• March 25, 2021 |

    Navigating Nerdiness

    Who am I in college?

    article by , illustrated by

    Last August, my best friend and I took our usual loop around the neighborhood. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we talked about our hopes for college. She would be leaving in a few weeks; I, like other Brown first-years, would be at home for the fall. But we spoke about the future like it was close enough to touch. 

    “I just don’t know who I want to be in college,” I told her. “I mean, it’s not exactly like the nerd angle is super unique at Brown.”

    She laughed. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” 

    Early on in high school, I decided I wouldn’t try to be conventionally “cool,” so I built my identity around being unabashedly bookish and geeky. I joined the debate team, ran the school’s Harry Potter club, and waxed poetic about educational song parodies. Though my classmates cared about grades, self-proclaimed “nerds” were rare. If I slapped that label onto myself, people usually wouldn’t ask too many questions. I’d heard from older friends and various well-meaning family members that cliquey distinctions like “nerd” didn’t apply in college. Though I know this was meant to reassure me, it worried me instead. Without the comfort of that persona, it looked like I would have to acquire—gasp—a real personality.  

    Over the fall semester, I spent countless hours wondering what sort of persona I should embrace. The edgy philosophy major pontificating about nihilism? The social butterfly who seemed to balance it all effortlessly? The law school-bound go-getter? Obviously, some options were out of the question. Anna the jock or Anna the engineer was just…not happening. But the transition to college seemed like a rare opportunity for radical self-definition, and I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to start fresh.

    I’m not alone in this mindset. Google “college reinvention” and almost five million results come up. Countless listicles and advice columns detail ways to make a change and realize your “true self” by the time freshman move-in begins. During the summer and the fall semester, I read many of these pieces, wondering what to leave behind and what to keep. One Huffington Post article advised readers that reinvention means “shedding parts of yourself that you’ve outgrown, or maybe worn as a mask.” I knew that, for me, the general specter of nerdiness had acted as a sort of shield to hide behind. So I resolved to leave the Harry Potter obsession and the song parodies at home in California to find some sort of “truer” and more mature self. 

    But one September afternoon, I got home from work and saw an email reminder—club fair happening now! I considered skipping it, but the omnipresent voice of FOMO urged me forward. I went to generic pitches, put my name on email lists, asked a few extremely inane questions, and was about to call it a day when a name on the spreadsheet caught my eye. “Quidditch Appreciation Club.” I hesitated. I had decided against being the “Harry Potter” kid again. But something motivated me to click on the link anyway.

    I logged into the meeting and was immediately greeted by the enthusiasm of two older players, who launched into a detailed description of game rules and strategies. Somehow I hadn’t processed that, yeah, the Quidditch Appreciation Club would play Quidditch. The game sounded entirely beyond my capabilities. Running? Catching? Scoring? All a big nope for a girl whose closest brush with sports was the debate team. But their passion was infectious, and when they shared that the team would be doing Harry Potter Kahoot that Friday night, the old siren song of nerdiness called to me. What the hell? I thought. Why not? I put my name on the email list and said it was the best pitch I’d heard that day. Without missing a beat, the incomparable Kate Cobey said, “Well, we’re the Quidditch team. We know our way around a pitch.” As silly as it sounds, that was the moment for me. Quick thinking and bad puns? I was in.

    That Friday, I joined the Zoom meeting, a little nervous. After months of quarantine, my social skills, especially with new people, were rusty, to say the least. But as the veteran team members launched into introductions, their genuine kindness and sarcastic humor drew me in. As we answered progressively more ridiculous trivia questions, I found myself laughing more than I had in months. Maybe this is the place for me, I thought. Over the next few weeks, Friday game nights became the thing I looked forward to the most. At that point, my friends from high school were all busy with their first semester, but I knew that at the end of the week, I’d be able to commiserate about readings or utterly fail at Among Us with the Quidditch team. And as the fall stretched on, Dungeons and Dragons sessions with the team joined Friday game nights in the weekly lineup. I even dragged my unathletic self to the park one time to practice throwing and catching with my dad, terrorizing innocent squirrels with my poor aim in the process. Despite my intention to rethink my identity, I increasingly started to think of myself as a “Quidditch kid”—which wasn’t exactly the transformation I’d envisioned.

    My investment in the team was most intense during the first few lonely weeks of Quiet Period. Whenever I felt that old uncertainty about my place in the Brown community rising inside me, I told myself that I knew who I was. I was the nerd. Done. Simple. I craved the comfort of a conclusive label in the midst of personal upheaval, so I clung to the role I’d decided to inhabit. When meeting other freshmen online, I’d bring up the team within the first few sentences of introduction. I’d finally done it—decided that this was who I would be on campus. 

    But as Quiet Period came to an end and campus started opening up, my view of my own identity grew more complicated. Yes, I played Quidditch and would ramble on about it if someone got me started. But I also loved long walks around the city and the 3-5 p.m. Hay slot and Jo’s veggie burgers. I discussed readings for Political Philosophy and drank burnt coffee and laughed until I cried with new friends. During one semi-delirious late-night conversation, a friend told me that she didn’t know who she wanted to be here, either. “We all had our niche in high school,” she said. “It’s just so different here.” 

    She was absolutely right. And I talked to more and more people who felt the same way. The pandemic exacerbated this, of course. Theater kids couldn’t perform in a typical way. Social butterflies had to weigh safety considerations. But even without the uncertainties of COVID-19, I started to realize that, as trite as it sounds, I didn’t need to fit all aspects of myself into a coherent narrative. College started to seem less like a time for reinvention and more like a time for self-discovery. I could just take a breath and see where each week would lead. 

    Don’t get me wrong—a few months in, and the Quidditch team continues to be one of my favorite things about Brown. I still play D&D on Sunday afternoons. If I see you in the Ratty line, I will still try to recruit you. (Sorry.) But I’m starting to realize that I don’t need to conflate what I do with who I am. I can just stick with what feels right, and the pieces will fall into place.