When DaShaun Wright arrived in New Haven, Conn., in August to begin his freshman year at Yale University, the 18-year-old Modestan figured the greatest stress or excitement he'd endure would be the transition from the Central Valley to the Ivy League.
Two catastrophic moments in time changed that, however. First came Hurricane Sandy, which pounded the Eastern Seaboard in October. Though New Haven managed to escape the brunt of the superstorm, two of his dorm mates' families from the New York area saw their homes damaged and were left without power for weeks.
Yale officials sent out emails telling the students to hunker down and wait it out, Wright said.
"It was wild," he said. "They canceled two or three days of school. They gave us rations. It was good bonding time with my suite mates. We stayed inside. I got my big papers and things done."
Then, on Dec. 14, he received a text from his aunt, Shannon Hodge of Modesto, asking if he was OK.
He'd heard about the gunman who opened fire at a shopping mall in Oregon, killing two people a few days earlier. And he'd heard another gunman wreaked havoc, this time at an elementary school, but didn't realize it was nearby. He hadn't been on the East Coast long enough to know that Newtown and Sandy Hook Elementary, where a gunman killed 28 people including 20 children, are only a half-hour's drive from the Yale campus.
"That happened pretty far away, right?" he asked his aunt.
"No," she replied. "It's just a few miles away."
Understand that Wright said he and his college mates rarely watch television. They are immersed in their studies, and "Dr. Phil" isn't part of the curriculum. So they weren't as informed or captivated by the coverage as were so many Americans as the incident unfolded and information emerged. In fact, college campuses can be refuges from reality unless the campus itself becomes the site of the tragedy, as happened at Virginia Tech several years ago.
At Yale in mid-December, students including Wright were holed up in their dorms cramming for finals. Consequently, Wright said, "People were talking about (Newtown) less on campus than when I came back here (for Christmas break). Here, everyone asked me about it, and I kept recalling the details."
There was little he or anyone else at the school could do for the grieving people of Newtown in the aftermath, with the national media swarming and well-wishers flooding the town with teddy bears and flowers. It took a while for the magnitude the finality, the nearness to sink in, Wright said, but when it did, "it hit me hard," he said. "These little children never really had a chance to live. They were just shot down by this guy. I have two little brothers. It could have happened anywhere. It could have been them."
Indeed, life, with all of its good and bad, involves learning curves.
Wright arrived at Yale a few months removed from standing as one of Modesto High's valedictorians after posting a 4.78 grade-point average while in the school's International Baccalaureate program and starring on the school's track team.
He wanted to attend Stanford, but wasn't accepted. Yale and Princeton made offers and he visited both. The Princeton students, he decided, were "more into themselves." A bit standoffish, perhaps. He toured Yale during the school's annual Bulldog Days in April and found the students to be friendly and welcoming. Yale it was, and is.
He earned A's and B's in his classes "I'm not used to getting anything but A's," he said all part of the transition from the Central Valley and Modesto to the Ivy League.
And there's that life-lesson stuff: Friends impacted by Hurricane Sandy, and the tragedy of Newtown a short drive away.
Consider it a semester he'll never forget.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.