Campus Life

Advice for a first-year college student redux

Thoughts on the missing tactile element from an alumnus

In my previous column, I was on sure footing, statistically. Ten percent of you first-year students will be in the bottom of your class academically. My warning this time is on shakier ground when it comes to universal applicability. Its applicability to you depends on whether or not you are a physical affection enthusiast.

In mid-October 1970, I started to have a vague, uneasy feeling. I couldn’t put my finger on it, which, ironically, was the problem. 

It wasn’t until after Thanksgiving break that I realized the source of the problem: it had been more than six weeks since anyone had touched me. If you, like me, are a tactile member of a touchy family (and you never spent more than two weeks away from home), you have been hugged and kissed every day of your life until now. The tap was turned off the day you set foot in Building 7.

There are a number of possible solutions. Certainly, I saw both wonderful and awful first-year relationships among my friends, some of which were no doubt an only slightly disguised cry of “touch me!” 

One easy solution, if you are from the East Coast, is to go home for the weekend, and load up on loving touches. I am from Portland, Oregon and could only afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, winter break, and spring break. I had no girlfriend at MIT and no prospects. Hugging strangers wasn’t a thing then (as it probably is no longer now). Plus, I didn’t know I needed it.

Had I known what my problem was, I could have attempted to ameliorate the symptoms by some means other than spending every waking non-class minute (and a number of class minutes) at WMBR or The Tech. For example, I could have taken advantage of the Institute’s excellent counseling services. I could have talked about it with my friends. I did, actually, but you can only get so much help from amateurs. You could even (God forbid!) talk to your parents about it.

Part of the problem is that the symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of many other mental maladies peculiar to the first year. Homesickness presents much the same way: a feeling of disorientation, of “something is missing”. A feeling of “disassociation,” as if you are sleepwalking through your life, or even someone else’s life. Sadness that doesn’t make it all the way to depression, but which is hard to shake. A feeling of isolation while surrounded by new people, places, and things. A disinterest in your school work (or insecurity about your ability to do it) can be another symptom, although, in my case, the roots of that problem proved to be deeper and different.

Another possible solution is to start a relationship, but my knowledge in that area, being half-century out-of-date, would be useless. In short, while I have advice, I can’t solve the problem. My hope in writing this is that I can help you recognize a condition that is often baffling and difficult to diagnose. Trying to understand a sudden lack of tactile support for some of us is like a fish trying to understand a lack of water: you’ve been swimming in it your whole life, and now it is gone. You barely have words for it, because it’s been as ubiquitous as breathing.

Paul E. Schindler, Jr. earned a B.S. in Management in 1974, after serving a term as editor in chief of The Tech. He can be found at