeley with a friend of my brother's. He dropped me off at Stanford in time for lunch, which I ate in the Branner Hall dining room at a table full of strangers. I know what I want to tell Sydnee: the next few days will be transforming. Some of the people I met during Orientation became friends for life. They stood up at my wedding, celebrated the birth of my daughter, supported me in difficult times. This fall I spent a Tahoe weekend with seven Stanford buddies; three of us were hallmates freshman year.

Of course it's hard for the new freshmen to imagine all that this morning. There are boxes to move, trunks to unpack, bank accounts to open, parents to hug. In fact, beneath the hubbub you'll find more anxiety than poignancy. And it's not just the students who have that queasy feeling in the pit of their stomachs. In "Now It's Michael's Turn," a father writes of dropping off his freshman son at Florence Moore Hall. Phil Taubman, '70, a New York Times editor, resists the urge to show Michael all his favorite Stanford haunts, settling instead for a trip to the shopping center to stock the dorm room with hangers and a soap dish.

The truth is that college angst begins in high school and lasts well beyond Orientation. At the front end, the anxiety over admission has spawned a booming college counseling industry -- tutoring, test prep, school selection, essay coaching -- which, inevitably, has fueled more anxiety. In "Student Counsel," writer Jeff Brazil guides readers through this world and raises a difficult question: we may have misgivings about the growth in the use of private counselors, but on behalf of our kids, can we afford to ignore the trend?

Once on campus, as filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller have demonstrated, freshmen can take a while to find themselves. In 1993, Goldfine, '81, and Geller, MA '85, released the critically acclaimed Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm, a documentary based on the year the two spent hanging out in Wilbur Hall. Now they have made a sequel, Now and Then: From Frosh to Seniors. The film, which premiered October 1, tracks 10 students through Stanford and shows, among other things, the growth in their personal and academic confidence.

I remember Don Kennedy speaking to this point during my own Freshman Orientation. At an assembly in Memorial Auditorium, he told us he knew we were overwhelmed by the accomplishments of our new classmates. But, he promised, our sense of self would grow. "You'll spend your whole freshman year wondering how you got in," I remember him saying. "And you'll spend your whole sophomore year wondering how they got in."

Three weeks after she arrived, I checked in with Sydnee Bernstein. She had attended her first football game, done her own laundry for the first time, and picked and repicked her fall-quarter classes -- five times. She spoke of the friends she had made in the dorm and around campus. As for studying, well, it was difficult because "people in Branner party every single night." (At least that much hasn't changed.) She had taken to "hiding" in a basement seminar room, where few people disturbed her. Looking back to her first day, she seemed a bit sheepish about how stressed out she had been: "I'm having the time of my life."

You can send e-mail to Bob at bobcohn@stanford.edu