Senior Retrospective: Rainah Umlauf

These last few days (well, weeks, and in some sense this whole year) have been incredibly strange. I am inhabiting a space that I know is precarious and temporary, and yet is still my tangible day-to-day reality. Even now, we are still here at Vassar. I will see my friends this afternoon, I will sleep in my TA. But this rational understanding that I am still here is overshadowed by the knowledge that this tangible Vassar reality is finite.

All of this has been grieving-in-anticipation of the loss that will truly become real only after we move out and away. I’m appreciating the moments of joy in anticipation of their finality. Although the Vassar experience can be painful and exhausting, I’ve found that for me it has also been a period of growth and finding friendships.

What gives particular shape to my grief are the student groups that I’ve become a part of and led. I was one of the captains of the Quidditch team this year, and for the last few weeks I would often step back and dwell in the realness of it, knowing that next year my underclassmen friends would carry on this amazing community…without me.

I found myself thinking: What will I do every time this club meets for the next three years? Will I feel a twinge of pain every Thursday night at 10 p.m. to know that my teammates are gathered despite my absence? It took me a whole year before I really found my people, and I joined hesitantly. Now I am a leader, I helped recruit and teach our freshmen, welcome them into the team. Next year, four of them will inherit the team’s leadership. Passing it off was one of the happiest things I’ve ever done, and watching them lead their first few practices made me incredibly proud. But it was also deeply melancholy.

I’ve found myself appreciating my fellow seniors, many to whom I have never spoken, in their own leadership roles, knowing that they, too, must have similar kind of fellowship in their own organizations. It happens countless times, with people I’ve barely talked to; whenever I see Ryan music-direct an a cappella group or Christa gather the Monkeys, I remember how we were all freshmen together and that now we’ve found communities and are now helping to build it for others.

For me, saying goodbye to underclassmen feels different than goodbyes to each other. When I’ve said goodbye to my underclassmen friends, it’s been a heartbreaking goodbye: knowing that they’ll still be here in this reality and that they’ll continue on with these familiar spaces.

I dread hearing “Oh, you’ll come back to visit,” which I find to be an artificial attempt to placate the pain of goodbye. I will come back, but it will be different; I will no longer be an insider who shares in the everyday life of the org. Next year, in the long spaces during which I am not visiting, there will be new freshmen who don’t know who I am, another generation of org leaders, new inside jokes made at after-practice dinners.

Of course, I know rationally that it is my time to move on. I recognize in these underclassmen the differences between us: they have so much more Vassar-centric growing to do, in ways that I cannot express to them because I didn’t even realize that I had grown in those ways except retroactively.

I recently watched my first-year time capsule video, and I was struck less by what I said than how I said it: I can easily see now how much stronger I’ve become—less timid, more confident and articulate.

This obviously hasn’t been everyone’s experience at Vassar. Vassar’s flaws are undeniable and it doesn’t treat everyone equally. Moving on comes as an inexhaustible joy to many, which is a position that I deeply respect. But moving on will be a transition for all of us. I wonder if my grief would all be easier if I knew where I was going next. I think it probably would. But it’s also a grieving regardless.

I’ve found that saying goodbye to my friends in the Class of 2017 is easier. There is a sense of mutual moving-on, that we will each go forward into different places and realities. We will have to build new lives, apart from the things we knew together these last four years. I have better faith that my senior friends will make an effort to stay in touch as we leave the familiar. They are all so strong-of-will that they will continue our connection no matter how different our day-today lives turn out.

As I have been doing all year, I remind myself that we are still here. This grieving-in-anticipation has been dreadful enough, and I wonder what will it feel like when it is just grieving. After we take off our robes and return to our hometowns or new jobs or summer plans, what will it feel like to process the loss in a place that is estranged from here?

These feelings are not easily washed away; I do rationally know that we will all move on to great adventures and rewarding futures, but in this moment, that’s not what I want to hear.

I’ll need a little while to grieve this loss, to become accustomed to not being able to walk across campus to my closest friends, to grow nonchalant about the times when my organizations meet weekly.

It will happen, for all of us. But I hope it happens, for me, not because I am trying not to think about it, to will the loss away into unrecognition, but rather because I am gradually coming to terms with the loss as a painful but inextricable part of the things that I’ve gained here.


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