Feature image from expertenough.com
At some point, I really do think there was a part of me that thought all your cares melted away once you got accepted to college. College was the launching pad, right? Everything that came afterward—internships, jobs, financial security, a car, a house—was just guaranteed, a part of the package.
Well, not only did I come to realize that these things were not, in fact, part of the package, I also discovered that there isn’t actually a package at all.
I don’t mean that in the cliché way that signals a line like, “Because college isn’t a one-size-fits-all; it fits everyone differently!” Not to say this isn’t true; you really can’t reduce it to some singular sort of experience or vessel of hopes and dreams realized. But what I’m getting at is twofold, and the previous paragraph isn’t even one of the folds! Maybe that makes it threefold. So. First fold: college isn’t one-size-fits-all. Your experience will differ vastly from someone else’s and that’s a good thing.
Secondly, college isn’t like a package because college isn’t delivered to you. You have to go out and assemble the package yourself; you can’t pay extra and have it shipped a day sooner, because no online vendor carries it; you have to go get it yourself in person and put all the pieces together exactly the way you like it. Yes, college can come custom-ordered, but you have to build the order yourself.
And finally, the third and, in my opinion, the most important fold: College is not a package because it comes in many pieces over very extended periods of time. College comes to mean something different to me every week, if not more often, and definitely each semester.
The case against packages
College can’t be a package because it’s much too disparate. It’s not a thing, and if it is, it’s less of an anthology and more of a hodgepodge. Which to me means that it’s less of a synthesized collection of experience and more a cobbled-together mixture of happenstance and coincidence and half-remembered all-nighters and well-remembered friends.
And someone else would describe an experience on the same campus, in the same timeframe, an entirely different way, but what’s most striking is that I myself will probably describe it in different, maybe even contradictory terms as soon as tomorrow.
There’s something beautiful about an experience that takes so many shapes over the course of its own lifetime. Sometimes it’s frustrating how hard it is to pin down my college experience, to know how I feel about it or what I want out of it. But sometimes that’s the freeing part, too.
If you applied to college and received an acceptance letter this spring, you were probably really excited and overjoyed that you’d accomplished something you tried for – that you’d reached a goal. But how often did you ask yourself why that goal actually mattered so much to you?
Meanings: First semester
This was something I never asked myself, so when I got to college, the main meaning it held for me was the opportunity to investigate meaning itself. I’d looked for the meaning in lots of other things—physics, philosophy, psychology, film—but never really in my own choices. At least not the choices I was expected to make by everyone in my life, like the choice to go to college.
I guess I sort of assumed that college was a meaningful experience simply because most of the people around me acted like it was. It’s so high-stakes, there’s no way it could be trivial, I told myself. And to an extent, I was right; it’s a pretty important step on a very particular career path.
But my first semester at college was eye-opening because it showed me just how many options there were. I remember feeling offended that I had been asked to choose a tentative major on some of my applications, because there were so many to choose from that I realized I’d had no idea what I was talking about or what I wanted when I applied.
I was finally getting the chance to figure it out, though, and I basked in it. My first semester of college was a daunting experience—the first semester in my life that I’d gotten below a 4.0 GPA—but it was a welcome one. It was about 10% humbling and 90% exhilarating.
I think this was because I’d harbored no delusions about college and my own readiness for it. I’d expected to be knocked down a peg, and I was excited to see how I measured up, knowing it would be well below perfect. So when I finished my semester, I realized that college also meant showing myself that I have the capacity for a healthy outlook on challenges in life.
My first semester at college, I was so focused on self-discovery that I forgot to discover other people. I made a few friends, but had yet to find my niche at school. However, that patient, healthy thinking that I’d inexplicably employed in my first semester kept me from panicking, and shortly into my second semester I joined a few organizations that changed my life and showed me a family.
This was the semester when college truly became a support network for me. After my first semester, I knew where I stood; I’d taken a high-level math course that I wasn’t ready for, and although I passed it and it counted toward my major, I knew that I needed to know my own limits the next time.
I used the people around me as emotional support, and provided support to them in return. As members of an honor fraternity, my newfound friends were not strangers to the grind of college life, and we found in each other an incredible support system.
I also found that when I was supporting others, I was inspired to support myself. I think that is a really big lesson to learn; it feels good to support other people when they’re struggling, and it reminds you that you deserve support from yourself, too. Do good things outwardly and then try to mirror them on the inside.
Some things aren’t accomplished as poetically, though, and you just have to grit your teeth and get them over with. For me this was the no-cell-phone-in-lecture policy I instituted for myself. I hate to admit this, but it really made a difference in my grades when I didn’t let myself scroll through Tumblr during lecture.
(I don’t know why I should hate to say that. That’s a good thing to say. Make good choices, kids.)
My second year was meaningful to me because it was the year I solidified two of the closest friendships I’d begun forming in the second half of my first year. I always romanticized the college friendships depicted in shows like How I Met Your Mother, and this was the first time I began to see a glimpse of that.
To me, the meaning in this year lay in building upon foundations. I decided to try a bunch of things I’d intended on trying the year before but hadn’t gotten around to or had found out about too late (I started blogging for the school newspaper, I trained as a peer counselor, and I joined the marching band).
I also began building that year on the foundations of what I’d learned about myself. I learned through my roommate and close friend that I really, really geek out about MBTI. I learned a lot about having fun from one of my good friends who actually graduated at the end of my sophomore year.
And actually, though these two friends don’t know each other, one being a communication major and the other being an information science major led me closer to defining what I would call my “career vision” (which I can’t tell you, because it’s a secret).
Sophomore year was also the year that I developed a lot of cynicism. My relationships with long-distance friends became intermittently close and strained, as these things often do in college. I started wondering what the point of academia was when there were real issues out in the world.
Today I am a junior and I only have one semester left after this one (graduating early for the win), so you could call me a first-semester senior as well.
Today I remain close with my friends from college and even closer with my friends from home; all of us just needed to get through a few growing pains.
Today I have a killer Spotify playlist that I listen to on my walk to class, intermittently with a queue of podcasts that make me feel like such a hipster when I listen to them and thus, in a roundabout way, keep me grounded in the fact that I am actually not that cool, despite how great I feel about my life now.
Today I think about college and, yeah, I’m a little bitter, because I think that there were things I should have been told but wasn’t, should have found out or taken advantage of, but didn’t; I also think, sometimes, that in a better world I’d be able to do and learn the things I’m doing and learning without academia and bureaucracy.
But at an Ivy League school, you’re going to turn into a bit of an anarchist, so one of the most important things I’ve learned is to take myself with a grain of salt.
Because today I am happy. Today I know that all I have is what I think about in the present moment, what I write down in another moment, and what I remember in yet another. Over and over, this is all I have.
And that is why college isn’t a package, and why you don’t just get a free pass to life once you’re admitted. Because life is created over and over, ever more rapidly than before, each moment you’re here.
Your acceptance letter isn’t an exemption from the challenges of life; it’s an invitation.
And the best part about college is that each day, you get to choose the challenges yourself.
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