Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.
By William Nelligan
I remember that first day in my college dorm room. Asking myself questions like, "why did I get the bottom bunk?" Wondering what my roommates would be like, whether they'd smell or have strange sleeping habits, unusual mannerisms or odd friends.
My idea of a great conversation revolves around a recent Supreme Court case or major political breakthrough. That first day, I didn't find a single book by McCullough or Caro among my roommates' stuff. Two of them didn't list a political view on Facebook. This wasn't boding well for me so far.
But beyond my specific concerns, there was that looming worry, the one that every single college student in America - scratch that, the world - has in the back of our heads: "will I fit in?"
Now, as peers of mine from all across the nation hit the mid-point of their second week in college, I'm sure many of them have found the same answer I have: no.
In the 23 and one-half hours I'm awake each day - or at least, that's what it feels like - I'm really starting to get to know my fellow students in the dorm. Like the guy who sings so beautifully he was actually recruited by college a capella groups, the girl who by the end of high school had interned at two law firms (a private one, and a DA's office), or the guy who speaks fluent Hebrew and has traveled to Israel more than a half-dozen times in 18 years of life.
The diversity of talents and passions here is truly breathtaking, and two weeks in, I realize our time here isn't going to be defined at all by what makes us similar or helps us "fit in." After all the initial jitters, the awkward decisions about where to sit at breakfast, and the attempts at matching profile pictures to actual faces, it's the cognitive dissonance of not fitting in that will make college such a transformative time in our lives.
Today, I think about the power of that cognitive dissonance more than ever. It hasn't been a good few weeks for consideration and respectful debate. The story of Park 51 in Lower Manhattan never seems to end, Glenn Beck never seems to stop "restoring honor," and Jan Brewer never seems to know when to stop - or, now it seems, start - talking about "dangerous" immigrants. It's all an incredible testament to what happens when we focus too much on "fitting in" and on the individuals and institutions who do and don't, rather than on respecting differing viewpoints and ideas, even when they're repulsive to our own. Even when they come from people like Glenn Beck, Jan Brewer, or Sarah Palin.
The second day here, I remember walking into the dorm room across the hall and stopping my introduction dead in its tracks. First I saw a Glenn Beck book on the shelf by the door. Then I saw a camouflage backpack. "Who is this guy?" I wondered. The camo backpack turned out to be a mandatory accoutrement for ROTC, and the Glenn Beck book was, well, a Glenn Beck book.
More importantly: though I wouldn't have guessed then, this Glenn Beck fan has quickly become one of my closest friends in the dorm. Not only do I enjoy spending time with him, but I actually enjoy the fact that we differ on so many political issues. I enjoy bouncing around ideas with someone I know will disagree, and I don't hesitate to say that I think he feels the same way. I've grown from encounters like these. Encounters that force me to strengthen my own arguments, and to recognize that there are living, breathing people on "the other side," not merely two-dimensional caricatures. This is what college is about. Strengthening and expanding your mind, and forcing you to think differently. So far, it's working.
Maybe Mr. Beck and I can both learn something from that.
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