The Onion Theory (A Freshman’s Survival Guide)

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Whether you’re throwing together a Greek salad, cooking up some French onion soup or even just walking past the kitchen while your mom is vigorously working on her famous veggie chili, we have all been exposed to the burning, eye-throbbing pain of chopping an onion. It starts with a little subtle discomfort as you peel back the skin. By the time you get to the inner layers of the onion, the discomfort is more like burning. Eventually, you peel to the core of the onion and start frantically dicing, nervously sweating, and fumbling to wipe your tears with the sleeves of your sweater, all while ignoring the bloodshot red eyes this deceivingly innocent vegetable has inflicted.

All you want to do is throw the onion across the kitchen and just walk away.

But you can’t.

Because now, you’re too far in.

This is what it feels like to be a freshman.

Going to university, whether it’s 24 hours or 24 minutes away from home, means leaving behind the identity you spent your whole life cultivating. This identity is more than just the characteristics that define your personality. It’s also the people, places, milestones and culture that shape who you are. At university, you slowly peel back the layers of your identity to recreate yourself almost from scratch.

And just like peeling the layers of the onion, peeling the layers of our own identity is brutally painful. And it only gets worse the closer to the core you get.

At the beginning you might feel overwhelmed by your environment, as you try to get used to new people, new attitudes, and new perspectives. In order to make new friends, you have to appreciate these fresh identities for who they are, rather than comparing it to identities you were familiar with at home. In order to soak up the new culture, you have to be open-minded and adapt from the culture you’ve been accustomed to your whole life. Just like the first layer of the onion, there’s still a long way to go on the journey of self-renewal

After you pass the first layer, you start pushing both your physical and mental boundaries. It is when you start developing habits or interacting with people that you never in your infinite imagination would have expected to interact with. It is when you try as hard as possible to hold on to those extra layers that have been sheltering you for years. It is when you start surprising your old identity.

These layers are the most painful to peel back.

So much goes on when you start school, you can only process your immediate surroundings. Only once you’re settled in can you take the time to understand the exhaustion and disorientation of your thoughts.

It’s true that onions make you cry, but the pain is multiplied by our perception that the onion will cause us pain. We expect the pain, dread it, and the pain feels worse.

With all the horror we hear about starting college: the deteriorating homesickness, the confusion and the loneliness, we tend to think a lot about these feelings before we even begin to experience them. In an effort to mentally prepare ourselves for what is coming, we create an unconscious fear. A fear that we will regret the decisions we make, or a fear of life after college. We think so much about this fear that, whether or not it ends up well-founded, it has already created a permanent burden on our emotional state. Even when we do have good days, we worry it isn't supposed to feel that way because the norm is to be utterly miserable as a freshman. So in an effort to eliminate disappointment, we antagonize our situation. We think about this feeling, and this feeling only.

I know what I have been saying makes being a freshmen sound like a lousy and abominable phase in life and I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy to get through, because I could never know if it is. But I can say it eventually ends, especially when you have curated methods to deal with it like getting through it as fast as possible, in the case of the onion, or finding good friends to help bear you through the pain.

Two months into my freshman year, I had already met hundreds of different people. Almost every day you are forced to interact with someone new, and you can never tell if they will end up being one of your closest friends or just another acquaintance. On the first day of classes, I met my current closest friend. Little did I know that she would later become the same person to sit right by my side when I was put on an ambulance and taken to the hospital. Despite what you hear, most of the time, the connections you make are not instantly there. There is no spark and there is no immediate reckoning. Just like any relationship, the more you get to know a person the more you realize how similar or different you are, and that could be just what you are looking for or far from it.

Having someone there, not to distract you from the pain of the onion, but to sit by you and make it even slightly more bearable, makes all the difference. And the same goes for bearing life as a freshman. This friendship became the first part of my newer identity that I had established. The first permanent fixture in the completely new life I took on. It was the first layer of my new untouched onion. So, instead of trying to put back together the layers of your onion, grab yourself a new one. Come to terms with the fact that your old onion has been fried and thrown into the soup, no longer retrievable for your new recipe. But also don't completely abandon the older recipe which you have been working on.